Sonata #21 in C Major, Opus 53 "Waldstein"

Composed in 1803 - 1804; Published in 1805

Many of us are so brainwashed by the image of Beethoven struggling with his creative demons that we overlook the fact that only eight years separate his first piano sonata from the Waldstein. It is worth remembering that a track record of twenty-one published piano sonatas, plus six string quartets, three piano concertos, nine violin sonatas, three piano trios and three completed symphonies, all within eight years, is not exactly indicative of moderately-paced activity. This is especially true, considering these works’ greatness, complexity and individuality, not to mention the phenomenal artistic growth they evince over that period.

Only two piano sonatasthis one and the Appassionatareflect Beethoven’s mid-career preoccupation with expanding his instrumental forms to epic proportions. The Waldstein, in fact, was originally meant to be even longer; he had originally composed a leisurely slow movement, but subsequently withdrew it, published it separately as Andante Favori, and substituted the short but far more profound Introduzione which now separates the outer movements. Beethoven’s achievement is even more remarkable, given an additional restriction that he imposed upon himself, namely, the almost total avoidance of a theme with any distinctive melodic profile. Instead, he created his structures out of repeated chords, scale-wise and arpeggiated figurations, and for the first timebut by no means the lasttrills and tremolos, all occurring over relatively slow-moving harmonies.

In referring to this sonata, many commentators dwell on the unorthodox modulation, in the first movement, from the home key of C Major, to the relatively distant E major, rather than the more traditional G Major. This is understandable; even after performing this sonata many times, I still feel, when reaching the E major section, that I am in a hitherto undiscovered galaxy where an entirely new set of physical laws apply. Still, for the record, Beethoven had already broken this new ground in the earlier G Major Sonata, Op. 31/1. That sonata, however, is so jocular that the unusual modulation may well have been perceived as a joke. In the Waldstein, his intentions are clear. From this point on, the “gravitational pull” between dominant and tonic in sonata form becomes less significant than the conflict of musical ideas, irrespective of the key in which they occur. (It is important, however, to remember that Beethoven only “broke the rule” once more [in the Hammerklavier] as far as the sonatas in major keys are concerned. All the others adhere to the traditional practice.)

The wonderful middle movement provides us with one of the best glimpses we have of Beethoven as the legendary improviser at the keyboard. With its extensive chromaticism and shifting harmonies, the accompanying sense of uneasiness serves as the ideal introduction to the expansive, radiant finale. Several of Beethoven’s piano sonatas contain leisurely rondos with opening themes that are repeated so many times that some listeners’ patience can come close to being tested. However, the reverse is true in the case of the Waldstein. The resonance of that opening low C, the rolling accompaniment and hazy pedaling impart such enchantment to the innocent theme that time seems to stand still. We are Beethoven’s willing prisoners, and will remain motionless for as long, and as many times, as he wishes us to do so. How infinitely more apt is this sonata’s French and Russian sobriquet (l’Aurore, or dawn) than the mundane nickname the piece has acquired in English and German!

—Notes by Robert Silverman