Sonata #23 in F Minor, Op. 57 “Appassionata”

Composed in 1804 - 1805; Published in 1807

“I confess the reasons for the so-called Appassionata Sonata’s popularity elude me. At this period of his life Beethoven was not only preoccupied with motivic frugality. He was also preoccupied with being Beethoven… his conceit at this period was to create mammoth structures from material that in lesser hands would scarcely have afforded a good sixteen-bar intro. And there is about the Appassionata an egoistic pomposity, a defiant ‘let's see if I can't get away with using that tune once more,’ attitude, that on my own private Beethoven poll places this sonata somewhere between the King Stephen Overture and the Wellington's Victory Symphony.” 

No, this quote is not another post-modern attempt by a proponent of the "new musicology" to cut Beethoven down to size. Rather, it is from programme notes Glenn Gould wrote three decades ago for his own recording of the piece. That performance elicited from critic Harris Goldsmith the remark that Gould’s interpretation represented an act of "deliberate sabotage." (This was one of the more charitable comments that greeted that particular release.)

Yet, Gould did have a point. He recognized that for all the Appassionata’s drama and presti-digitational demands, the harmonic motion is slow, and there is less contrapuntal complexity than we find in his earlier or later sonatas. However, he was judging this piece strictly from the vantagepoint of an obsessed imitative contrapuntist. He demonstrably had little sympathy for Beethoven’s extraordinary achievement of creating as epic a work as had yet been written for the piano, one that used sound and texture rather than melody, and with every aspect of the sonata’s architecture contributing to its inner drama.

The sonata begins with an arpeggiated theme in F minor. It is immediately repeated, but now in the key of G flat. This sets into motion a struggle between the all-important note C, a fundamental part of the F minor chord, and a less crucial note in that key, D flat. The standard tensions of themes and keys inherent in the most first movements are still present; however, the C - D flat dichotomy also persists throughout the movement (and indeed, the entire sonata) and even overwhelms the music at its most climactic points: the end of the Development and the Coda.

In the middle of his career, Beethoven seemed to avoid writing the extended slow movements he delighted in composing both earlier and later. Many of these middle movement, like the Appassionata’s, serve primarily as a welcome pause between the weightier outer movements. The second movement is a set of variations (set in D flat major) whose main theme contains no fewer than five iterations of the motif D flat - C - D flat. The theme, essentially a series of chords, remains constant, but becomes increasingly embellished in each of the three variations. Finally, the original theme is re-stated. This time, though, each phrase sounds in a different register, thereby revealing inner dialogues that were hidden the first time around.

Suddenly, the movement is harshly interrupted (by a chord whose top note is none other than D flat), and the finale follows without a pause. It is characteristic of another aspect of Beethoven’s middle-period keyboard style: of the nine sonatas written between Opus 26 and 57, seven of their finales, including this one, feature perpetual-motion patterns from start to finish. The highest notes of the principal motif are, almost predictably, C and D flat. The tempo marking is Allegro ma non troppo. Of course, that only serves as a challenge for some pianists to play the movement from beginning to end as troppo as possible, so as to demonstrate conclusively how much better they know than Beethoven about how his music is to be performed.

As with the opening movement, the repetition of the Exposition is omitted. How bizarre, then, that Beethoven specifically and unusually directs that the much longer development and recapitulation be repeated! Many musicians question the advisability of following this marking, and I must confess that, before performing the piece I also had decided that the sonata’s greatness might best be served by ignoring the repeat sign. However, the first time I played it in public, the choice was literally taken out of my hands. I simply could not go forward at this point, and played the piece as written. As always, Beethoven is right. The repetition may admittedly be superfluous if only the last movement is played, but when one performs the entire sonata, the finale demands the length Beethoven assigned it, if for no other reason than to counterbalance the weight and force of the opening movement.

—Notes by Robert Silverman