Sonata #3 in C Major, Opus 2 No. 3

Composed in 1794 - 1795; Published in 1796

This sonata is the third of the set of three that Beethoven dedicated to his teacher, Josef Haydn. It is the most brilliant and freewheeling of the troika, and the slow movement ranks as one of Beethoven’s finest. Nevertheless, some commentators belittle it because of the composer’s use, mostly in the first movement, of the sort of virtuoso passage-work that one might expect from Czerny or Hummel rather than Beethoven. Admittedly, Beethoven had yet to learn how to make pianistic brilliance better serve a work’s inner drama, and even become the very stuff out of which a composition is constructed. Nonetheless, there are many extraordinary touches, not the least of which occurs partway in the Development section of the first movement, when the main theme returns in the ‘wrong’ key of D major. At first Beethoven has the pianist continue playing the theme in a normal fashion, blissfully unaware that anything is amiss. Four measures later, however, the music stops suddenly, and the player, angry at having been duped by the composer, stormily resumes the Development.

When the main theme finally returns in the correct key, Beethoven makes a slight alteration in the bass. He then throws in even further thematic development before allowing the recapitulation to hit its stride. This is especially ingenious: Because both the exposition's and recapitulation’s opening sections begin and end identically, he simply could have repeated that portion of the exposition verbatim rather than go to the trouble of re-composing it. However, he understood that recapitulations and expositions evoke such vastly different perceptions of the tonic key that the music had to be altered considerably in order to accommodate the new context. Finally, just prior to the conclusion of the movement, Beethoven includes a cadenza: a solo improvisatory section more typically found in a concerto than in a sonata. 

Like so many of Beethoven’s early, hauntingly-beautiful, slow movements, the second movement contains angry outbursts. However, the explosion in the middle of this one has special significance, given its double reference to the first movement. It is in C major, the principal key of the sonata. More importantly, it now becomes obvious that the slow movement's main theme is a thinly-disguised variation of the sonata’s opening motif. 

The contrapuntal Scherzo, characterized by ‘Mendelssohnian’ lightness, contrasts sharply with the brilliant and stormy Trio. The descending pattern of the main theme delightfully serves as a foil to the ascending scale that opens the Finale. This fleet, energetic rondo is neither too long nor over-repetitious. The stirring, anthem-like middle section served as an obvious model for Brahms at a parallel spot in his own Sonata No. 3

Like so many Beethoven sonatas, this one concludes unpredictably: just at the point where we are sure the piece is about to wind down, Beethoven suddenly moves into a remote key of A major. He stops abruptly, suddenly aware that he has strayed too far afield. He hesitantly tries out the theme in A minor. Suddenly he sees an opening, and decisively makes his move. Moments later we are back in the home key of C major, and the piece is over. Checkmate!

—Notes by Robert Silverman