Sonata #4 in E-flat Major, Opus 7

Composed in 1796 - 1797; Published in 1797

Beethoven’s relatively unknown fourth piano sonata is the second longest of the thirty-two. Abounding with boldness and energy, it is—and can only be—the product of youthful creativity. It used to have a German nickname, Die Verliebte (the Maiden in Love) but no one knows why. It may have reflected Beethoven’s infatuation with the sonata’s talented dedicatee, Countess Babette von Keglevics. Other commentators suggest that the sobriquet derives from the character of second or fourth movements. In any case, the name has not stuck.

Its vastness aside, Op. 7 is one of the most symphonically conceived of the sonatas. The bell-like tolling in the first movement, the rhetorical pauses that permeate the Largo, the terrifying Trio in the third movement (an unnamed Scherzo) and the clattery middle section of the finale have a commonality: they all seem to point to a sonic image that ranges beyond the capacity of contemporary pianos, let alone those transitionary ones of the late 18th century.

Beethoven’s sense of humour is totally off-the-wall. Consider the final moments of the slow movement: After creating a vast, serious work lasting about nine minutes, he returns to the main theme and devises an ingenious way of harmonizing it even more profoundly so that the bass arrives at an F-sharp—a note as far away from C (the key of the movement) as one can get. He further complicates matters by using that F sharp as the bass of an accented, highly dissonant chord. Now, any decent composition teacher would—if he had permitted all this to occur at all—have cautioned his student to write a lengthy coda in order to work his way out of the corner into which he had just painted himself. However, Beethoven needs only two measures to dispose of the problem, in a gesture that clearly says, at least to me, “Oh, the hell with it” (or less polite words to that effect).

One reason for this magnificent work’s relative obscurity lies in the finale’s character. (The problem of how to conclude a composition was one Beethoven wrestled with throughout his career.) Several of Beethoven’s sonatas, including Op. 7, feature leisurely closing movements cast in a sectional form that combines sonata and rondo elements. In the hands of Haydn, who literally invented this form, the repetitive structure originally featured short, playful themes. However, Beethoven frequently broadened those themes into lengthy lyrical melodies, thereby imparting a “here comes that damned tune again” quality to the music. Furthermore, as often as not, he ended these movements with a quiet fade-out. Concluding a major work in a light, charming manner was standard classical practice. Beethoven, while lengthening and adapting the form to his own methods, evidently saw no need to discard that aspect of a sonata’s structure. Nonetheless, the form was on its last legs; of all the great composers who followed Beethoven, only Schubert frequently employed it. (One might even argue that Schubert, in his later instrumental works, understood the implications of Beethoven’s changes to the form better than Beethoven himself. However, programme notes for a Beethoven sonata cycle are probably not the most appropriate launching pad for such a thesis.)

—Notes by Robert Silverman