Sonata #9 in E Major, Opus 14 No. 1

Composed in 1778 - 1779; Published in 1799

Those who enjoy Beethoven only when he is storming the heavens will have to sit out both Op. 14 sonatas. These brief, unpretentious, and mostly good-humoured pieces are a wonderful foil for the dramatic Pathétique that immediately preceded them. Of course, nowhere is it written that a composition in a lighter vein cannot be expertly crafted, and the first two movements of the E Major sonata are indeed the work of a master.

The opening theme, for instance, contains three ideas that at first glance seem quite disparate. However, they are strongly related. The first motive delineates four rising notes (B to E). Those notes are immediately compressed into a brief scurrying passage that is famous for giving nightmares to even the most pyrotechnically-endowed pianists. The theme concludes leisurely with a descending scale, the last four notes of which are-almost predictably-the first four in reverse. The remainder of the movement concerns itself with developing the scale-like material, but also hidden away in the fabric of the music is a simple two-note pattern, G-G#, that the composer delights in reintroducing in a variety of guises.

Early in his career, Beethoven was still wrestling with the matter of whether to include a minuet a livelier, trendier scherzo into his compositions. On this occasion, he skirted the issue by writing an unspecified, wistful Allegretto. This gentle work contrasts so satisfactorily with the outer movements that a genuine slow movement would have been superfluous.

A curious rondo concludes the sonata. As with the opening movement, the main theme is primarily concerned with scale-like motion, with progression from B to E again prominently featured.  Now, the vast majority of Beethoven’s themes are constructed so as to leave room for, and even demand, further growth and development, but this one never seems to be able to get off the ground. Furthermore, with a generous dose of repetitiveness as well as a busy middle section that may leave some listeners wondering why it is there, it is no wonder that the sonata ends so abruptly and unceremoniously! It is as though Beethoven were saying “Whew! I’m glad to be through with that one.” 

Incidentally, Beethoven later set this sonata as a string quartet. Although his doing so might be more illustrative of his creative financial dealings with his publishers than with any artistic creativity, the result is no mere transcription. As the famed British musician Donald Tovey wrote in his edition of the sonatas, a careful study of the quartet score sheds new light on Beethoven’s piano style.

—Notes by Robert Silverman