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Listening Lists: Beethoven Piano Sonatas

Ludwig van Beethoven composed 32 main piano sonatas (plus 3 as a 13-year-old). These sonatas are one of the most important collections of repertoire (though they were not designed as a collection) for the piano, and for classical music as a genre. We're going to take a look at 5 of them!

So, what is a piano sonata, anyway?

Piano sonatas

A sonata is a composition for a solo instrument, and a piano sonata is a sonata for the piano. The word "sonata" comes from the Latin word "sonare" - "to sound"; a "cantata" (from the word "cantare") is a piece to be sung, and a "sonata" is a piece to be played. A sonata is usually in several movements (stand-alone sections) - most commonly three or four. At least one of the movements is usually in "sonata form" - a musical structure with three main sections:

  • an exposition (introduction of musical themes)

  • a development (development of musical themes, where the themes are altered)

  • a recapitulation (a "recap" of the musical themes from the exposition, usually with some variation).

(Sonata form can be found in many different types of musical composition, not only in sonata compositions).

Beethoven FAQ

We thought we would answer a few common questions about Beethoven before we get into the list:

  • Was Beethoven deaf?

- Yes - but he was not born deaf; his deafness developed over time. He first noticed difficulties with his hearing as he neared 30. By his mid-40s, he was completely deaf and had to write and read notes in order to communicate. Amazingly, he continued to compose (and created some of his best work), though he was forced to retire as a conductor and pianist.

  • Was Beethoven black?

- Probably not. This theory is based on descriptions of Beethoven's appearance, which have some similarities with descriptions of people with African descent. However, his genealogical records show that he had Flemish heritage. Some people argue that perhaps one of his ancestors had an affair with someone of African ancestry, but this theory is unlikely. There were other black composers and musicians working in Europe around Beethoven's time, however, such as George Bridgetower and Joseph Bologne (the "Chevalier de Saint-Georges").

  • Was Beethoven blind?

- No. He became deaf, but his eyesight was fine.

  • Was Beethoven rich?

- He lived comfortably, earing 4000 florins per year from 1809 on the condition that he remained in Vienna for the rest of his life. This was more than the average middle class citizen at the time would have earned.

  • Was Beethoven married?

- No, he never married. He did, however, have romantic interests - most notably his "Immortal Beloved", to whom he wrote (but never sent) a ten-page love letter. We don't know who the intended recipient was, but candidates include Antonie Brentano, Julie Guicciardi, Therese Malfatti, and Josephine Brunsvik; all of these women had been considered romantically by Beethoven. It is possible the Beethoven had an affair with Brentano in 1811-1812. After this point, there is no evidence of any relationships (but he did meet up with prostitutes).

Now that we've answered those important questions, on to the list! We're going to go in numerical order (we'll let you decide which sonata is the best!), so settle in and let's get listening!


Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13 "Pathétique"

The "Pathétique" sonata was composed in 1798 when Beethoven was 27 years old. It is dedicated Prince Karl von Lichnowsky - a friend of the composer. The nickname "pathétique" ("Grande sonate pathétique" in full: "grand emotion-inducing sonata") was given to the work by Beethoven's publisher (and Beethoven approved!).

The three movements are:

I. Grave - Allegro di molto e con brio (Solemn - Very quickly and with vigour)

II. Adagio cantabile (Slow, in a sung style)

III. Rondo: Allegro (Rondo form: fast)


Piano Sonata No. 14 in C# minor, Op. 27, No. 2 "Moonlight"

The "Moonlight" sonata was completed in 1801, and dedicated to his student Countess Giulietta Guicciardi. It is marked "Quasi una fantasia" ("almost a fantasy" (musical form)). The "moonlight" nickname came from a remark by German music critic and poet Ludwig Rellstab after Beethoven's death; the first movement of the work reminded him of moonlight shining upon Lake Lucerne. This sonata is one of Beethoven's most popular piano works

The three movements are:

I. Adagio sostenuto (Slow and sustained)

II. Allegretto (Moderately fast)

III. Presto agitato (Very fast and agitated)


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Piano Sonata No. 17 in D minor, Op. 31, No. 2 "Tempest"

The "Tempest" sonata was composed in 1801-1802; this nickname was given after Beethoven's death. It is a reference to Shakespeare's play "The Tempest"; Beethoven supposedly suggested that his associate Anton Schindler should read it. However, he may have actually been referring to a different "Tempest": preacher and author C. C. Sturm (Storm/Tempest), who was greatly admired by Beethoven.

The three movements:

I. Largo - Allegro (Slow, broad - Fast)

II. Adagio (Slow)

III. Allegretto (Moderately fast)


Piano Sonata No. 21 in C major, Op. 53 "Waldstein"

The "Waldstein" sonata was composed in 1804. It marked a new phase in Beethoven's evolution as a composer. The work was dedicated to Beethoven's friend and patron Count Ferdinand Ernst Gabriel von Waldstein (hence the nickname) of Vienna. It also has a second, less-frequently-utilised nickname: "L'Aurora (The Dawn)", as the opening of the third movement has been associated with daybreak imagery.

The three movements:

I. Allegro con brio (Fast, with liveliness)

II. Introduzione: Adagio molto (Introduction: Very slow)

III. Rondo. Allegretto moderato — Prestissimo (Rondo (form). Moderate - Very, very fast)


Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 "Appassionata"

The "Appassionata" ("passionate") sonata was composed in 1804-1805~, and was dedicated to Count Franz von Brunswick. This work received its nickname by the publisher of an arrangement for four hands (two pianists) in 1838. Beethoven considered "Appassionata" to be one of his most tempestuous piano sonatas.

The three movements:

I. Allegro assai (Very fast)

II. Andante con moto (Walking pace, with movement)

III. Allegro ma non troppo – Presto (Fast, but not too much - Very fast)


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