Undoubtedly, Beethoven is one of the names that come up when you think about music, particularly the piano. He is a child prodigy, instrumental virtuoso, top-notch musician, and the list is endless.
For the records, he made great music even when he was unable to listen to it. Did you know he was deaf at a point?
At various points in his life, he defied the odds to leave his marks on the sands of time. Let’s talk about the music maestro – Ludwig Van Beethoven.
Learning about this music icon is inexhaustible. While we will discuss other parts of this legend, we will shed more light on the sonatas composed by him. We would treat questions such as:
How many piano sonatas did Beethoven compose?
For how long did Beethoven compose?
What musical era does Beethoven fall under?
This article will be hinged on these questions and some others. Welcome to the world of Ludwig Van Beethoven.
If you prefer a visual explanation of this article, below is a detailed and helpful video.
Video: How Many Piano Sonatas Did Beethoven Compose (Over 3 Stages)
What Is a Sonata
Someone once argued that Beethoven’s Fur Elise is a sonata. Well, you should know it is not. What exactly is a sonata?
This is a good way to start. To understand the sonatas of Beethoven, you should understand what exactly a sonata is. How is a sonata different from a symphony, concerto, and any other classical music genre?
The Sonata is also known as the sonata-allegro. It consists of 3 progressive sections which are: the exposition, the development, and the recapitulation.
At the exposition, which is the first segment, the motif of the composition is established. The motif is the tonal foundation upon which the musical phrases will be built.
Next, you have the development. The name does sell it out. At this point, the motif introduced in the exposition is development. This development could come through the retrograde technique for instance.
Here, the composer’s ability to compose is put to the test. His creativity is central to the eventual turnout if this part.
If you pay careful attention, you will notice the exposition’s motif as the basis for any addition in this segment.
After the development segment, the sonata form moves to the recapitulation stage. Here, the initial motif established in the first stage and developed in the second stage is pronounced again. However, this would come with some modifications.
The earlier motif will be spelled out in the recapitulation stage but altered if you like to see it that way.
The sonata form does not have to be a sole performance. Sometimes, it is used as part of the movement in large musical works. For instance, it could be the first movement in a symphony or string quartet.
One major difference between the sonata and the symphony is the size of the performers. The sonata is majorly a solo instrumental performance. It could be on the violin, piano, or any other instrument.
The Sonata usually follows the A-B-A pattern. This implies that the motif is established first. Next, the thematic notes are developed in “B”. Afterward, the original thematic notes are revisited in slightly different conditions.
The A-B-A pattern could come with some varieties. it can be in the form of A-A-B-A, among other varieties.
Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas
As earlier mentioned, Beethoven’s musical proficiency was not limited to the pianoforte. He was also skilled in the violin for instance.
This is important because we are focusing on the sonatas he composed for the piano, rather than other instruments.
For the piano, he composed 32 sonatas. These sonatas are spread across various periods of his life. As will be explained subsequently, his musical works are categorized into 3 sections for some reasons.
There are piano sonatas that embed musical ideals he exhibited in those times. Let us itemize the sonatas composed by him at these stages of his life and work.
The word opus implies the chronological arrangement of the work. For instance, comparing opus 2 with opus 5, the latter was done after the former. In that light, in chronological order, the sonatas composed in the first phase of his life are as follows:
In 1795, he began his piano sonatas account by composing 3 sonatas. These sonatas were composed using 2 major and 1 minor key. These sonatas were his 2nd Opus.
Piano Sonata for the Early Period
|Year||Opus||Piano Sonata Number||Key|
|1797||7||4||E ♭ Major|
|1800||22||11||B ♭ Major|
|1801||26||12||A ♭ major|
|1801||27||13||E ♭ Major|
|14||C ♯ Minor|
From the table above, we see how the piano sonata works of Beethoven are spread across various years.
It is recorded that after writing his initial 15 sonatas, Beethoven expressed his dissatisfaction concerning some musical tendencies. He contacted a person by name Krumpholz, stating his intent to compose music differently.
The subsequent works born of this decision are called heroic by some intellectuals. They believe this period in Beethoven’s career was the high point of his achievement. However, some academic scholars have figured out some compositions that still would not pass for exceptional in this period.
Regardless of this stance, by and large, Beethoven stood out as not only amazing but unusual at this time. He broke the conventional rules of classical music beautifully. He added a distinct emotional touch never experienced in western music.
We like to think this act was the foundation for what would later become romantic music. As done above, let’s go over the piano sonatas composed in this period of his life and career.
Beethoven’s Piano Sonata for the Middle Period
|Year||Opus||Piano Sonata Number||Key|
|18||E ♭ Major|
|1809||78||24||F ♯ Major|
|1810||81||26||E ♭ major|
If you observe, you will realize that Beethoven stopped composing piano sonatas in sets at a point. Rather than having 2, 3, or more sonatas in an opus, he simply stuck to having one. To this day, the motive behind this act is not clear to the body of scholars.
For some reason, this period saw less of Beethoven’s musical involvement. However, whenever he graced the stage with his composition or performance, he made the moment count.
By and large, the works of this period are considered the most complicated of his works. For instance, until Liszt performed the Hammerklavier, this piece was deemed as practically impossible to play.
Video: Beethoven: Sonata No.29 in B-flat Major, “Hammerklavier” (Levit)
Below is one of the most technical compositions of all time by Beethoven
As done above, let’s itemize in a tabular form the piano sonatas composed by Beethoven during this period.
Beethoven’s Piano Sonata for the Late Period
|Year||Opus||Piano Sonata Number||Key|
|1818||106||29||B ♭ Major|
|1821||110||31||A ♭ Major|
There was one major similarity between the (most of the) middle and late periods of Beethoven’s work. The late period had no more than 1 piano sonata for every opus.
Ludwig Van Beethoven
A German by birth, we like to think he was born at about December 1770. There are disparities as to the precise date of his birth. However, as was the practice, he was baptized December 17, 1770.
It should be noted that the date of baptism was usually close to the date of delivery. Most times, this was done no more than a day after the delivery. For this reason, we would like to thread with caution by stating he was born sometime around December 1770.
Also, his family lineage was instrumental to his music career. He was born to a musically inclined family. His grandfather was a musician, and so was his father.
He showed an early sign of musical skill and was nurtured along that line. Some reports indicate that measures used to train him musically were sometimes harsh. This is not hard to believe due to his father’s behavioral issues. For instance, his father was forcefully retired because of his unrepentant alcohol intake.
After undergoing a couple of early training, he ended up as an apprentice under the master of the art – Joseph Hayde. With him and a couple of others, he learned a lot about composition and other musical facets.
Beethoven Changing the Trends
Clearly, Beethoven showed so much musical prowess and dexterity, nonetheless, something makes him stand out. He was a pacesetter. He broke the rules of composition and performance excitingly and innovatively.
Asides the elegance associated with classical music before his emergence, he added something different. As against the trend, Beethoven’s music reflected emotions. You could tell from the motif and music phrases the feeling that birth the music.
His life filled with ups and downs will no doubt have contributed to this. That includes the much talked about deafness he suffered, making him unsociable and very withdrawn.
For a couple of reasons, he was that bridge between the old and the new. In justifying this, we would share two illustrations.
The Harpsichord, Pianoforte, to the Piano
As at when he was born, the popular piano inclined instrument was the harpsichord. This instrument had a restrictive function compared to the present-day piano.
Most notably, it restricted the ability of players to perform with dynamics. What does this mean? With this instrument, you could not play general or selective sustained notes. You could only play a staccato inclined note. The moment your hands were off the keys, the music sounds would go off.
An Italian harpsichord maker realized this flaw and set out to resolve it. The resolution was what birth the piano. He changed the sound production mechanism to accommodate dynamism while playing. How did he do this?
Bartolomeo Cristofori used a hammer-string mechanism to resolve this.
The harpsichord upgrade was known as the pianoforte. This name means soft-loud as was the intent for invention.
How does Beethoven come into the picture?
Beethoven’s musical career started when the harpsichord was the full-fledged piano option available. Eventually, the pianoforte gained prominence even in the houses of the middle-class citizens. This implied a change of style to accommodate the capabilities of the pianoforte.
Subconsciously, Beethoven was one of the pioneers of this change. Furthermore, he always expressed his dissatisfaction with many of the piano’s inability to meet his expectations. Not only did he voice out his displeasure, but also, he made friends with some piano manufacturers.
Some of these people produced pianos that could meet his self-inclined standard. One such person was the Streicher Family. He demanded a piano with a larger range of octaves and more dynamism.
Although subjective, Beethoven’s stance on the ideal piano might have influenced the subsequent evolution of the piano.
Classical to Romantic Era – the Beethoven Impact
No doubt, classical music had its edge over baroque music. However, it was sort of predictable. Some structures conventionally were followed to the letter.
When Beethoven started as a composer, he played by the rules. Eventually, he steered off the usual classical trend. The peculiarities of classical music were pioneered by earlier figures such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Joseph Haydn who tutored Beethoven, among others.
This sort of music had elegance, balance, and beauty. However, it was very predictable. Also, as Beethoven said of Mozart to one of his students, dynamism was not well explored. That is eventually what subsequent compositions of Beethoven set out to do.
Despite being affected by deafness, his music reflected varying emotions like never before. Beethoven’s music transcended arts and entertainment, it was about musically telling stories.
His works can be divided into 3 major parts: the early period, the middle, and the latter period.
The Early period simply followed the classical norms. As a new or upcoming composer, he played by the structural and functional rules binding classical music. As against the next stage, the early compositions were largely influenced by previous composers and icons.
The next period was the middle period. A lot of his remarkable works, on and off the pianoforte, were made at this time. Some of these works were concertos, symphonies, string quartets, and sonatas. For instance, the acclaimed fifth symphony with the magical introduction graced the musical world during this period.
Beethoven did a lot with sonatas, concertos, symphonies, and cantatas. However, he only had one opera to his name. That only opera titled Fidelio was done at this time of his life.
As against what Beethoven was already known for, the late period saw some changes. He began to pattern his compositions from motifs of earlier composers. He still added his emotional touch, nonetheless, these compositions were hinged on earlier composer’s works.
For example, some works from George F. Handel, as well as Johann S. Bach fell into this category. It is amazing to think he did these works under so many emotional troubles. During this period, his sense of hearing was impaired.
On one of his final appearances, he could not even hear the loud applause of the audience. There was also the problem of litigation over custody of his niece, something he eventually lost.
To say these things did not affect Beethoven will be false. He sometimes took lengthy periods off work. On most occasions, the need for financial aid compelled him to compose and perform.
In conclusion, the concept of sonata should not be confused with a symphony or any other classical music genre. The typical sonata form unveils itself in 3 stages: The exposition, development, and recapitulation. Also, a sonata does not have to stand as the whole composition. It can be a part of larger music work.
Unlike the early stage, the middle stage saw Beethoven take on an unusual but exciting approach.
Outside of the piano sonatas of Beethoven, the various life situations influencing these compositions have been discussed.
Undoubtedly, the world has had a fair share of musical icons. However, Ludwig Van Beethoven isn’t just an icon, he is a yardstick for choosing musical icons. He is in a league of his own. Becoming like him is a dream for lots of classical musicians.