Beethoven piano sonata no. 2, op. 2, no. 2

performed and introduced by András Schiff (or without explanation by Murray Perahia [with links to the other movements within])

As Schiff states, this sonata could hardly be more different from the one that precedes it. The overwhelming tone of the first was of stormy darkness, with a few mellow, lyrical peaceful oases. For one, we are in A major, a “sunny key.” The piece is a noticeable chunk longer than the preceding sonata, and Tovey says:

The second sonata is flawless in execution and entirely beyond the range of Haydn and Mozart in harmonic and dramatic thought, except in the Finale.

Quite a compliment. This piece, as one of the op. 2 works, was also dedicated, somewhat tersely to Haydn, but apparently Beethoven was less and less concerned with ‘showing up’ or embarrassing his teachers or the greats of the time, as Tovey seems to suggest. This piece is apparently quite challenging, and Schiff suggests it may be one of the reasons it is very rarely played.
The piece is light and sunny, but I shall avoid using the word ‘pastoral’ because it is neither that symphony nor that sonata. It does seem like the kind of piano sonata you’d write if you’d just had a wonderful walk through the woods on a spring day. And the suggestion of orchestral instrumentation again seems strong.

But this isn’t the actual first theme. The first subject is just as friendly. Wikipedia makes mention of “striking modulations” in the second subject, and while these aren’t things I pick out very well, I suppose we can get used to knowing that Beethoven likes to do things like that.
Schiff mentions it in quoting “one of the greatest musical minds,” Donald Tovey, who claims that this section is “one of the earliest examples of masterly modulations for later composers.” Maybe I can’t pick it out, but what does come to mind is that Beethoven is blazing new trails and covering previously uncharted territory. We’ll talk about that later.
Schiff mentions a fingering that Beethoven gives for one of the really ornate passages in this movement and says it’s absolutely ridiculously impossible for the passage. While, as you may
know, Schiff is quite a strict interpreter and very respectful of the intentions of the composer, he does not observe this impractical fingering, for which he apologizes. Apparently it was enough to motivate Rudolph Serkin to avoid ever addressing the piece so as to avoid deviating from the composer’s intentions. The piece contains a “complicated development section” that Wikipedia describes as dramatic. Musical theory aside, it is a very satisfying listen, and there’s lots to enjoy. The movement ends without a coda, “quietly and unassumingly.”
The second movement is marked largo appassionato. If you are not convinced that Beethoven had bigger things in mind writing these works, just look to the second movement.

Just looking at it, it almost strikes you as a condensed string quartet score, as the opening is very clearly divided out into four distinct voices, each with its own performance notes, tenuto sempre vs. staccato sempre. Schiff speaks of the difficulty of realizing this effect, as the staccato in the bass (like pizzicato strings) means the pedal would get in the way. Something like this that seems so simple has so much going on in it, and shows the maturity and depth of thought of the composer.
Oh, it also sounds good, a very effective and creative sonority. It slowly builds and grows into a full, thundering voice at the end that sounds like it’s going to open up into a full-fledged Dies Irae; at least the first few notes are there, but it swiftly cools off.
The third movement is the first use of ‘scherzo’ in a Beethoven piano sonata. It’s only the second piano sonata, so it didn’t take long, and we did already see this label in the piano trios. This one is marked allegretto. I’m interested in the actual difference between scherzo and minuet, each having a contrasting trio section.
The later use of the term, at least in some cases, came to refer to quite serious, heavy, even frightening works (Mahler’s seventh, for instance), not ‘joking’ at all. I’ve never heard a mischievous, frightful, menacing minuet; it seems that idea is left to the scherzo alone, but this scherzo is quite minuet-ish. The trio, however is in a minor key, and Schiff points out some “minor agitation,” giving us some needed contrast to the bright cheeriness of the scherzo theme, which kind of reminds me of the opening movement.
The final movement is a rondo.
This final movement feels very Mozart-ish, as if Mozart had lived another decade and gotten a wild hair to write something at once lively and extremely lyrical and tender. This is the movement Tovey refers to at the outset as the exception to being “beyond the range of Haydn and Mozart.” This is a splendid way to end a sonata, but it’s not a sugary-sweet straight up bundle of pretty, either. Schiff calls it a “beauty and the beast” movement, and if the thought had somehow never crossed your mind before (and it must have in these sonatas alone, if you’ve been listening) how effective contrast is as an artistic tool, these two themes illustrate it very well. We also never heard such “big chords” or the use of such extremes of dynamics in Mozart as in Beethoven.
But there’s something interesting here. Beethoven’s second movement writing for his first sonata was, not a failure, or unimportant or even boring; it was wonderful, but it was not the highlight of that piece. In this piece, though, this movement is a highlight. While it perhaps hints at or suggests Mozart or Haydn, it does it in a very individual way, again, one with elements to it that neither of the former composers ever used.

Again, about the ‘uncharted territory’ comment. Maybe that’s a terribly cliche way to put it, but however you describe or think of the ground Beethoven is covering, he’s doing new things. And it brings to mind a question to which I feel I already know the answer, but it’s still worth pondering. To what degree was Beethoven’s inventiveness a product of his own individual personality and expression, and how much of it was out of ‘necessity’ or strategy, of perhaps intentionally moving in a new direction and avoiding the rehashing of what Dittersdorf or Haydn or Mozart had already done time and time again. It seems that Beethoven himself was just possessed by something different, compelled to express himself in these highly creative and new ways, making use of the piano like it had never been used before, but that also worked out very well for him in the long run. How many composers of that time came and went, even with fame in their days, and were forgotten because they never did anything new or memorable? Johann Schobert was mentioned as the successful composer (and failed mycologist) of Leopold Mozart’s day, and it wasn’t until I began reading about those early works of the young Mozart that I had ever heard of this guy.
Beethoven, whether innately, strategically or any other way, made a name for himself, and he jumped on the scene with such an individual voice in the earliest of his works that people must have known that there was much more to come. There is, in fact, one more sonata to come before we move on to another form, the last of our piano works of Beethoven for the time being. See you tomorrow.

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