Beethoven piano sonata no. 3 in C, op. 2, no. 3

performed and discussed below by András Schiff, or in this live performance by Claudio Arrau in 1977
I started to feel with the articles on the piano trios that, as I stated there, we are (very obviously) entering a whole new territory with Beethoven’s works, and that the demands on the listener (or on me trying to write about these intelligently) have changed.
There are so many layers to Beethoven’s music that are so strongly him. We’re not even into the Romantic era yet, and the decisions and designs that Beethoven puts into his works are so grandly, uniquely different that there is so much more to digest and process, not just musically but emotionally, so much more to think about and analyze, and that’s not to say that Mozart was just a writer of pretty music, although he was, but Beethoven began to work in ways that Mozart never did.
The third in this little trio of piano sonatas is maybe the most famous of them all, but it is for sure the longest, and Wikipedia says also the “weightiest.”
Again, as with its two cousin pieces in the op. 2, it was (succinctly) dedicated to Joseph Haydn, and finished in 1796.
Before I jump in here, for perhaps more visually-keen people, an analysis like this one is invaluable. Listen to it.
The piece begins kind of small and clinkishly, and Schiff calls it “very very funny…. to me.” I wouldn’t necessarily have thought of it that way, but I can see it as kind of a cutesy way to start the biggest piano sonata you’d ever written up to that point. It is allegro con brio, for some reason a marking I associate with Beethoven, perhaps because Mozart or people before him didn’t use it much/at all. Maybe? Anyway, it begins small, but quickly erupts into this beautiful, sweeping sonority of chords and octaves. Schiff references “Great Expectations,” and questions in the beginning, and again.. perhaps it’s just the suggestion, but there’s something about this writing that seems so clearly… layered and organized that one hears the piano as if it were a string quartet, or at least could imagine it as such. “Brilliant and sunny, not Freudian music; there are no… undertones here.” Truth. That also makes this a very accessible sonata.
After this kind of two-part small-then-big C major section, the transition that takes us into the dominant key is quite hefty and is in G minor. We finally get to the second theme, in G major, and it too is sunny and nice, if not as energetic and bold as the beginning, but it too contains a big, orchestral kind of outburst of chords and octave passages before we get ready to repeat the exposition. Wonderfully satisfying to notice is that the last little bit of the exposition is

kind of the opposite (inverse, sort of) of the way the piece opened, that ‘funny’ theme, played downward. The entire exposition repeats now, and after that we’re about halfway through the movement. Our development section isn’t terribly long, but Schiff states that this section “looks forward to the Emperor concerto, which is many many years later.” Why? The bigness of the piano work and a very distant key, D major, “a false key.” The use of the trills in some of the resulting passages seem almost… improvised? This whole section seems to stand out as cadenza-ish, but then suddenly, bam, the recapitulation. There’s a coda section with a real cadenza (starting on a 6/4 chord and everything) and then our heftiest movement is over.

The second movement is marked as adagio, in E major, a rondo form, which strikes me as odd for a slow movement, but there’s a tonic-dominant repetition that, had Schiff not pointed out, I wouldn’t have noticed. Again, listen to this opening and imagine it played by a string quartet; I can hear it quite easily. Once you’ve digested all that, there’s this almost shocking (in a very quiet way) turn to E minor passage instead of a resolve to E major. This is a sort of… longing, hollow sounding section that ultimately moves to G major, the relative major. The return of the Em theme thunders back violently before what I find to be a fascinating transition and satisfying return to the opening E major theme. The rest of the movement does this some more and we end with a coda.
By this point we are two thirds of the way through this work, the two movements making up the majority of the work, and at this point we’ve explored some humor, but mostly great drama and intense contrasts.
The scherzo and trio is in the typical layout, played AA:BB:trio:A:B:coda. The scherzo themes, to me, are nothing outrageous, also in C major, lilty, and almost classical in nature if not for Beethoven’s penchant for contrast and drama. Speaking of drama, the trio in A minor is fantastically full of running arpeggios throughout, a dizzying trio before repeat of the AB sections and a “funny” downward leaping coda that kind of sounds like it just runs off into the distance.
In contrast to that is the sunny, lilty, jumping bunny-rabbits kind of opening to the final movement. It’s a very quick movement, in 6/8, and in many other respects mimicking the opening movement in its humor, use of sonata-rondo (not allegro) form, with themes in C major and G major. The tempo shouldn’t change, apparently, when things start to get fast and complicated, and this speed is apparently a challenge for many pianists to do in “an intelligible way.” The bouncy transitions between the A and B themes bring a smile to the face, and the movement ends with a substantial coda.
Schiff describes this third of Beethoven’s sonatas as being one of humor. If the first was dark, the second bright and friendly, the third would be humor, but I would describe it more completely than that. Much of the first sonata was really dark, and the second very bright, and there are some really delightful smile-worthy movements in this third sonata, but I view it as more all-encompassing. It doesn’t perhaps cover all the emotional ground there is to cover, but there are wonderful moments of contrast in the second movement, the stormy trio of the third movement that give this sonata a more rounded out, full-bodied feel, not to mention the virtuosity involved with codas and cadenzas and arpeggios and brisk tempos.
These are three quite solid piano sonatas that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting to know, and while I can’t say I’m an expert on them, they must be perhaps some of the most popular sonatas in the repertoire (not just these three, but the Beethoven sonata cycle as a whole), so the wealth of information on them, like the Schiff lectures or the visual analyses on YouTube linked above means that these works will be even easier to get to know, and that is a thrilling prospect. These three works alone have been very fulfilling if not mildly overwhelming. And to think there are 29 more to study up on…. But for now, we’re done with sonatas, and will be moving on to something even bigger tomorrow.

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