Beethoven Piano Sonata no. 8 in Cm, op. 13, ‘Pathetique’

performed by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, or below by Krystian Zimerman

(cover image by Eleni Afiontzi)

And back to Beethoven!

The Pathetique sonata is one of Beethoven’s most famous compositions, and with good reason. While it’s still an early piece in the composer’s output, he was by this time already in his late twenties, the piece being written in 1798. At 27 years old, Mozart was positively ancient, relatively speaking, but with Beethoven, we really are still just getting started.

The work was dedicated, like six others in Beethoven’s output, to Prince Karl von Lichnowsky, and we also have that matter of the name. I’m so very rarely a fan of subtitles or monikers or nicknames for pieces, as they’re so rarely given by or approved by the composer; indeed, Mahler was wishy washy about his own titles for some of his works.

However, refreshingly, while the ‘Pathetique’ title was not one that Beethoven himself gave to the piece, he apparently rather liked it when given by the publisher, so it stuck, and does give us some insight into this piece, which is just… in so many ways so perfect. It hopefully goes without saying that the term ‘pathetique’ here is meant to connote a sense of ‘passionate’ or ’emotional’ rather than actually ‘pathetic.’

The work is, to me at least, a grand, epic literary tragedy compressed down into three relatively brief movements. It’s not a long work by any means, easily coming in at under 20 minutes, but the emotional, and even musical, scope of these movements is breathtaking. The three movements are as follows:

  1. Grave (Slowly, with solemnity) – Allegro di molto e con brio (Quickly, with much vigour)
  2. Adagio cantabile
  3. Rondo: Allegro

Think of your standard issue Greek tragedy, or at least the spirit of one. Theatre, opera, all of those presentations of protagonist and antagonist and the hamartia crouching just out of sight, it so easily sweeps you away, especially when we begin in medias res, with no prefatory remarks, the gargantuan chord, marked fp, that obliterates the silence.

I say there are no prefatory remarks, but that’s technically incorrect. This grave passage is actually sort of an introduction, with its dramatic opening and explosive outbursts. The repeat for the exposition (beginning with the allegro di molto e con brio section) takes us back to the beginning of the allegro, not all the way back to the grave. Sir Andras Schiff makes an argument for beginning the repeat from the very opening bar, including this tragic opening scene. He claims he heard Rudolf Serkin perform it very convincingly this way and it made sense to him because this opening grave material actually does have some impact later on, rather than just being something we hear and never return to.

This is one of Beethoven’s most famous piano sonatas, and is more compact and approachable than say, the enormous Hammerklavier, but still conveys the pathos and overwhelming emotion of the later works.

In any case, this is a piece imbued with so much emotion and tragedy and feeling that you just don’t need to know anything about its particular form, the three main themes of the sonata-form first movement, to be able really to get something from this first and longest movement. This first movement is about half the playing time of the piece, and whether you’re listening for motifs and modulations and tonal relationships, or for the purely emotional content of the conflict and tragedy and tension, it’s a remarkably full movement.

Once past the real heft of this work, all the emotional impact and drama of the first movement, we have the singing adagio, which is actually, sort of oddly for a central movement, a simple rondo rather than ternary or sonata form, with only two modulating episodes contrasting with the A-flat main melody. It’s beautiful and warm, but the simplicity of the main theme affords it a poignance that works sublimely in the context of what came before it. The second episode is a bit of a climax, approaching agitation, but the movement ends as it began.

The last and shortest movement of the work is another rondo, with its three episodes all in major keys. That being said, it’s full of forceful gestures that bring us back to the intensity of the opening movement, and in fact, the rondo theme itself is taken right from the second part of the allegro in the opening movement, sharing some identical rhythmic and melodic patterns. There’s also a modified sliver of this theme in the second movement, which is one of those fine details that draws this entire work together, making for a dense, emotional, dramatic but neatly compact work.

I can understand how larger pieces may seem intimidating to listeners: how many times need you listed to the Hammerklavier, or a string quartet, or Beethoven’s seventh symphony before you have it sort of in mind, before you have a feel for the work, know it? Depends on the listener, right? But to listen to a 40-50 minute work and come to know its twists and turns does demand patience and attention and at least some level of insight. The exciting thing about this sonata is that for what it accomplishes, for its emotional impact, it’s actually quite small. That’s not to say a 20-minute sonata is a diminutive work by any means, but it’s also just so quintessentially Beethoven.

What more need be said?

Well, for one, I’m still way behind on articles, so I’m going to try to catch up on the next two Beethoven sonatas and do them justice, as well as a Brahms chamber work, and then everything that should be getting published this week, so stay tuned for that as it’s finished, and thanks so much for reading.

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