Bernice Chitiul 15 January 2015, London

Beethoven, Between Tradition and Innovation

    This essay will focus on Beethoven's unique approach to piano sonatas compared to his contemporaries by means of their form, texture and harmony, by analysing the technical transition between his first and very last relevant piano sonatas that highlight the difference between the inherited techniques and his final authentic and most representative work. Sonata form was the prevalent style in the Classical period and invaded all music genres.

   The piano sonata’s evolution revolved around Beethoven’s innovative spirit. He combined the techniques of Haydn and Mozart with Bach’s and finally infused his own music tastes. Beethoven’s first piano sonata work, in F minor, Op. 2, No. 1 1) , composed in 1795, was built using small and large motifs, just the way Haydn used to. Charles Rosen affirmed admiringly ‘that while less gifted composers needed many themes to sustain a movement, Haydn needed only one. 2). On the other hand, Mozart liked to use several themes in one movement but keeping them ingeniously united.

   The revolutionary spirit of Beethoven comes through in this F minor Sonata, a very unusual tonality. Composers wrote music for the audience regardless their personal tastes. Among Mozart’s sonatas, a very pragmatic composer, there is nothing as remote as four flats. Still Beethoven starts his career with this unusual piano sonata, composing it first of all for himself. Like Bach, in the intro, the fermata is linked by Beethoven to a rhetorical spirit; there is a rhetorical language as if reciting.3) This was in order to achieve a surprising effect on the listener.4) Mozart rarely did this; he imposed himself through his regular but ingenious works. 

   Compared to Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven is the first composer who gives us fairly precise instructions concerning the tempo: Allegro, an ordinary tempo but Alla Breve, a quick tempo as one counts two beats in a bar. He gives us the exact dynamics:  pianissimo, in this case in the intro which is not pianissimo, not whispering but is a soft speaking voice. Beethoven’s harmony is innovative compared to Haydn or Mozart: the bass in E-flat linking the new theme B goes dissonantly against the F-flat in bar 20 (Ex. 1). This theme (Ex.2) is represented in bars 20-22 and 1-3, under an ascending and descending ‘Mannheimer Rakete’.5) 6) Beethoven thus uses closely-related monothematic themes like Haydn and multiple themes like Mozart to drive the musical energy. The next passage is full of sforzandi, like accents or emphases.7)

Beethoven, bars 33-39In bars 33-39 Beethoven marks subito piano; composers often write crescendi or decrescendi to reach a higher or a lower dynamic but Beethoven often writes a subito piano, a sudden change of dynamics rather than a gradual one. In bars 40-45 the third motif is marked as espressivo. In Mozart's scores maybe he means it but does not mark it. Just like the fortissimo in bar 46 (Ex. 3), which we find very occasionally in Haydn's music, but Mozart's dynamics stop at forte. Great extremes are already apparent in the exposition. The key changes to the parallel key A-flat major.

  In the development section the composer really shows that he is truly a master of music. Similarly to Haydn, Beethoven reorders and change the themes. In bar 100 he expresses the same return to the piano present in the beginning of the exposition under a new light in a triumphant, opposing fortissimo dynamic. Creatively enough, in bars 92-94 the right hand plays only the tail of the first motif. In Beethoven's imagination this is a great virtuoso but he thinks in terms of an orchestra and ends the movement with a big rhetorical question.

     Beethoven’s innovative style is definite in the following 2nd movement in F major Adagio. Unusually, the four-movement structure is all in the same key just as Haydn’s Sonata in F of his 1773's set. 8) It is a very unusual tonality. Beethoven achieves this but with all movements in F major. Haydn has many slow movements marked Adagio whereas Mozart never. He will use an Andante, Andante Con Moto orAndantino.  In bars 24-26 (Ex. 4) there is a sudden explosion in unison, an unexpected fortissimo for the first time in this movement and all sforzando then subito piano followed by a drop of dynamics in bar 34 and finally ending with an unusual perfect cadence.

In the final trio, in two-part counterpoint we have sixth chords in bar 60.  Like the early music movements, here the menuetto is repeated twice, which sounds like Czcherni. The finale of the F minor sonata is extraordinary because it is alla breve and is marked prestissimo: consequently it is extreme and visionary, like one of those ‘perpetual motion’ riding pieces. It is quite shocking because of the left hand's continuous triplet in bars 1-33. Finally the most lyrical part of the movement comes in a very dramatic scenery, going back the same as Haydn usually would have done, to the melody of the very first movement.

No. 29 in B-flat major, 9), composed in 1817, reflects Beethoven’s most monumental work - something unprecedented that would keep music lovers busy. There is still the legend that Liszt’s delivery of this sonata has been one of the miracles in the history of music 10). This is the only sonata of Beethoven where he provides metronome marks. Since metronome marks do not make music themselves, these are valid only for the first bar of the piece because Beethoven was fond of interpreting music freely and eloquently. 11) ‘Beethoven, who had heard Mozart play, said afterwards that his playing was neat and clear, but rather empty, weak, and old- fashioned.’12) This sonata has elements of dance and humour, and this is not a piece in marble: it is incredibly human and alive. For instance in theme A, the opening motif (Ex.5) was written for the left hand alone while the right hand rests. It is very easy to miss and really cheating. It is not an act of sport but Beethoven wants to emphasise tension and portray something impossibly difficult. He took risks, and so trust today’s pianists, too. Josef Kript affirmed that ‘Beethoven’s music aspires to heaven; Mozart’s music was written from there’.13)

    For once, guiding himself under the strict technical devices of Bach, he wrote this fugue in three main voices. Still, it has its liberties while using hallmarks of the Classical style. First of all the traditional concept of tonality is recreated. Harmonic changes to keys third away from the original with striking use of G replace and abolish the role of the dominant. Therefore each movement's theme is based on interval of thirds uniting the work and lunching new ways to romantic sonatas and fantasias. Secondly, modulation in thirds, mark the structure of the Fugue. There are no clear cadences and sectional devices with a few exceptions such as in bars 149-248. The following grand pause is striking because of the continuity of texture before it. With help of the contrapuntal variation too, the sections are continuously connected with each other pondering between rondo and variation form and thus each contrast would be perceives as meaningful. What reinforces this statement, are subject 1, energetic, in the tonic B-flat major; subject 2, in B minor with the dissonant harmonic B natural, B flat clash in bar 160-166, disclosing emotions of sadness and a feeling of loss; and nevertheless subject 3, sudden exclamation in D major in bar 36 (Ex. 6), recalling the manner of the Benedictus from the Missa Solemnis using similar key and based on thirds.

    Beside this, the constant dissonant conflicts between keys is a device infused to transgress traditional forms, reflecting a new seed of sonata form and counterpoint, serving simultaneously as a catalyst of driving force throughout the piece. From the opening theme through to the Finale, this is reappears in the first movement after the recapitulation and not only, but in the second movement too designating a peculiar violence. This gives shape to new structural effects such as the supplanting of the climax toward the end of the recapitulation. All this, to highlight dramaticism balanced within the whole piece. There is another conflict that more or less infuses a sense of tension and strife. We are talking about the rhythmical conflict of duple versus triple time. The movement starts with an upbeat giving a sense of dancing dactyls, like from Bach’s fugues or from the Brandenburg Concertos, something not very ponderous. Beethoven added the first two notes that complete the first measure after the sonata was finalized and on its way to be published highlighting the dramatic development. Also, Beethoven uses the two tied notes to indicate change of fingerings in bar 165, thus making out of it a new device. Beethoven used here unisons (a comic striking section in bars 384 – 387, usually never used in fugues) (Ex.8), and diminished-seventh chords, the tragedy present in the beginning until the final Picardy third is achieved with a victorious A flat enharmonic with B natural. This constancy of implementing new compositional paths, is explicit from the introduction of the piece itself. The opening motif goes through an arpeggio in A major, modulates in intervals of thirds, of course ranges over each key's register and inverts down to the smallest units in bars 243-247 (Ex. 7). The pillar notes of these arpeggios, F and A, form the beginning of the fugue. Thus the interval of a third interlinks the themes in the whole work. Initially sketched as a minuet, turns in bar 85 to be sounding like a scherzando, a device created by Beethoven. In the finale, the two inverted and normal motifs, played simultaneously achieve the goal by fixing on the tonic key. Thus the early key conflicts resolve in the last movement by means of a new tonal and rhythmic procedure that reshapes the opening theme and the fugue as a whole.

   These analytical views on Beethoven’s sonatas reflect a genius who risked to use and at the same time to abide these incontestable technical devices inherited from his contemporaries that proved to be stretching the absolute barriers of music, in such a skilful manner to create an authentic, new form of music. Compared to Haydn, he proves to be not only a creator of a new genre of sonata but a very good performer too.14)  He experienced with the listener’s expectations and he succeeded; his music is alive today, and will be in the future generations too, because all of his works have hidden, interesting meanings and a lot of new features that our generation is probably yet to discover.



BESTE, Thomas. S. The Sonata. 1st ed. Cambridge University Press. 2011.

BLACKWELL Albert L. The Sacred in Music. Canada, Westminster John Knox Press. 1999. p.124.

FABIAN,Dorottya. Bach performance Practice, 1945-1975. Aldershot: Ashgate. 2003


HEARTZ, Daniel. Mozart, Haydn and early Beethoven, 1781-1802. UK: Norton & Company. Incorporated, W.W.   

2008. p. 411


ROSEN, Charles W. The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven. London: Faber & Faber. 1971. p.467.

ROSENBLUM, Sandra P. Performance Practices in Classic Piano Music: Their principles and Applications

Reprint ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1988. p. 368.


SCHINDLER, Anton F.  Beethoven As I Knew Him. Canada: General Publishing Company. 1996.  p. 213, 225.


SWAFFORD, Jan Anguish and Triumph 1st ed. US: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2014

KURT von Fisher.  Die Beziehungen von Form und Motif in Beethovens Instrumentalwerken. Reprint ed.

Straßburg und Zürich: Hildesheim 19.  2001.  p. 145.


KEILLER, Allan R. Liszt and Beethoven: The Creation of a personal Myth. Vol.12. University of California Press. 

1988. p. 116-131.


KULLAK, Franz. Beethovens Piano Playing. New York: T. J. Little & Co.  1901.


Ludwig Van Beethoven, F minor, Op. 2, No. 1, Reprinted ed. New York: Dover Publication, 1920. p. 444-453.
Charles W. Rosen, The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, (London: Faber & Faber, 1971), p.467.
Sandra P. Rosenblum, Performance Practices in Classic Piano Music: Their principles and Applications, Reprint ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press),1988, p. 368.
For example in Hob. 46/i/17, 23, exposition
Kurt von Fisher, Die Beziehungen von Form und Motif in Beethovens Instrumentalwerken, Straßburg und Zürich: Reprint: Hildesheim 19, 2001, pp. 145
A similar ‘Meinheimer Rakete’ could be heard in Mozart’s Finale in his 4th Orchestra Symphony.
sforzando can mean different things; in forte is something different compared to a piano territory.
A similar structure can be found in Beethoven’s Pastoral Sonata op. 28 or in the String Quarted Op. 59 No. 2.
Ludwig Van Beethoven, F minor, Op. 2, No. 1, Reprinted ed. New York: Dover Publication, 1920. p. 511-556.
Allan R. Keiller, Liszt and Beethoven: The Creation of a personal Myth, Vol. 12, (University of California Press, 1988), p. 116-131.
Anton F. Schindler, Beethoven As I Knew Him, (Canada: General Publishing Company 1996), p. 213, 225.
Franz Kullak., Beethoven’s Piano Playing, (New York: T. J. Little & Co. 1901), p. 10.
Albert L. Blackwell, The Sacred in Music, (Canada, Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), p.124.
Daniel Heartz, Mozart, Haydn and early Beethoven. 1781-1802, (UK: Norton & Company. Incorporated, W.W. 2008), p. 411