Monday, April 17, 2006

Beethoven's Sonata Pathetique

Playing on the iPod is the first movement of Beethoven's charismatic Piano Sonata No. 8, Op.13 "Pathétique"; the piano interpretation is outstanding (once again Maria João Pires').
The Grande Sonate Pathétique was composed in the closing years of the eighteenth century. It was published in Vienna in 1799 and is dedicated to Prince Carl von Lichnowsky, Beethoven's landlord, friend and patron.
This sonata has a special place amongst Beethoven's piano works. Many of the great sonatas are known by their popular title: every music lover knows the "Appassionata" or the "Moonlight Sonata". However, unlike those already mentioned, which only received their names during the nineteenth century, the "Pathétique" has always borne this name: Beethoven himself named it the Grande Sonate Pathétique. The only other piano sonata that has an original name is "Les Adieux", Op. 81a.
But why exactly is it called "pathétique"? For one thing the key C minor had a very special character for his contemporaries (which we cannot quite reconstruct on our modern instruments which are well-tempered). Music theorists of the time described C minor as being "sorrowful" (Rousseau), "sad" (Mattheson), but also "angry" and "raging" (Quantz), as well as being imbued with all different kinds of passionate emotions. This character is strengthened even further by the tempo marking for the first movement "Grave" and the dotted rhythms of the opening motif. In 1837, Gustav Schilling defined a composition as being "pathetisch" if it "is in an elevated and therefore harmonically rich, strong style and without any sweetness and mere nicety". Criteria which Beethoven's "Pathétique" fulfils in every respect.
You can also listen to the beautiful and even more famous second movement ("Adagio Cantabile") of the "Pathétique", here:

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