Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) composed thirty-two piano sonatas between the year of 1792 and 1822. It was the time when the Classic period was changing to the Romantic period. His piano sonatas show the changes of musical style in form, structure, and his life between 1792 and 1822. Beethoven had three periods in his main music career: the first Vienna period (1792-1802), the middle period (1802-1814), and the last period (after 1815). Each period shows his different musical style.

Beethoven left Bonn and settled Vienna in the middle of November 1792. Then he studied with Franz Joseph Haydn during the first decade in Vienna and received some of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's musical style; therefore, about half of Beethoven's thirty-two piano sonatas composed in his first Vienna period (1792-1802) show Haydn-Mozart Classic influences.

After Beethoven had mastered the Haydn-Mozart Classic styles and achieved a degree of economic success, his middle period (1802-1814) arose. Beethoven's musical style in this period was more like the Romantic rather than the Classic; he more sought the potential of dramatic musical expressions in emotion rather than musical form. Beethoven's piano sonatas between 1802 and 1814 show the rise of the Romanticism and his heroic inspirations in Music.

About 1815, Beethoven was almost totally deaf; it was arrival of his last period. Because of deafness, he was isolated; consequently, the last five sonatas he composed in the final period seem more communications between the composer (artist) and music (art) than communications between the composer and public audience. These sonatas were mostly experimental in tonality, texture, and form; therefore, analyzing these musical elements is not so easy.


Beethoven's music in his first decade in Vienna reflects a period of the Classic style absorption that modeled on the style of Haydn, Mozart, and other eighteen-century composers; it was the stage of imitation. However, Beethoven's music in this period seems stronger but rougher in texture and dynamic contracts than those of his predecessors. Beethoven's early piano sonatas show characteristic of symphonies (or string quartets) rather than piano sonatas because of minuet movement, Mannheim rockets (sudden dynamic rise over a wide range in broken chord or tremolo), quartet harmonization, and a symphonic slow introduction.

Beethoven's first compositions of thirty-two piano sonatas were op. 2 three sonatas (dedicated to his teacher Haydn). Beethoven proved his achievement and mastery that show the varied characters of the sonatas, the dynamic element in the first sonata in F minor, the more lyric character in the second sonata in A major, and the concert-type of virtuosity in the third sonata in C major.

Op. 7 in E-flat major was dedicated to Countess Babette von Keglevics, composed in 1796-97 and published in by Artaria in 1797. This four-movement sonata was Beethoven's first great and complete masterpiece because of balance and perfection in every movement.

Like op. 2, op. 10 contains three sonatas, in C minor, F major, and D major. The contrasting character of each sonata can be recognized as seen in op. 2. These sonatas were dedicated to Countess Ann Margarete von Browne and published in 1798 by Joseph Eder.

One of Beethoven's well-known sonatas is the "Pathétique" Sonata, op. 13 in C minor. This sonata retains its magnetic effect and demoniac power even in today. Entirely new in this sonata was the dramatic introduction in the first movement, which is connected with the following allegro, and partly repeated before the development section and again before the very end. Beethoven was showing the new possibilities of this form for sonata. This sonata was dedicated to one of his important supporters, Prince Carl von Lichnowsky.

The twin sonata op. 14 in E major and G major were published by Mollo & Co. and dedicated to Baronin Josefa von Braun. These sonatas show a different musical world from the previous sonatas. The highly idyllic character or both sonatas is obvious. The second movement of the first one (E major sonata) contains scherzo-like allegretto in parallel minor (E minor).

Op. 22 shows a decisive step forward in high technique of composing. This sonata was composed around 1800 and published by Hoffmeister & Kuhnel in 1802, dedicated to Count Johann von Broune.

Beethoven was probably inspired by Mozart's Sonata in A major when he composed op. 26 in A-flat major with a set of variations (instead of sonata form). This sonata was published by Jean Cappi in 1802 with a dedication to Prince von Lichnowsky.

Like op. 26, Beethoven avoided beginning the first movements with sonata form in his op. 27 two sonatas, no. 1 in E-flat major and no. 2 in C-sharp minor; possibly for this reason, he justified this treatment by adding "Quasi una fantasia" to the sonata title. The second one is also known as "Moonlight" sonata. The first movements of these two sonatas are more like character pieces. Both sonatas were published by Cappi in 1802. The first one was dedicated to Prince von Liechtenstein, and the second one was dedicated to Countess Giulieta Guicciardi.

The last sonata in Beethoven's first decade in Vienna is op. 28 in D major, in which the idyllic character has been recognized by the adaptation of the title "Pastoral Sonata." This sonata was composed in 1801 and published in 1802 with a dedication to Joseph von Sonnenfels.


Beethoven's compositions in his middle period (also known as his heroic style era) obviously show the Romantic approach. An increase in degree of contrast that affected the scoring and dynamics gave a varied strength to the music. In addition, the scherzo movements replaced the minuets of the Classic four-movement sonata plan in many cases. Beethoven's music in this period expressed much more instabilities in harmonic, tonal fashion, and rhythm. Climax and resolution tended to be delayed, and the development became extremely large.

The three sonatas of op. 31, no. 1 in G major, no. 2 in D minor ("Tempest"), and no. 3 in E-flat major, show some new features. There are two remarkable features; the second theme appears in B major instead of the usual dominant key (A major) in the first movement of the no. 1 in G major sonata, and the first movement of the "Tempest" sonata starts with the half cadence with all its consequences for the recapitulation. These sonatas were not published at the same time. The first one and second one were first published without opus number by Nageli in the collection Repertoire des Clavecinists, next by Simrok, and later by Cappi with the opus number 29. The third one was published later without dedication.

The twin two-movement sonatas, op. 49 no. 1 in G minor and no. 2 in G major, are usually considered as sonatinas (short sonata) and showing the orthodox Classic style rather than the fancy Romantic style. These sonatas were written many years before, probably in 1795-96. However, these sonatas were published in 1805.

Op. 53 in C major ("Waldstein"), published in 1805 and dedicated to Count Ferdinand von Waldstein, employs the virtuoso element. Beethoven tried to extend the first movement in order to replace the second movement by a much shorter one, a mere introduction to the Rondo (third movement). Enriching the sonata form by extending the length was a specific inclination in his compositions at that time.

The virtuoso element is also employed in op. 54 in F major, the octave passage in the first movement. However, some opinions suggest that this sonata is one of the weakest sonatas, which Beethoven had ever written. The second movement of this two-movement sonata was reminiscent of Scarlatti.

Op. 57 in F minor, also known as "Appassionata," represents a climax in Beethoven's piano sonata writing. Three movements in this sonata are strongly linked to each other, and the variation form in the second movement is masterfully treated. This sonata (composed about 1804 but not published until 1807) was dedicated to Count Franz von Brunswik.

Beethoven experimented to "turn to the opposite extreme" in exploring the possibilities of sonata writing in the two-movement sonata op. 78. This sonata shows the utmost contraction in its structure. This sonata was dedicated to Countess Therese von Brunswik and published by Breitkopf in 1810.

The three-movement sonata op. 79 in G major shows again the Classic style, the first movement in sonata-allegro form, the slow second movement in ternary structure, and the third movement in Rondo. This sonata was composed in 1809 and published in 1810.

Beethoven wrote op. 81a (E-flat major) in order to commemorate the departure of his friend and devoted pupil, the Archduke Rudolph. This sonata is only one, which shows programmatic themes in each of three movements, "Farewell" in the first movement, "Absence" in the second movement, and "Return" in the third movement. Beethoven called it "characteristic sonata." This sonata was published in 1811.

The two-movement sonata op. 90 in E minor contrasts to each other in sharp, E minor (first movement) and E major (second movement). Beethoven introduced more lyric elements by using smaller motives and without endangering the dramatic drive of music and the technique that interlock the part of sonata form. This sonata was published by S.A. Steiner in 1815 and dedicated to Count Morits von Lichnowsky; it also gave a description of the count's love affair with his second wife.


In Beethoven's last period (also called isolated or creative era), he was almost totally deaf and more isolated than before; consequently, he achieved fulfillment in his compositions, and experimented non-standard (at that time) musical form, structure, and tonal plan.

The first movement of op. 101 in A major probably is the shortest piece of Beethoven's compositions, but it still shows all the different sections of the form (which are interlocked, interwoven, and held together by beautiful lyric mood). The second movement shows characteristic rhythm and a new device (which is the use of the old contrapuntal form into the sonata). In addition, Beethoven introduced canon in the trio section in the second movement, and he used the fugue in the development section in the last movement. Beethoven's keyboard instrument (pianoforte) increased range; therefore, it brought some changes in the pianistic approach, and allowed a different contrapuntal treatment in spacing and doubling. Op. 101 was dedicated to one of Beethoven's favorite pupils, Dorothea von Ertmann. This sonata was published by Steiner in 1817.

Beethoven composed the great sonata op. 106 in B-flat major ("Hammerklavier") in 1817. In the first movement, he used a tonal device; he used the lower third (broad arch to the subdominant) in the exposition and development section. This sonata was published by Artaria in 1819 and dedicated to Archduke Rudolph.

The last three sonatas, op. 109 in E major (dedicated to Maximiliane Brentano), op. 110 in A-flat major (dedicated to Archduke Rudolph), and op. 111 in C minor (dedicated to Archduke Rudolph) are most intimate pieces that Beethoven composed for the instrument. These sonatas were written at the same time as the "Missa Solemnis" and published by Schlesinger in 1821 and 1822.

The piano sonatas, which Beethoven composed at the transition time from the Classic to the Romantic period, contain the musical elements that Beethoven received and adapted from his predecessors. However, those sonatas clearly show the change in his musical style and life, and Beethoven's music became the predecessor to many composers in coming ages.


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Last Revision: 07/07/1998 by Noriaki Nomoto