There is no doubt that Ludwig van Beethoven has a special place in the history of music. He was well-known during his life, and even nowadays his works can be regarded as contemporary. Beethoven succeeded in unveiling the moral and humanistic values of music, he wrote for the future. One of the most famous and significant pieces written by the composer was piano sonata No. 23 (f-moll) “Appassionata.” “Appassionata” changes the way we think about music and helps us emerge into the light from everyday darkness. This piece is unique thanks to its unusual structure with symphonic elements and truly passionate vigor.
Ludwig van Beethoven (see fig.1) was an outstanding pianist and composer. He was a genius of his time and an innovator who attempted to widen the scope of sonata and combine musical elements in a new way.
The great composer was born in 1770 in Bonn, Germany. From early childhood, Ludwig had been taught to play the violin, piano, organ, and clavecin. He learned several languages, liked reading, and attempted to compose. When he was a young boy, his father, a court singer, started to teach him music. His father was very brutal with little Ludwig and often beat him even for the slightest mistake or hesitation. The extraordinary vigor and brutality of his parent left an indelible imprint on the composer for the rest of his life. Ludwig was a gifted child, and his father wanted to create a new Mozart. Soon he was taught music, composition, and organ playing by a renowned musician Gottlob Neefe. In 1782, the young musician published his first work “9 Variations in C Minor for piano” on a march by Dressler. Later, in 1783, Neefe wrote about Beethoven, “If he continues like this, he will be, without a doubt, the new Mozart” (“Ludwig van Beethoven’s Biography”).
In due course, Beethoven started to support his family and work as an Assistant Court Organist as he felt responsible for his two younger brothers. In 1792, he went to Vienna, the cultural and musical capital of the country. In Vienna, Beethoven first took lessons with Haydyn, then with Albrechtsberger and Salieri. There is no reliable evidence of the meeting of Beethoven and Mozart, but, according to some speculations, Mozart said the following after hearing Beethoven: “Keep your eyes on him; some day he will give the world something to talk about (Biography.com Editors).”
In 1795, Beethoven made his first appearance as a pianist. His contemporaries mentioned that his performances comprised not only an indomitable temper and virtuosity but also fertility of imagination and deep feelings. It was the time of great pieces: by 1802, the composer had written 20 sonatas and three concerts for the piano, the first two symphonies, and many other works. In a range of sonatas, Beethoven overcame the classical three-parted structure by adding one more part before the final – a minuet or a scherzo.
In the 1800s, the great composer started to realize that he was losing his hearing. This period of Beethoven’s life was marked by the strengthening of heroic and dramatic motives in his music. The following pieces were written during this time: the 3d “The Eroica” symphony, the opera “Fidelio,” the sonata “Appassionata,” etc. During his last years, he did not write much. He experienced a moral and creative breakdown because of his progressive deafness. The set of Beethoven’s life was marked by overall recognition and fame. In 1827, the great composer died. Ludwig van Beethoven was also considered to be a crucial figure in the transition from the Classical to the Romantic era.
Among the 32 piano sonatas of the composer, one of the most significant is the so-called “Appassionata.” The Piano Sonata No. 23 (f-moll) was written in the period of 1804-1806. The piece was important because it appeared as a result of ten years of strivings and no other piece of work possessed such an enormous dramatic power, inspiration, and form perfection as this one. It was the product of an intensively creative period, during which the “Fidelio” opera, the “Kreutzer” violin sonata, and the “Eroica" symphony were written. There is no clear evidence of the premiere and revisions of the Sonata. It was called “Appassionata” by the Hamburg publisher Kranz and meant “passionate, alive, enthusiastic” in Italian. It was dedicated to Beethoven’s dear friend Franz Brunswick.
The period of 1804-1806 were the years of ordeals and hard inner turmoil for the composer. The completion of the “Eroica,” the disappointment in Napoleon, the progressive deafness, and constant internal solitude became the pre-conditions for the creation of tragic and dark music. All these factors fostered the appearance of such a vibrant piece of music. It was a good chance for Beethoven to express all of his feelings. Nevertheless, the composer managed to overcome all hardships. While in the first drafts, the sonata showed the predominance of tragic motives, later on, the musician managed to surmount the tragedy and celebrate the victory over evil. “Appassionata” is considered to be one of the greatest, most tempestuous and technically challenging piano sonatas. Undoubtedly, the new features of Beethoven’s symphonic style, which were achieved in the “Eroica” symphony, greatly influenced this sonata too. It is the most virtuosic of all Beethoven’s sonatas, marked by unprecedented might and orchestra sonority. The music of the “Appassionata” is characterized by dramatic integrity; step by step, during the whole cycle, one can observe variable images of anxiety, pain and suffering, heroic lyric, and serene meditation that lead to the final tense struggle.
Today, we can experience a range of performances of the “Appassionata” conducted by great pianists. One can easily find them on the Internet. One of them is a record performed by such outstanding pianists as Pletnev, Gilels, and Horowitz. Pletnev and Gilels were Soviet musicians, and both of them were considered to be the greatest pianists of the 20th century. As for Horowitz, he was a Russian-born American pianist and composer, who was also considered to be the greatest musician of all times. Each of them differently and inimitably rendered the music of the passionate struggle. Each of them attempted to unfold the detail of the movements (Beethoven: Sonata No.23 in F minor, “Appassionata”). It is hard to explain the overall impression made by the sonata because it causes a tornado of feelings; the piece possesses some internal strength and intensity that keep the audience’s attention till the final note. Each part fascinates in its own way. The most impressive was the vigorous and passionate finale, fast-paced and complex in nature.
It is proven that the “Appassionata” contains symphonic elements. Beethoven introduces some formal innovations, for example, the composer, for the first time in any sonata movement, omits the exposition repeat but insists on the repeat of the whole development and recapitulation parts. Still, the sonata consists of three parts: Allegro assai, Andante con moto, and Allegro ma non troppo. The sonata-allegro form in 12/8 time includes exposition, development, and recapitulation. The exposition presents two contrasting themes that are intonationally and rhythmically alike. The first theme consists of two motifs, where the first one renders a revolt and the second one unravels the dark forces. The second motif is short and is commonly referred to as the “fate” motif (see fig.2), which would later dominate Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It is the one around which the real struggle takes place (Tovey 177).
The second theme of Allegro assai is calm and powerfully contrasting to the first one. One way or another, all different motifs of the Allegro part are connected under a common theme. The second one appears as a transformed first one. Its inspirational mood can be compared to a passionate hymn and be associated with such revolutionary songs as La Marseillaise. At the end of the part, both themes intertwine so much that it is impossible to single out their elements. The music of the development also stems from the intonations of the first theme. Beethoven uses instruments usually applied in classical symphonic music, for example, the “tutti” effect in the first theme. The development explores the harmonic possibilities of the thematic material. The recapitulation has much in common with the first movement. The second part, Andante con moto, is written in the form of a theme with variations, and the third part, Allegro ma non troppo, has many common features with the first movement. Andante con moto brings kindness, intimacy, warmth, and a stormy ending. The third part is mobile with rapid sixteenth notes, which are interrupted only in the coda and the development. Allegro ma non troppo is often called breathtaking and passionate (Tovey 186).
The basic timeline of the piece can be shown in the following way (based on the recording, the first performance by Pletnev):
00:00 First movement (Allegro assai, F minor, 12/8, a sonata-allegro form):
00:00 - Theme 1
01:13 – Bridge theme
04:43 - Theme 2
11:05 Second movement (Andante con moto, D-flat major, 2/4, a form of variations): four variations.
18:03 Third movement (Allegro ma non troppo – Presto, F minor, 2/4, a sonata-allegro form):
10:03 - Theme 1
12:01 – Bridge theme
19:07 - Theme 2
Ludwig van Beethoven was one of the greatest composers and musicians of all times. Having been born in Germany and having studied in Austria, he acquired worldwide fame. Beethoven filled his music with his inner turmoil. He was an innovator who changed the perception of form in music and was a key figure during the transition from the Classical to the Romantic stage. His “Appassionata” is a timeless piece that comprises not only dramatic integrity and variable images of anxiety but also heroic lyric and serene meditation. In “Appassionata,” there appears an insistent and ominous “fate” motif, which would later be present in the Fifth Symphony. In his Sonata, Beethoven manifested the most difficult period of his life when he had become disappointed in the revolutionary ideas and started to realize the inevitability of his deafness and solitude.