Beethoven and the Sonata

Whenever people, especially musicians, speak of Beethoven, it is with a certain kind of reverence. And up until some time ago, I sometimes wondered why. Why are his pieces so great and wonderful? What on earth could he have done to earn such respect from musicians and non-musicians alike? Maybe you’ve wondered the same at times. 

Well, a few weeks ago, I began an online course titled Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, and now I’m realizing that, wow, Beethoven did a lot to deserve such praise. He was a constant innovator, always pushing himself to change his style.

Feeling newly knowledgeable and comfortable with the subject, I’m going to discuss exactly what Beethoven did that was so incredible, particularly with his piano sonatas. There’s going to be some musician lingo, but I hope it won’t be too bad!

Beginning my online course, I naturally wondered how one man could change the form of the sonata, which had been through so many generations of evolution. It was a bit absurd. I could imagine minor tweaks, but the whole idea of the sonata must have been set in stone by the time Beethoven came around in the late Classical period.


I was shocked to discover that Beethoven didn’t change the sonata – he practically reinvented it. When Beethoven had finished with the sonata, there was no form left because every rule there was to break had been broken and the limitations of the sonata had been exposed.

Because you must be as dubious as I was about that, let me just give you a few examples of Beethoven’s innovation, minor tweaks though they might seem, which I’ll expand upon later:

– He interrupted the flow of the 1st movement of a sonata by reintroducing the introduction.

– He re-weighted the sonata as a whole, taking the emphasis off the first half and pushing it back to the second half. 

– He created more cohesion in the sonata as a whole.

– He stripped the sonata-allegro form down to the bare bones and found a creative way to disguise it.

– He displaced the tonic-dominant relationship, thus abolishing the most important rule which almost solely defines the sonata form.

– He challenged the idea of the exposition, development, and recapitulation being the most important parts to the sonata.

This is all we’ll be going over today, but there’s much more to be found in the depths of Beethoven’s piano sonatas.

An overview of the sonata

Haydn was the “creator” of the sonata form – though saying he was the inventor of it would be like saying Cristofori invented the piano. In both cases, there were numerous forerunners to the actual thing. The sonata is a very old form of composition, dating back to the Baroque Period; it just wasn’t termed the sonata until the Classical period. Anyway, Haydn was at least the first master of the sonata. He wrote more than 60 sonatas, all of them for piano.

Then Mozart came along. He, like Haydn, composed at a furious pace and quickly mastered the art of the sonata. Mozart wrote more than 70 sonatas, 36 of them for violin.

Well, next came Beethoven. He was totally unlike his musical predecessors in that he viewed the sonata as a rough draft to be changed and played with. Every rule that he could find in the sonata, he broke. One reason Beethoven might have felt at liberty to do so is because public performances, in his time, hardly existed. When he wrote his sonatas, he had no intention at all of performing them publicly or having anyone else do so. Because the sonatas were for home performances, he no doubt considered them experiments. He was a composer; he simply composed and left it up to the player to figure out how to play his compositions. 

I must clarify that the sonata form was not exactly a recipe, a sort of pre-conceived notion wherein the composer filled-in-the-notes; the sonata was the product of the composer’s sense of harmonic balance, tension, and fulfillment. I said that Mozart and Haydn mastered the art of the sonata – not purposefully, but intuitively, for the sonata form naturally occurred in their music. Once the laws of that intuitive musicality were established, the sonata became more of an artform. What makes Beethoven so special is that he went past the normal, intuitive route. Some of his music is even unnatural, but you can see Beethoven tried to push himself into new styles and test many different techniques of composing the sonata. Haydn and Mozart wrote outside-the-box sonatas, but they are very few and never developed into anything more than exceptions. Beethoven never stayed in one place as Mozart and Haydn did – he was perpetually pushing himself beyond his limits, which is how he paved the way for the Romantic Era.

Before we get to the fun stuff, I’ll just explain how the sonata works.

Firstly, the sonata is (generally) comprised of 3 movements. The 1st movement is (almost) always in “sonata form”; the 2nd movement is a slow movement, such as an adagio; and the final movement is (usually) a rondo.

Now, the 1st movement of the sonata is far and away the strictest and most important of all 3 movements. It is also, naturally, the movement that Beethoven changed the most. So let’s have a basic understanding of it before we move on.

I’m going to quote Jonathan Biss, who is the creator of the course I’m taking: “… if we’re to talk about sonata form briefly, it is the story of two oppositions. The opposition of two themes and the opposition of the tonic and the dominant. These are harmonic terms. I’ll be as untechnical as possible in describing this, but some jargon will be unavoidable. The tonic is simply the word for the fundamental chord of whatever key tonality we happen to be in. So, if we’re in B-flat major, the tonic is simply a B-flat major chord. The dominant is the name of the chord that begins on the fifth scale degree. In the case of B-flat major, this is F. It is a central fact of tonal music that a dominant always wants to resolve to a tonic. I’m not sure if this is important exactly because it seems so prosaic or in spite of it. But, that is really all classical tonality is about… We start at home, the tonic. And then we move away from home, traditionally always to the dominant. The tension involved in the work from that point is emotional need for a return home.”

The tonic-dominant relationship is actually a story. The tonic is the home key, and thus, home. The dominant is the wilderness. In the typical sonata form of the 1st movement, you start at home, become lost in the wilderness, wander around for a while trying to find your home, and then eventually find your way back.

Well, those are the three parts of the 1st movement of the sonata – they’re technically titled the exposition, the development, and the recapitulation. The exposition states the main theme in the home key. The development is when the key is lost in the wilderness of the dominant key. And the recapitulation is when, after a period of wandering through many different keys, we find the home key and essentially repeat the exposition, except for one difference: Instead of going into the dominant key—which would lead us back into the wilderness—we stay in the tonic key, and so finish the piece.

The 2nd and 3rd movements are much looser in their guidelines, so I won’t go over them.

The 1st movement was the most important of all the movements in the sonata, at least before Beethoven arrived on the scene. It was the heavy side to the sonata as a whole. Its main component was opposition – the opposition between the tonic and the dominant. The 2nd movement is peaceful and placid, with absolutely no drama. The 3rd movement, as a rondo, has a little more backbone but is also nearly tension-free. The 1st movement is the main struggle.

To quote Jonathan Biss again: “The other vital point is that in the time of Haydn and Mozart, the center of gravity of not just the sonata, but the string quartet, the symphony, the piano trio, is always in the first half of the work. Very often it’s firmly placed at the front of the work in the 1st movement, but it is never at the back. Multi-movement classical period works time and time again proceed from heavy to light, or in some cases from dark to light. The chamber and symphonic music of Haydn and Mozart is among the greatest music ever written, but there is just a slight tendency for their work’s conclusions to feel anticlimactic… Ending climatically was not a priority for these composers. They valued a sense of proportion far more highly, a sense of tension and then release or relief… But Beethoven, from the very beginning of his sonata-writing career, clearly perceived this as, if not a shortcoming, then at least a limitation.”

 The story of Beethoven’s 32 sonatas is in this re-weighting of the sonata – and many things contributed to that.

But now I want to focus on the points I mentioned above, on how Beethoven changed the sonata.

Beethoven interrupted the flow of the 1st movement of a sonata by reintroducing the introduction

 Some sonatas have an introduction at the beginning of the 1st movement. Well, in his renowned “Pathetique” sonata, Beethoven wrote a long, slow introduction. But strangely, he persists in repeating this throughout the movement, interrupting the flow of the 1st movement. It gives the impression of unease and tension throughout. 

He re-weighted the sonata as a whole, taking the emphasis off the first half and pushing it back to the second half

 Ah. The re-weighting. The main end that Beethoven, knowingly or unknowingly, worked toward. Before he began that task, all the drama, tension, and events occurred in the 1st movement. The 2nd movement would be peaceful and the 3rd would be lively and lighthearted, allowing very little drama at all.

 Beethoven used many different nuances in his music to re-weight the sonata so that the second half was more of a climax than a conclusion, and we’ll discuss a few now.

 The surprise in the 4th movement

I’ll use Biss’s example as one part of Beethoven’s re-weighting, the Sonata Op. 7, 4th movement. So. This is a big sonata, in many ways. It’s long, comprised of four movements. This is an innovation in itself; the classical symphony was comprised of four movements, but not so for the sonata – until Beethoven began work upon it.

 His 1st movement is bursting with energy, and up to a certain point, seems to be the most important of all the movements. The 2nd movement held its own by being a quiet but affecting force. The 3rd movement was the extra one, but compositionally a negligible minuet and trio. It seems as though Beethoven would follow the pattern of keeping the second half of the sonata light. And up until the very end of the 4th movement, it seems that way still. And then Beethoven gives us a surprise.

Here’s a clip from Jonathan Biss’s course in which he plays the 4th rondo movement and discusses how it stands out from the rest of the sonata.

The new type of 1st movement

In Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 26, movement 1, he completely does away with sonata form. Biss remarks: “Now this is a very big deal. Among the hundreds of three- and four-movement works that Haydn and Mozart wrote and that Beethoven had written up to this point, I can think of exactly three that do not begin with a sonata form. And in each case it was an experimental work. And in each case, the specific experiment was not repeated. For Beethoven, though, Opus 26 becomes the first of a series.”

Beethoven replaced the sonata form movement of Opus 26 with a theme and variations. A theme and variations movement has no tension whatsoever because it consists of a theme which repeats itself several times—in this case, five—but it is ornamented or changed slightly each time.

And for the 2nd movement of the sonata Op. 26, we have a scherzo – light and graceful.

Biss remarks, “… it’s worth noting that placing the scherzo or minuet second, and not third, is pretty well unprecedented for Beethoven in 1801… Until now, in Beethoven’s conception, the minuet or scherzo comes third. Moving it up as he does here, it’s not a huge deal. But in doing so, and in consequently placing the slow movement third, he takes another baby step toward re-weighting the work as a whole – away from the top and towards the conclusion… It’s definitely meaningful that Beethoven chooses a scherzo here—and not a minuet… It gives the piece a jolt of energy, and it acts as a buffer between the 1st and 3rd movements, neither of which are even remotely in a hurry.”

It sets the stage for the 3rd movement: a funeral march. Slow and devastating, this is effective in making the sonata seem to lead up to it rather than for it to be a release.

He created more cohesion in the sonata as a whole

How? Well, several different ways.

Connection of movements

In his sonata Op. 27, No. 1, Beethoven connected the movements together, leaving no pause between them as was traditional.

In Biss’s words: “… the variations 1st movement of Opus 26 was nearly without precedent, and many features of it would have certainly raised Mozart’s eyebrows. But this is really unheard of. And Beethoven uses other techniques to further blur the boundaries between the movements.”

Change of idea and tempo

Besides the connection, Beethoven deliberately tries to fool the listener by introducing an abrupt change of idea and tempo in the 1st movement, leaving the listener wondering whether it was a new movement.

Unresolved movements

Furthermore, Beethoven did not end the movements conclusively; the 3rd movement ends on a trill that yearns to be resolved but isn’t. Instead, it launches straight into the 4th and final movement.


In the 4th movement, Beethoven adds a quotation from the 3rd movement, which, however subconsciously, does make them seem more connected.

Rhythmically-driven themes

While Beethoven did write some very lovely melodies, his themes are better known for their malleability. Think of the theme of Beethoven’s famous 5th Symphony, movement 1. Everyone is familiar with its rhythm. Beethoven managed to take that seed of a theme and turn it into an entire movement of a symphony. His themes have more rhythmic drive than melodic drive, which makes them much easier to wield, change, and simply play around with.

Beethoven stripped the sonata-allegro form down to its bare bones and found a creative way to disguise it

In the 1st movement of his famous “Moonlight” Sonata, Beethoven whittled, elongated, and hid the sonata form so adeptly that it’s almost unrecognizable. Listen to Biss as he explains how Beethoven accomplishes this.

He displaced the tonic-dominant relationship, thus abolishing the most important rule which almost solely defines the sonata form

Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 31, No. 1 begins perfectly normally, with a charming theme in the tonic. But when he is supposed to have replied with a theme in the dominant, he replaces it with a theme in the mediant, which is a third up from the tonic. And if there’s any key that is unrelated to the tonic, it’s the mediant. It’s like Beethoven tried something outrageous just to see if he could pull it off – and he did.

Here’s another clip from Biss’s course in which Jonathan plays and explains just how great an impact the mediant became. (Indeed, this experimental sonata, in Biss’s words, “opened the floodgates” and Beethoven reused that mediant trick again and again after Sonata Op. 31, No. 1.)

He challenged the idea of the exposition, development, and recapitulation being the most important parts to the sonata

The 1st movement of the Sonata, Op. 81a is in normal sonata form, consisting of an introduction, exposition, development, recapitulation, and coda. However, the whacky thing about it that immediately stands out, is that the introduction and coda together are just as long, if not longer, than the exposition, development, and recapitulation.

Here is Biss playing the introduction.

These are just a few of the many changes Beethoven made to the sonata—and I haven’t even finished my course yet. There are probably innumerable more little things in store for me. I’d strongly suggest you give this course a shot. Jonathan Biss is a very thorough but easy-to-understand narrator as he tells the story of the Beethoven sonatas.

Thanks for reading!

~ Maggie


4 thoughts on “Beethoven and the Sonata

  1. Wow Maggie! What a piece you wrote.. not sure if I understand a sonato, lol! but it sure is impressive. You young ladies really know your music.
    Beethoven was an outstanding musician ! Keep up the good work and good writing!


    • Thank you so much! If a few things are unclear, I hope you’ll try out Biss’s course. 🙂 It’s very informative and enjoyable, especially since it’s self-paced. I love to write about music, but more importantly, I learn a lot while doing so! I highly recommend the course, as I learned so much from it.
      ~ Maggie


  2. WOW….you young ladies are so informative! Makes hearing history/biography of the great composers fascinating and fun! Keep it coming!


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