Tuesday 7th June, 1700-1930
Allegro assai - Piü allegro
Andante con moto
Allegro ma non troppo - Presto
"I would never have believed that I could be so lazy as I am here. If it is followed by an outburst of industry, something worthwhile may be accomplished."So wrote Beethoven from the Austrian spa town of Baden to his piano pupil Ferdinand Ries on 24 July 1804. His brother secured a lodging for him in the village of Döbling just north of Vienna and, as if the above letter spurred him into action, he spent the rest of the summer working on two piano sonatas, Op. 54 and Op. 57. He went for long walks in the nearby Vienna Woods, one of which is recalled by Ries: "We went so far astray that we did not get back to Döbling until nearly 8 o'clock. He had been humming, and more often howling, always up and down, without singing any definite notes. When questioned as to what it was he answered, 'A theme for the last movement of the sonata [Op. 57] has occurred to me.' When we entered the room he ran to the pianoforte without taking off his hat. I sat down in the corner and he soon forgot all about me. He stormed for at least an hour with the beautiful finale of the sonata. Finally he got up, was surprised that I was still there and said, 'I cannot give you a lesson today, I must do some work'."The subtitle for the Sonata was the publisher's addition, but Beethoven did not for once see cause to object. It is certainly his most impassioned work and his most violent musical utterance. Although it is unlikely that a specific event inspired it, he had recently quarrelled with one of his closest friends, Stephan von Breuning, so on a local scale the sonata might be seen as Beethoven venting his anger. But the work goes further than that. It is a defiant challenge to the world, or, as the composer Hubert Parry said, "Here the human soul asked mighty questions of its God and had its reply."
It has in fact inspired more comment than perhaps any other piano sonata of its period. Lenin, for example, while recognising his shortcomings as a music critic, wrote: "I know nothing that is greater than the Appassionata; I would like to listen to it every day. It is marvellous superhuman music. I always think with pride - perhaps it is naïve of me - what marvellous things humans can do."After the expectant introduction to the Allegro assai, the first movement proceeds with virtually unrelenting vigour and, for the first time in a Beethoven sonata first movement, the customary exposition repeat is done away with, so as not to hold up the argument. The Andante is like the calm between two storms and is a set of variations on a theme that is more harmony than melody. The final Allegro follows without a break, but rather seems to continue where the first movement left off. It is another movement of passionate violence, culminating in a shattering Presto coda of drama and defiance.