The wide expressive panorama of Beethoven’s sonata Op. 10/2

Beethoven’s sonata in F major, Op. 10/2, has always been a favorite of mine. It’s almost impossible to not be in a good mood after hearing it, as everything just seems to be there—irreplicable humor, vitality, reconciliation, lyricism, among so many other qualities. One can almost take the joyous mood of Op. 10/2 for granted. Sure, the fifth symphony and the Waldstein sonata end in triumph and exuberance, but Beethoven makes us listeners (and performers) work hard to attain that state of victory against all odds. In Op. 10/2, however, the good mood is already there to begin with, and Beethoven, in the course of the sonata, transforms it in a number of ways. In my apparent laziness, I always felt more drawn to Op. 10/2 than to the two aforementioned iconic middle-period works. 

Transformation, as it happens, is a concept central to Beethoven. He called his humoristic opus magnum for piano, the Diabelli Variations, “transformations” (Veränderungen), rather than the usual “variations.” In my opinion, this meticulous nomenclature contains some hints as to how the composer thought of his compositional process. 

What makes this sonata so exciting? I’d say the constant variety of musical material. In the opening bars of the first movement, Beethoven presents us with thesis and antithesis: the brisk opening chords are immediately answered by a wholly different long legato melody. The idea of contrast between phrases dominates the first movement, and Beethoven enlarges this concept to his schematic vision of the whole sonata, as the thematic development of the finale is antithetical to that of the opening movement. There, the nature of the phrases is much more monolithic than in the first movement, and in this regard, the second movement lies somewhere in between, having elements of both unified and contrasting phrase structure. If there is at all a synthesis to reconcile the thesis and antithesis of the opening, I’d say that it is in the transformation from disparate compositional material in the first movement to a much more unified approach in the finale. 

The first two movements are full of immediate contrast. Beethoven rapidly glides between the brusque and the lyrical in the first movement, and between the ironically dolorous and the gauche in the second movement. Rather than have full episodes with one character or the other, Beethoven sometimes bounces back and forth every couple of bars, which has implications also for the styles of writing—unison contrasted with polyphony, and stark differences in register (something that would have sounded radical on Beethoven’s 1790s piano). But I shouldn’t give the impression that the music is jagged in any way, because it really isn’t. One of the reasons that this sonata has been a favorite of mine is precisely its organic nature. 

Here I would like to take a slight detour and make a gross generalization about the melodic aesthetics of Beethoven’s two great predecessors, Haydn and Mozart. It is virtually impossible to confuse a work of one for the other, as these two composers are so fundamentally different, even though they had a lot in common. When it came to melodic writing, Mozart seemed to vie for as much variety as possible. A theme by Mozart is likely to have many components to it, varying in length, register, and articulation, for example, the second theme of the first movement of his concerto for two pianos, K. 365. Haydn, on the other hand, seemed to value conciseness and uniformity in a theme. Haydn didn’t need variety to achieve beauty, and seemed to be fascinated with having a single texture per theme, as he does, for example, in the opening of the Op. 76/6 quartet. This continuity in the “fabric” of the music is central to our notion of Haydn’s down-to-earthness. Of course, there are hundreds of examples from Haydn and Mozart to contradict this observation, and I am generally averse to generalizations of this sort. Nevertheless, they still often touch on important aesthetic points. In the case of Op. 10/2, the differences between Beethoven’s two great predecessors are of key importance. Which “strand” of melodic writing was Beethoven drawn to? We generally tend to think that his thematic writing is closer to that of Haydn than to that of Mozart. In reality, I think he was equally at ease with both lines of thought, and made them both his own. Some works of his are entirely centered around one notion of melodic writing (what instantly comes to mind is the Emperor concerto, where Beethoven takes the most basic building blocks, scales and triads, and transforms them into the most exquisite melodies), but the beauty of Op. 10/2 is that it seamlessly shifts between one and the other, and nowhere is this shown more clearly than in the beginning of the first movement, in the contrast between the dry opening, slightly reminiscent of Haydn, and the cantabile continuation, somewhat more reminiscent of Mozart. 

But besides looking back at his predecessors, in this sonata, Beethoven also augurs his own musical future. The rambunctious finale, marked Presto, begins with the fugal development of the theme, but before we notice it, Beethoven has already transformed the texture from polyphony into the much simpler melody+accompaniment. Over Beethoven’s creative years, fugal development became increasingly significant to the composer, culminating in the monumental fugal movements of the late period. But even before that, in the middle period, fugal writing acquired a special significance in his work. My favorite example of that is the finale of the third Razumovsky quartet, where Beethoven inverts the theme of the previous movement and turns it into a mischievously humorous fugal theme of an exhilarating finale. The finale of Op. 10/2 has the same ideas at heart: first, a theme that develops fugally just to furtively lose its polyphonic nature, as well as subversive humor, and a rousing ending.  To be sure, the quality of a work isn’t directly dependent on its wider context. It is the unique qualities of this sonata that make it as great as it is. Nevertheless, I do believe that its unique relation to the music that came before and after it shows itself in its qualities, and enriches our experience of it as performers and listeners. When listening to this sonata, we don’t only hear the work being played, but rather the whole of Viennese classicism in all its beauty and glory. 

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