Portrait of Maximilian Friedrich von Königsegg-Rothenfels, Archbishop-Elector of Cologne, by Johann Heinrich Fischer
Piano Sonata in E flat major WoO 47/1 ‘Electoral’ for piano (1783, Beethoven aged 12)
Dedication Maximilian Friedrich, Elector of Cologne
Background and Critical Reception
With the world of keyboard composition starting to turn to the piano from the harpsichord, the 12-year-old Beethoven was already plotting his own innovations. Christian Kneefe, his teacher, was encouraging him to compose and was conceding the piano was the best method of his expression. So it was that on 14 October 1783 a set of three piano sonatas were published, dedicated to Maximilian Friedrich, Elector of Cologne – whose residence was in Bonn.
Each of the sonatas is in three movements, and unlike the previous year’s Dressler variations there are plenty of markings to indicate how they should be performed. Jan Swafford notes how the young composer went a little too far in this regard, over-directing his performer in some instances – but that his treatment of the rules of sonata form, used for the vast majority of these multi-movement works, was impeccable.
Thus the melodic themes and their development unfolded as they ‘should’ – but that didn’t stop Beethoven from experimenting a little. Pianist Cyprien Katsaris asserted in an interview with Arcana that ‘there are not 32 sonatas but 35 as you have to include the first three ones that Beethoven wrote’. That gives an indication of how he views the quality of the three pieces.
For musicologist Charles Rosen ‘the sonatas…start clearly from Haydn’s work of the late 1760: we tend to forget that Beethoven’s early musical education antedated any knowledge (in Bonn at least) of the works of Haydn and Mozart in the fully developed classical style – the works by which they are best known. Bonn was less advanced than Vienna.
The first of the three sonatas is in E flat major, a key Beethoven used a great deal – and a key Haydn used in a number of his piano sonatas. Swafford describes the opening movement as ‘stately, aristocratic, fashionably gallant and a little pompous: its tone may have been a tribute to the Elector.’
As Swafford says, this is quite a step forward for Beethoven. A bright, march-like theme brings in the sonata’s first movement. It is quite polite but there is the airy quality of an earlier Haydn sonata. Exchanges between the parts are lively, though there is a feeling that Beethoven is doing things by the book, trying his hand at an existing form. A brief excursion to C minor brings grittier music around the three-minute mark, before the first theme returns in regular fashion.
The second movement is marked Andante (at a walking pace) – and the left hand really is out for a stroll. This movement in B flat major has simple but effective outlines. As it moves on the music becomes more expressive, the right hand rising much further up the register, before the initial music returns.
Similarly the third movement, a Rondo, has very simple outlines – Beethoven was 12 after all! – but the surety of direction is there again. Once again he develops his ideas with an animated section into C minor, but this comes to quite an abrupt halt so that the main theme can return
Recordings of the Electoral Sonatas are few and far between. Emil Gilels is the starriest name at this stage, and he plays the first sonata thoughtfully – though may be a touch slow for some tastes in his choice of tempi. Jenő Jandó is articulate, with nicely shaped melodies and clarity. Cyprien Katsaris’ recording is the most recent, and is quite roomy. He lends a certain grandeur to the piece which it benefits from.
The playlist below includes the recordings discussed above – Emil Gilels, Jenő Jandó and Cyprien Katsaris:
You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here!
Also written in 1783 Mozart Symphony no.36 in C major K425 ‘Linz’ .
Next up Piano Sonata in F minor, ‘Electoral’