Portrait of Maximilian Friedrich von Königsegg-Rothenfels, Archbishop-Elector of Cologne. Portrait by Georg Oswald May
Piano Sonata in D major WoO 47/3 ‘Electoral’ for piano (1783, Beethoven aged 12)
Dedication Maximilian Friedrich, Elector of Cologne
Background and Critical Reception
The third of the Electoral sonatas is, for Jan Swafford, the strongest of the set. For him, it ‘suggests Haydn at his most vivacious. Its jolly outer movements frame the most striking formal idea of the sonatas, a minuet followed by six variations…’ and it finds Beethoven in D major, ‘bright and ebullient’.
Pondering the forms further, he says, ‘It is hard to tell whether his departures from standard forms are imaginative or naive. Only in the D major does he begin to grapple with the sophisticated discipline of sustaining an idea’.
At this point it is worth restating that this is music written by a 12-year old, one of his first public statements – and certainly one of the first opportunities for teacher Christian Kneefe to show off the work of his pupil.
As Swafford says, the brightness of this music is striking, right from the airy, genial first theme. This is music you would listen to in order to feel right with the world, to take the weight off a difficult day. With rippling textures in the left hand, Beethoven writes a fluid first movement.
The Menuett and variations is the star though, an attractive triple-time dance supported by the left hand which is clearly the ‘feet’ of the operation. The variations include a glittering right hand (4) then some gentle syncopation (5) before an attractive couplet in thirds (6).
The third movement is similarly bright, more closely related to the fourth variation of the Menuett in its rapid movement for the right hand – which helps keep the music on its natural high level. Beethoven will give us more of these natural highs in D major – this is simply the first!
Jörg Demus, as used on the DG complete edition, is given a very roomy backdrop in Vienna to work with. As a result his recording, made in 1969, does show its age in spite of some lovely playing. In part because of that the preference is for Jenő Jandó on Naxos, who also gives the music a nice amount of room. Beethoven’s work is closely aligned to Haydn in his hands. Ronald Brautigam, meanwhile, adds all repeats in an account that lasts 17 minutes, bringing forward Beethoven’s potential for the longer form. His virtuosity and musicality really bring these pieces to life.
The playlist below is for all three Electoral Sonatas, and includes the recordings discussed above:
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 Michael Haydn Symphony in E-flat major .
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