Listening to Beethoven #136 – Piano Sonata no.8 in C minor Op.13 ‘Pathétique’

Northern Sea in the Moonlight by Caspar David Friedrich (1823-24)

Piano Sonata no.8 in C major Op.13 ‘Pathétique’ for piano (1798, Beethoven aged 27)

1 Grave – Allegro di molto e con brio
2 Adagio cantabile
3 Rondo: Allegro

Dedication Prince Karl von Lichnowsky
Duration 20′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

With the Pathétique sonata we arrive at the first true Beethoven heavyweight. The origin of the title – seemingly Beethoven’s own – is unclear. ‘What exactly did he mean by Pathétique?’, speculates Angela Hewitt. ‘The word comes from the Greek ‘pathos’, meaning suffering, experience, emotion. But as William Behrend says in his book on the Beethoven sonatas first published in 1923, ‘it should be understood in an aesthetic sense, as the expression of exalted passion’.

In Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, Jan Swafford is left in no doubt about the importance of the work. ‘As a revelation of individual character and emotion, it was a kind of democratic revolution in music. And as such, the kind of expression exemplified in the Pathétique became a founding element of the Romantic voice in music.’

The Pathétique returns to C minor, scene of previous fiery triumphs such as the Piano Trio Op.1/3. Here, Beethoven writes a solemn introduction (marked as Grave), which leads to a stormy Allegro. For Daniel Heartz, ‘With its many melodic sighs and ‘speaking’ rhetoric, the Grave takes on the character of an operatic scena presaging the anguished aria to follow’.

The second movement is one of Beethoven’s most treasured slow movements, ‘simple yet profoundly moving’, and it is followed by, as Hewitt says, a ‘wistful, somewhat haunting’ finale.

Lewis Lockwood writes of how ‘the unleashed power of its first movement amazed contemporaries, even those who were becoming aware of Beethoven’s C-minor mood. The strong rhetoric of the Grave introduction dramatically prepared the way for the intense Allegro first movement, which whipped up a storm of excitement not previously heard in his – or anyone else’s – piano sonatas’.

Jan Swafford goes further. ‘From its glowering opening chords, the Pathétique paints pathos like no work before: naked and personal. Here Beethoven found a kind of music that seems not like a depiction of sorrow but sorrow itself. It is the voice that is new in this sonata, the emotional immediacy. The Pathétique did not initiate so much as confirm that Beethoven was bringing to music a new immediacy and subjectivity’. For him, ‘the Pathétique… would endure as the first fully formed avatar of the tension and dynamism Beethoven found in C minor’.

Thoughts

This work is a true landmark in Beethoven’s writing so far. While we have shared his pain in the C minor works – the Cantata on the Death of Joseph II and the Piano Trio Op.1/3 especially – nothing has approached the depth of emotion found here. The Grave is stripped to the bone, pouring its heart out in the spirit of a tragic introduction to a Baroque opera. The Allegro that follows is a whirlwind, and again the piano sounds skeletal in its execution.

The slow movement offers a calm repose, and it is Beethoven’s deepest to date, profound in the extreme and beautifully shaded. No wonder it appears on so many ‘classical contemplation’ playlists and compilations, for time really does seem to stop here. Spotify figures show just how popular it really is.

Beethoven’s return to C minor for the third movement deepens the frown again, though there is a little more light and shade now. Still, the structure is tight, the mood resolute and often stern, and the tension does not let up even through to the last chord. The Pathétique is a deeply serious work from beginning to end, giving us some of Beethoven’s most intensely beautiful music to date.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Emil Gilels (Deutsche Grammophon)
Alfred Brendel (Philips)
András Schiff (ECM)
Angela Hewitt (Hyperion)
Paul Badura-Skoda (Arcana)
Stephen Kovacevich (EMI)
Igor Levit (Sony Classical)

While revelling in the drama, Angela Hewitt highlights a problem for pianists that Beethoven ‘never indicated that the repeat of the exposition should return only to the Allegro section…perhaps he meant us to return to the very beginning and play the Grave once more?’ This is what she chooses to do in her own deeply felt recording.

Emil Gilels reaches profound depths in his reading, especially the majestic first movement, which moves from intense soul-searching to ivory-rattling drama. András Schiff is a compelling guide to the Pathétique, the sharper tone of his piano heightening the drama – as it does with the fortepiano of Paul Badura-Skoda.

You can hear clips of Hewitt’s recording at the Hyperion website

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 1798 Haydn Die Schöpfung (The Creation)

Next up March for Wind Sextet in B-flat major(‘Grenadiermarsch’)

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