Listening to Beethoven #170 – Piano Sonata no.15 in D major Op.28 ‘Pastoral’

Der Sommer (Landschaft mit Liebespaar) The summer (Landscape with lovers) by Caspar David Friedrich (1807)

Piano Sonata no.15 in D major Op.28 ‘Pastoral’ for piano (1801, Beethoven aged 30)

1. Allegro
2. Andante in D minor
3. Scherzo: Allegro vivace
4. Rondo: Allegro ma non troppo

Dedication Count Joseph von Sonnenfels
Duration 25′

Listen

written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

The fourth piano sonata from Beethoven in the year 1801 is every bit as remarkable as the other three. Having experimented with free forms in the two three-movement works labelled ‘quasi una fantasia’, Beethoven reverts to what initially seems a traditional four-movement format.

In spite of the quiet beginning to the Pastoral, however, commentators are quick to note its poetic qualities and the more radical aspects of its design. Angela Hewitt calls it ‘one of the most beautiful of all beginnings’, observing that the work gained its nickname through a publisher’s reference to the bagpipe-like drones from the start.

‘In the first movement, though it is outwardly so tranquil and friendly, Beethoven is still concerned with construction and conciseness’, writes Hewitt. The contemporary composer Carl Czerny described it as one of Beethoven’s own favourite pieces – and especially the second movement Andante, a solemn march-like movement.

András Schiff is also fulsome in his praise. ‘This is a work that pulsates, it’s full of inner voices, opens up huge spaces of sound, and yet does without any dramatic outbursts throughout’. He draws out several anticipations of Schubert in the third movement, particularly in the way ‘the trio wavers between major and minor’.

On the finale, he writes, ‘To me, the finale has traces of a barcarolle, even though it’s constructed as a genuine sonata-rondo’. Hewitt says how Beethoven ‘preferred a bravura ending…it’s as if he can’t contain his joy’. In conclusion she writes, ‘Beethoven’s love of nature is well documented, and it was his most comforting source of nourishment. In this Pastoral sonata he seems to express his thankfulness for all it gave him’.

Thoughts

If anyone asks you for a definition of serenity in music you could easily play them the first minute of Beethoven’s Pastoral sonata. This is a lovely passage of music, every bit as calm as the close of the Moonlight sonata was turbulent. Yet as the first movement progresses it is clear this is not light music, for as Angela Hewitt observes Beethoven brings in several motifs that contrast with the flowing main subject, helping us appreciate it all the more.

The second movement switches to the minor key and spends more time in the shadows as a result, a slow-ish dance with a steady, march-like tread that gradually reels the listener in. The third movement throws off the shackles and also shows off how Beethoven could make musical motifs out of almost nothing. It is simply a set of repeated F# notes in different octaves of the piano, but is made into a humourous phrase that carries a true scherzo.

The finale brings in reminders of the opening with its flowing discourse, almost like running water, with music of pure exuberance. Again the tune is deceptively simple, but it travels through some impressive and pretty complex development, which can be seen if the listener examines closely – but is not essential to enjoyment.

Small wonder that the Pastoral is one of Beethoven’s most popular piano works. It has an enduring happiness made all the more remarkable given the composer’s health issues at the time, but it shows – as all the sonatas of 1801 do – a renewed mastery of the piano and its power to express.

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)
Claudio Arrau (Philips)
Daniel Barenboim (Deutsche Grammophon)

Pianists clearly love this work, and among the very fine versions it was difficult to deviate from the versions by Gilels, Brendel, Schiff and Daniel Barenboim. Paul Badura-Skoda also radiates pure enjoyment in his version using a Viennese piano of the time.

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 1801 Cramer Piano Sonatas Op.25

Next up String Quintet in C major Op.29

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