Walk at Dusk (Man Contemplating a Megalith), possibly a self-portrait by Caspar David Friedrich (1837-40)
Piano Sonata no.17 in D minor Op.31/2 ‘The Tempest’ for piano (1802, Beethoven aged 31)
1. Largo – Allegro
written by Ben Hogwood
Background and Critical Reception
As we have previously considered, the Op.31 sonatas were composed in the year of Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament, written on 6 October 1802. In this landmark letter to his brothers, which was left unsent, he revealed the full torment of his encroaching deafness – and while nobody would guess Beethoven’s fate from the first or last in the Op.31 set of his troubles, they could be left in no doubt by the second.
Its nickname of The Tempest could well be spurious, for it was applied after Anton Schindler recounted a conversation asking the composer what the piece was about, whereupon Beethoven supposedly said, ‘Read Shakespeare’s Tempest!’
Angela Hewitt, in the booklet notes accompanying her Hyperion recordings of the sonatas, gives a heartfelt appraisal of the sonata, noting its quote in the first movement of the aria Es ist vollbracht from J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion, and also the similarity of the last few bars to the rumbling of distant thunder, a quality identified by Beethoven’s friend Carl Czerny.
Hewitt takes in ‘one of Beethoven’s most glorious slow movements’, with a dolce melody that proves ‘heartbreaking in its eloquent simplicity’. In the third movement, ‘the tragic feeling continues right to the end, with the music disappearing into the void.’
This sonata is both dramatic and tragic – the opposite of its predecessor in G major. From the beginning it has a heavy heart, and a tendency to lean on dissonances in a way that somehow anticipates the music of Janáček, still some 120 years away.
The first movement paints a dark picture, with a lot of the action lower down in the piano. Ominous rumblings and angular lines are the order of the day, and as the development of these ideas progresses the music almost stops, enfolded in its own mystery. Suddenly a bolt of lightning thunders down, the listener jolted back to an awful reality.
After the fire and brimstone of the first movement, the second is calmer but not necessarily consoling. The intensity is still present in Beethoven’s thoughts, now presented in a measured way. Again the composer’s use of silence is telling, as is the time given to the lower end of the piano once again.
The finale shifts up towards the higher register but stays resolutely in D minor. It retains the powerful expression of the first two movements, but stays in semiquavers the whole way through, meaning the tension never lets up. Just on the approach to the recap of the main theme the music adopts a rocking motion, before subsiding to a quiet, thoughtful end. There is no major key happiness to be had here.
This must surely be the lowest piano sonata to have been written by 1802, and would have had an enormous impact on early audiences. In the knowledge of Beethoven’s realisation of his deafness it is convenient to link the Tempest sonata to the anguish he must have felt, but it really does feel like a pure expression of pain and loss. The piano sonata as Beethoven would have known it was breaking new grounds.
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)
Emil Gilels is the ideal guide for this tragic piece, and his interpretation has a great deal of gravitas. The crunch of the lower register chords comes through on Paul Badura-Skoda’s fortepiano account, while Sir András Schiff conveys plenty of drama too. Angela Hewitt’s heartfelt account is also warmly recommended.
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 1802 Haydn Harmoniemesse
Next up Piano Sonata no.18 in E flat major Op.31/3