Listening to Beethoven #5 – Piano Sonata in E flat major (‘Electoral’ no.1)

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
Duration 11’10

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 used

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.

Spotify links

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’

Listening to Beethoven #1 – 9 Variations on a March by Dressler

Ernst Dressler (left) and the young Ludwig van Beethoven

9 Variations on a March by Dressler WoO 63 for piano (1782, Beethoven aged 12)

Dedication not known
Duration 7′ (13’30 with repeats included)


What’s the theme like?

Dressler’s theme is serious in tone, and foursquare. The march is a slow one but it gives plenty of room for the young composer to work with his source material.

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s first published work was released into the public domain when the composer was barely 12 years old. Its release was accompanied with a glowing reference from his teacher at the time, Christian Neefe. Jan Swafford takes up the story in his recent Beethoven biographer. ‘He plays the clavier very skillfully and with power, reads at sight very well, and…plays chiefly The Well Tempered Clavier of Sebastian Bach…He (Beethoven) has had nine variations for the pianoforte engraved in Mannheim. This youthful genius…would surely become a second Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were he to continue as he has begun.’

The variation form was a good way of exercising students; seeing how inventive they could be when given a theme as a starting point. Talking with Arcana about the Dressler variations, pianist Cyprien Katsaris notes how “this piece is variations by a kid, and it could be considered in the beginning a little bit boring. His teacher probably told him to keep the same tempo, but I think there is a probability that if Beethoven played that piece as an adult he would play it in a different way to when he was under the guidance of that teacher. What a pity we didn’t have recordings earlier!”

Barry Cooper‘s booklet note for DG’s New Complete Edition of Beethoven notes how variations of the time were usually in a major key, and the adoption of C minor ‘feels like something of a statement’. It is a key we will traverse many more times as Beethoven’s portfolio unfolds. Swafford interprets the choice of C minor and its serious material ‘might form a memorial for the boy’s recently passed, still-lamented teacher and friend Franz Georg Rovantini‘, and that the final variation is a ‘triumph over sorrow’.


The young Beethoven takes the relatively basic Dressler theme and works nine variations from it, beginning in serious mood but gradually loosening his approach to explore different techniques.

For eight of the nine variations we keep the darker colour of the minor key, staying true to the mood of the theme but gradually adding more to it, with a few grace notes (variation 1), relatively polite sequential figures (2), then extra arpeggios in the middle parts (3), and chromatic inflections in the right hand (4). The fifth variation is more playful.

The sense of a composer running with greater freedom is clear, as the fifth variation is really let off the leash, the right hand roaming as it wishes. Variation six exchanges trills and more playful melodies between the two hands, while the seventh is in lilting triple time. The eighth feels like music we have heard already, with flowing arpeggios. Until now all variations have remained in the minor key, but this heightens the moment Beethoven switches to the major for the last variation, a terrific flurry of notes for the right hand which show off his technical prowess. Not many 12-year-olds could play music like this!

Recordings used

Cécile Ousset (Eloquence), Mikhail Pletnev (DG); Cyprien Katsaris (Piano 21)

Cécile Ousset includes all of Beethoven’s repeat markings, so each half of each variation is repeated, the piece extended to 13 minutes. Hers is a gracious account, brilliantly executed at the end.
Pletnev is very straight-faced initially, and plays around with the tempo a good deal, but goes for broke at the end to make the final variation sound like a piece of C.P.E. Bach.
Katsaris, including revised material by Beethoven, is in a room with a good deal of reverberation, heightening the serious theme and quite deliberate initially – but with terrific excitement generated in the fifth and final variations.

Spotify links

Mikhail Pletnev

Cécile Ousset

Cyprien Katsaris


Also written in 1782 Haydn Symphony no.73 in D major ‘La Chasse’

Next up Schilderung eines Mädchens

You can read Cyprien Katsaris’ full interview about Beethoven with Arcana soon.

2020 Beethoven: The Story So Far

As you may well know, Arcana is undertaking a Beethoven listening project this year, in celebration of the 250th year since his birth.

We are approaching Beethoven by way of composers and teachers that had an influence on his output – J.S. Bach, son C.P.E., Handel and teachers Albrechtsberger and Salieri. We have also had a quick look at the Mannheim school of composers who helped the forms of the symphony and sonata to spread their wings.

We will shortly hear from Haydn and Mozart, then a quick look at Clementi – who Beethoven held in very high regard – before a guide to the music of 1770, the year of Beethoven’s birth. Then – finally – we will start on the music of Beethoven himself.

Arcana have several exciting interviews in the bag to help us with our discovery of Beethoven. Pianist Angela Hewitt has given some pearls of wisdom on the Piano Sonatas, while this morning Cyprien Katsaris held court as he talked of his upcoming Beethoven Odyssey. Many discoveries were made! We will also hear from cellist Steven Isserlis, who has offered his thoughts on the Cello Sonatas.

It has been a relatively slow start – but expect the tempo to rise considerably over the coming months! Meanwhile here are clips from one of Hewitt’s discs for Hyperion on the Piano Sonatas, including the wonderful opening pages of the Pastoral: