Listening to Beethoven #7 – Piano Sonata in D major (‘Electoral’ no.3)

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
Duration 14’00


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!

Recordings used

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.

Spotify links

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 .

Next up An einen Säugling

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.

Routes to Beethoven – Clementi

by Ben Hogwood

“Clementi plays well, with regard to right-hand technique. His speciality is passages in thirds. Otherwise he hasn’t a trace of feeling, or taste, in a word, he is a mere mechanic.”

This withering assessment of the virtuoso 18th century pianist Muzio Clementi came from none other than Mozart, who had engaged in a keyboard competition with the Roman composer at the request of Haydn on Christmas Eve in 1781. Mozart was writing to his father Leopold, as Daniel Heartz reports the duo in his superb book Mozart, Haydn and early Beethoven. Perhaps not surprisingly Haydn, who organised the duel, was more independent in his views, describing a set of Clementi’s Piano Sonatas as ‘very beautiful’ a year or so later.

Clementi was a nimble-fingered virtuoso. Born in Italy but settling in London, he is not mentioned a great deal in books of the time. Heartz reports a number of lukewarm reactions to his symphonies in England, though again this is not surprising given he was being compared with the visiting Haydn.

It was then in the field of piano music where Clementi really made his mark, and not just as a musician but as a publisher too. Beethoven recognised his influence in both disciplines, recommending his music for the use of piano students. Jan Swafford writes of how Beethoven and Clementi finally cemented a friendship in 1807. “As a pioneering composer for the piano, he had been a formative influence on the young Beethoven, because Clementi was among the best available models for how to write idiomatically for the instrument. Now retired from performing, Clementi lived in England and prowled the continent looking for music to publish and customers for his pianos.” He made several visits to Vienna. After an initial misunderstanding in Vienna in 1804, the pair struck a publishing deal and a friendship on a subsequent visit three years later.

Charles Rosen, writing in The Classical Style, recognises his influence. “In his (Beethoven’s) youthful works, the imitation of his two great precursors is largely exterior: in technique and even in spirit, he is at the beginning of his career often closer to Hummel, Weber, and to the later works of Clementi than to Haydn and Mozart.”

Harold Truscott, writing in The Beethoven Companion about Beethoven’s piano music, goes further. “I think it is true that Beethoven absorbed so much of this music of Clementi and Dussek that many times themes crop up in his work which go right back to themes in their work and that it seems probable he was unconscious of any origin; they had become part of him. We should be careful to distinguish between such unconscious connections and real influence, although the mere fact that these themes penetrated so deeply into his musical make-up seems to show that they had a great impact upon him.”

He observes many characteristics in the make-up of Beethoven’s themes and their treatment that have their common points with equivalent Clementi works. Looking at the Op.2 sonatas in particular, Truscott says, “Throughout his career the essentials of Beethoven’s piano writing changed little from what is displayed in these three sonatas. It was the writing of a virtuoso, using the basic techniques of Clementi and Dussek, but gradually developing their potential in his own way to meet new expressive demands as they arose.”

We will encounter the Op.2 sonatas early on in the Beethoven listening project…but for now we can enjoy Clementi’s own writing, when at its best is full of dramatic contrast, taking minimal melodic material and growing it substantially. The Sonata in G minor is perhaps the best example of his craft, and showing these qualities with the reminder that its date of composition, 1795, is before all of Beethoven’s early published work. It is included in the Spotify playlist below.

About the F minor work, also included in the playlist, Anselm Gerhard writes in his booklet notes how “the whirl of the final movement proclaims the definitive end of music’s historical dependence on traditional dance forms: here purely instrumental music reveals its determination to stand on its own two feet. It was not long before this idea was put into practice by Beethoven”, he continues, “albeit using completely different, characteristically revolutionary means: by consistently dramatising his music, he set out to transfer the prestige of the age’s most celebrated literary genre to instrumental music, and in the highly charged atmosphere of works like the Op.26 and Tempest sonatas, the medium’s new artistic ambitions were plain for all to hear.”

There is humour in Clementi’s thought process too, nowhere more so than in the brilliant pastiche of the Preludes in the style of Haydn and Mozart. Beginning the playlist is the Piano Concerto in C major, and there are two symphonies that illustrate how the composer’s prowess was not as stilted as some might have claimed. They may of course have seen him as a rival.

Clementi’s standing proves him to be more than that – and his influence on Beethoven will become clear in due course.

Routes to Beethoven – Joseph Haydn

by Ben Hogwood

November, 1792. The 21-year old Beethoven was planning to leave his home town of Bonn for Vienna, and he left with a ringing endorsement from Count Waldstein, his most important patron. Mozart had died the previous year at the age of thirty-five, and Waldstein sensed the stage was clear. “Dear Beethoven!”, he wrote. “You are going to Vienna in fulfillment of a wish that has long been frustrated. Mozart’s genius is still in mourning and weeps for the death of its pupil. It found a refuge with the inexhaustible Haydn but no occupation; through him it wishes to form a union with another. With the help of unceasing diligence you will receive the spirit of Mozart from the hands of Haydn.”

This was of course rather fanciful. To suggest Haydn as a channel for Mozart’s inspiration did the older composer – now sixty and in the prime of his musical life – little recognition. Haydn was aware of Beethoven, the younger composer having sent him his ambitious choral Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II – and was willing to take him on. Thus Beethoven left Bonn in early November 1792 and travelled for ten days until arriving in Vienna.

All appeared to be going well for him there, but when Haydn sent a letter to Elector Maximilian dated just over a year later he included a clutch of works that Beethoven had already written in Bonn. Most were sadly lost – including an Oboe Concerto – but an Octet-Partita for wind ensemble has survived. The covering letter expressed the conviction that ‘On the basis of these pieces, expert and amateur alike must admit that Beethoven in time will attain the rank of one of the greatest musical artists in Europe, and I shall be proud to call myself his teacher. I only wish that he might remain with me for some time yet.’

The reply was curt, since Maximilian was receiving music he had already seen – and could not see any discernible progress to finance Beethoven further. As Lewis Lockwood points out in his Beethoven biography, Haydn’s priorities as a composer were stacked up. He had made a pioneering and highly successful visit to London in 1792, and a sequel was on the cards, for which he would need new string quartets and symphonies. Beethoven, too, given his ability and individuality, was not to be the perfect match. Lockwood talks of ‘the same stubborn personal resistance’…which ‘seems to have troubled his relationship to Haydn, though here it was mingled with reverence for authentic genius.’

With Haydn’s focus abroad, Beethoven looked elsewhere for his teaching and found counterpoint studies with Johann Schenk. Haydn returned to London and the brief relationship was at an end. Before he left Vienna, however, he was privy to Beethoven’s Op.1 – three trios for piano, violin and cello – and Op.2, a set of three piano sonatas dedicated to Haydn.

The trios contained a problem, in the explosive form of the third piece in C minor. Haydn advised withholding this from publication, calculating the impact on the Viennese audience might damage Beethoven’s reputation. It was, as Michael Steinberg in The Beethoven Quartet Companion points out, ‘a surprising attitude from a composer who was himself so bold. An observer went further, noting ‘a kind of apprehension, because he realised that he had struck out on a path for himself of which Haydn did not approve.

Jan Swafford holds the conviction that Beethoven took far more from Haydn than he himself declared at the time. ‘There is no record of what transpired in their lessons’, he writes. But it can be said that at least by his Op.2 Piano Sonatas, composed in 1794-5, Beethoven was showing the fruits of his studies in a startlingly mature way. After his months with Haydn, Beethoven emerged a far more sophisticated composer. To mention only one issue: Before Haydn, Beethoven had a shaky idea of proportion, might write an introduction to an aria that was a quarter of its length. After he finished the lessons with Haydn, he had one of the most refined senses of proportion of any composer – a sense of it, in other words, at the level of Haydn.’

Haydn’s influence on Beethoven can be gauged at this stage by listening to some of the works he was writing while teaching the younger composer. The three string quartets published as Op.74 are a case in point. The slow movement of no.3 in G minor finds the sort of spaciousness we became accustomed to from Beethoven in his equivalent slow movements. Meanwhile in the slow movement of no.1 in C major Haydn goes on all sorts of unusual tonal routes, seeming to travel far from home but only so he can show his dexterity as a composer, bringing the music ‘home’ with a single, deft switch. Beethoven was to acquire that quality too.

The Piano Sonatas offer some clues, too. The playful opening of the Sonata in C major has a wit Beethoven was only too keen to take forward. So too the grand gestures of the Sonata in E flat major, a key that was to assume great importance for Beethoven over the years. Haydn’s Masses were well known to Beethoven too, and the Nelson Mass – closely associated with Nelson’s victory over Napoleon – cast quite an influence on the younger composer’s Mass in C major.

The later symphonies acquire a dramatic instinct which must have appealed to Beethoven too. Like C.P.E. Bach, who we have already heard from, Haydn had a Sturm und Drang period that marked his music forever, and the last twelve symphonies, written for use in London, are even more vivid in their stories. The introduction to the relatively unsung Symphony no.98 in B flat major has a dark edge, and these works, now laden with timpani, have more emotive and dynamic contrasts, straining at the leash of the conventions of form and harmony. The final, London symphony – no.104 in D major – demonstrates best of all how far Haydn had taken the form. Its dramatic slow introduction reaching towards the 19th century and beyond, while the slightly rustic finale is brilliantly written.

There is much speculation on how Beethoven and Haydn’s relationship developed, if it did at all, beyond that of a prodigious pupil and a seasoned master of his craft in his early sixties. Certainly a healthy mutual respect existed, Haydn spotting the gifts Beethoven had in abundance, while Beethoven himself found his early works bearing clear influence of Haydn even more than Mozart. We will explore those in greater depth, as Beethoven takes on the forms of symphony, string quartet, piano trio and piano sonata and bears them into the 19th century.

You can listen to selections from Haydn’s enormous output, including the works discussed above, on the playlist below: