Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Sonata No. 23 ("Appassionata")
Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method
Duration: Approx. 25 Minutes
Time of Creation: 1804–1806
World Premiere: Unknown (First Publication 1807)
Table of Contents
Beethoven's Appassionata in 5 Sentences
Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23 bears the epithet “Appassionata” (“The Passionate”) because it marks a high point of Beethoven’s subjective expressive will. The epithet, however, does not come from Beethoven himself, but from the Hamburg music publisher Cranz, who presumably wanted to boost sales. The Appassionata is one of Beethoven’s best-known and most popular piano sonatas, and it has always found recognition even among people from whom one might not expect it at first (see the quote below). As is so often the case with Beethoven, later interpreters and scholars have sought numerous connections to extra-musical works, which, however, cannot be proven beyond doubt – in the case of the Appassionata, this concerns above all cross-connections to Shakespeare (The Tempest, Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear). Famous in connection with the Appassionata was the pianist Glenn Gould (celebrated for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations), who considered it one of Beethoven’s worst works.
4 Highlights from Beethoven's Appassionata
Highlight 1: Extreme contrasts
Notice how many extreme contrasts Beethoven presents in a very short time at the beginning of his Appassionata. There is a downward then upward figure, a trill, a somber tapping motive, a descending cascade, and two final chords:
Highlight 2: "Retrospect" at the end of the first movement
At the end of the first movement, Beethoven takes “retrospectives,” which was not necessarily common at the time the Appassionata was written. We hear the themes of the first movement once again, then the tempo slows down…and slows down even more…but then Beethoven takes off for the great final climax before the first movement fades away:
Highlight 3: economy and balance
Two aspects are remarkable in the second movement: first, Beethoven is extremely economical with the material from which he builds the melody – he uses only four notes at the beginning. Second, two processes balance each other out, for while the rhythms become smaller and smaller (reminiscent, by the way, of Beethoven’s last piano sonata), the dynamics (volume) increase more and more:
Highlight 4: Storm
The third movement is a storm, a race, a gallop…Call it what you like. In any case, the epithet “Appassionata” and the connections to certain Shakespeare plays that some people see are no longer surprising after hearing this movement:
3 Questions and Answers about Beethoven's Appassionata
Question 1: Is Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 23 "Appassionata" difficult to play?
Yes. The Appassionata holds many technical challenges. However, pianists repeatedly describe as particularly challenging the fact that Beethoven thought very orchestrally, especially in the Appassionata. So you have to try to imitate the sound mass of a whole orchestra on the piano, which is quite difficult.
Question 2: To whom did Beethoven dedicate his Piano Sonata No. 23 "Appassionata"?
The work is dedicated to the Hungarian nobleman Franz Brunsvik, who was also a cellist and theater entrepreneur. In addition, Brunsvik was among the earliest patrons of violinist Joseph Joachim (who later premiered Brahms’ Violin Concerto, among other works).
Question 3: How many piano sonatas by Beethoven are there?
Beethoven completed 32 piano sonatas.
2 Recommended Recordings of Beethoven's Appassionata
Recording 1: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (live, 2016)
Pierre-Laurent Aimard is known for playing very “analytically”: In other words, it is important to him to convey the structure and peculiarities of the piece by making them audible through his playing. Not everyone likes that (I do). Coupled with Aimard’s great musicality, his interpretation of Beethoven’s Appassionata is one of the most successful I know:
Recording 2: Valentina Lisitsa (video production)
Compared to Aimard’s analytical approach, Valentina Lisitsa allows herself more freedom in her interpretation of Beethoven’s Appassionata. This results in a passionate, “fiery” style of playing that is probably more “accessible” to many: