Ludwig van Beethoven

Piano Sonata No. 32

Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method

Duration: 25–30 Minutes
Genre: Sonata
Time of Creation: 1822
World Premiere: Unknown (First Publication 1822)

Table of Contents

Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 32 in 5 Sentences

The Piano Sonata No. 32 is Ludwig van Beethoven’s last piano sonata and is considered a milestone in piano literature. Together with Piano Sonatas No. 30 and 31, it forms the famous trilogy of Beethoven’s “three last piano sonatas,” which are often played as a group in concerts. Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 32 is distinguished by its unusual and complex formal structure: First, it consists of two movements, with the roughly ten-minute opening movement followed by a variation movement about twice as long. Second, the movements bear no traditional movement names and have few if any thematic connections.

Note: This work belongs to the Classical Music Top 100.

4 Highlights from Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 32

Highlight 1: Beginning of the first movement – dark and dramatic

The first movement begins with a somber introduction that sets the mood for the entire rest of the movement. As a listener, you get a taste of what is to come:

Highlight 2: Arietta theme in the second movement

Beethoven begins the second movement with a “little aria” – an arietta. Arias are actually vocal pieces; if you go to the opera regularly, you know this, of course. But even in instrumental music, pieces that seem very vocal can be called arias. There are famous examples by Bach and Handel.

The theme of Beethoven’s Arietta is intimate, emotional, and yet so simple. The designation “Arietta” is therefore quite appropriate, for one could really sing along:

Highlight 3: Variations of the Arietta Theme

Then, as far as form is concerned, things get really unusual: Beethoven varies the Arietta theme (Highlight 2) a total of five times. Each variation brings something new – sometimes the tempo contrasts, sometimes the dynamics, sometimes the rhythm – but always we learn new facets of the theme. Overall, it is striking that Beethoven condenses the musical events by “shortening” the rhythm more and more – in other words, “more” happens in the same amount of time. Accordingly, Beethoven has to choose unusual time signatures for this – for example, a 12/32 time signature in the third variation:

Highlight 4: End of the sonata – floating away

At the end, Beethoven once again pulls out all the stops, both as a composer and as a pianist. The finale is fast and virtuosic, but at the end, the music “floats away” into the distance:

3 Questions and Answers about Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 32

Question 1: Does Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 32 also play a role in other contexts?

The description of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 32 in Thomas Mann’s novel “Doktor Faustus” has become famous. Wendell Kretzschmar, Adrian Leverkühn’s music teacher, plays and explains the sonata – but stutters in the process. This examination of Beethoven’s composition by Thomas Mann is truly a masterpiece, for it is not only musically profound, but also funny.

Question 2: How has Beethoven's 32nd Piano Sonata been interpreted?

The unusual form and strange proportions have led to Beethoven’s 32nd Piano Sonata being interpreted in many different ways. Perhaps the interpretations can be summarized as follows: It is always about two parts of a larger whole, which is linked to the two movements of the sonata. For some people, the first movement is “the depth”, the second movement “the height”; others see in the first movement “the will”, in the second “the grace”; still others speak of “this world” and the “hereafter” (see also the quotation below).

Question 3: To whom did Beethoven dedicate his Piano Sonata No. 32?

At first, Beethoven did not want to dedicate his Piano Sonata No. 32 to anyone. On August 1, 1822, however, he gave Archduke Rudolph of Austria as the dedicatee, but almost half a year later, he changed his mind: the sonata was finally to be dedicated to Antonie Brentano, a central woman in Beethoven’s life, whom some musicologists consider to be the mysterious “Immortal Beloved”.

2 Recommended Recordings of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 32

Recording 1: Maria João Pires (live, 2015)

I find Maria João Pires‘ recording remarkable because Pires brings out certain sides of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 32 that are rarely emphasized. She plays full of tenderness, full of grace:

Recording 2: Daniil Trifonov (live, 2014)

Another live recording with the more classical („more-aggressive-sound“) approach is by Daniil Trifonov:

1 Quote about Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 32

In these two movements we find this world and the hereafter symbolized.

Edwin Fischer

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