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Grande Sonata Pathetique Analysis Essay

Ludwig van Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13, commonly known as Sonata Pathétique, was written in 1798 when the composer was 27 years old, and was published in 1799. Beethoven dedicated the work to his friend Prince Karl von Lichnowsky.[1] Although commonly thought to be one of the few works to be named by the composer himself, it was actually named Grande sonate pathétique (to Beethoven's liking) by the publisher, who was impressed by the sonata's tragic sonorities.[2] Prominent musicologists debate whether or not the Pathétique may have been inspired by Mozart's piano sonata K. 457, since both compositions are in C minor and have three very similar movements. The second movement, "Adagio cantabile", especially, makes use of a theme remarkably similar to that of the spacious second movement of Mozart's sonata.[3] However, Beethoven's sonata uses a unique motif line throughout, a major difference from Haydn or Mozart’s creation.[1]


In its entirety, encompassing all three movements, the work takes approximately 19 minutes to perform.

The sonata has three movements:

  1. Grave (Slowly, with solemnity) – Allegro di molto e con brio (Quickly, with much vigour)
  2. Adagiocantabile (Slowly, in a singing style)
  3. Rondo: Allegro (Quickly)

Grave – Allegro di molto e con brio

The first movement is in sonata form. It begins with a slow introductory theme, marked Grave. The allegro section is in 2/2 time (alla breve) in the home key of C minor, modulating, like most minor-key sonatas of this period, to the mediant, E-flat. However, Beethoven makes use of unorthodox mode-mixture, as he presents the second subject in E-flat minor rather than its customary parallel major. Beethoven extends Haydn's compositional practice by returning to the introductory section twice—at the beginning of the development section as well as in the coda. Some performers of the sonata include the introduction in the exposition repeat, others return to the beginning of the allegro section.

Beethoven wrote his Eighth Piano Sonata (Pathetique) in 1797 and it was published in 1799.  The piece was written during what is considered his “early” period. The Pathetique sonata is technically considered to be in the “classical” era of music history  but it has many romantic elements.  Beethoven is well known for making the first steps towards romanticism because of his adventures in harmony, structural complexity and rhythm.

When it comes to what or whom influenced the writing of The Pathetique, Haydn has to be mentioned, as he was Beethoven’s composition teacher.  There are elements of Haydn’s “Drumroll” symphony in the sonata.  Additionally, Beethoven had great respect for Mozart.  It is believed that Beethoven was inspired by Mozart’s K. 475 piano sonata.  Also providing inspiration was Jan Ladislav Dussek, who’s sonata is also quite similar in opening to Beethoven’s.

Beethoven’s 8th piano sonata fits the classical form of the sonata with a few twists thrown in, mainly the introduction material and its reoccurrences before the development and coda.  A classical sonata has two main themes that make up the exposition, a development where the main material is placed in different settings and then a recap of the main themes.

The introduction material is the entire grave section, going from measures one through ten [above].

The first theme begins in measure 11 and goes through a perfect authentic cadence in measure 19 moving on to a half cadence in measure 27.  This happens again exactly repeated in measure 35 [left].  Beethoven uses these half cadences to move into some transitional material and begins to modulate to Eb major.  This is the key of the first statement of the second theme.

Beethoven uses the vii diminished of a flat VII to begin this modulation.  It is a common chord modulation, where the VII chord (Bb Major) becomes the dominant in Eb major.  The large dominant of Eb major occurs in measure 51.

In the second theme there is an imperfect authentic cadence in measures 59 and 76 and then a perfect authentic cadence in measure 88.  After the second theme has been stated for the first time, there is an expanse of transitional material to close off the exposition.  The closing section runs from measure 89 to 132.

The imperfect authentic cadence in measure 76.

The perfect authentic cadence in measure 88.

At the end of the closing section in the two different endings, there is first a large dominant to lead back to the first theme in C, and then a large secondary dominant of V to lead into the next grave section, which is a restatement of the introduction material.

The development of the piece begins at measure 137, here Beethoven combines the textural elements from the introductory section, the first theme and the second.  I am always amazed by how concise his music is.

Image dump and rest of the analysis below the fold:

Development material that resembles theme 1 material.

Theme 1 material. Note the staccato, ascending quarter notes.

Development material that resembles grave section melodic fragments.

Grave material. Note the contour, and the octaves. The theme is expanded in note value (not temporally though!) in the development.

Development material that resembles the left hand during theme 2.

Theme 2 material.

Development material that resembles the left hand from theme 1.

Theme 1 material.

The development ends at measure 167 where it moves into an incomplete authentic cadence and continues on to the retransition where there is a long extended dominant before the recap. The recap begins in measure 195 landing squarely in the key that the piece began in. Theme one is reintroduced where it continues to a perfect authentic cadence in measure 203 and then onto some transitional material.

The perfect authentic cadence in measure 203.

Theme two gets brought back in measure 221 but this time in the key of F major rather than Eb major. It spends half of the “theme two” temporal space in the alternate key and then moves back to c minor by measure 237, with a prolonged dominant of C starting in measure 233.  This is likely to represent a structural predominant.  If you do a schenkerian reduction of this movement, the big predominant would likely occur here.

After the restatement of both themes there is short closing section again, which theme 2 moves into through a perfect authentic cadence. At the end of the closing section there is a large vii diminished of the dominant before finally returning to the grave material.  After the grave restatement, a quick coda finishes the piece with material from theme one. 

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