Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, “Appassionata”: A Turbulent Drama

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor is filled with volatile mood shifts, turbulent drama, and revolutionary fire.

It was completed around 1805, during what is now known as the composer’s “heroic” middle period. Beethoven did not provide the familiar and apt nickname, Appassionata. It was added in 1838 when the German publisher, Cranz, created a piano duet version. The pianist Carl Czerny, a student of Beethoven, called this Sonata “the most perfect execution of a mighty and colossal plan.”

The first movement (Allegro assai) begins with quiet, icy suspense and foreboding. A single, ominous arpeggiating line, set in octaves, descends into the depths of the piano and then rises. Spirited dotted rhythms suggest the military music of the French Revolution. Sudden, bold leaps in range occur throughout the Sonata, something made possible by the extended five-and-a-half octave range Sébastien Érard piano, acquired by Beethoven in 1803. After establishing the home key of F minor, the music breaks off and then returns a half step higher. Amid wrenching Neapolitan chords, these searching opening bars give us the sense of being “lost” harmonically. In the bass, a new voice emerges with the familiar “short-short-short-long” rhythmic motif we hear throughout Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, composed around the same time. At the end of the development section, the motif returns in a ferocious dialogue. When the recapitulation arrives a moment later, it is shrouded in a quiet, ghostly terror, with the addition of the deep, rumbling bass.

The second movement (Andante con moto) is a set of variations on a serene, chorale-like theme in D-flat major. The theme is so sublimely simple that it feels more like a progression of chords than a melody. Yet, it provides fertile ground for increasingly adventurous development. Throughout the four variations, the voices become liberated from their initial well-behaved chorale, wandering off in exciting directions.

A sudden, jarring diminished seventh chord shatters the tranquillity, opening the door to a bridge to the final movement. Again, we hear the dotted rhythms of the French Revolution. The final movement (Allegro ma non troppo–Presto) is stormy and windswept. Quiet anxiety turns into the ghostly terror of the night amid piercing shrieks and low moans. Perpetual motion lines roll across the keyboard as dark, continuous sonic waves. The coda section turns into a wild peasant dance. The final bars bring the Sonata to a ferocious conclusion.

Here is a 2007 recording featuring Paul Lewis:

Recordings

  • Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 “Appassionata,” Paul Lewis Amazon

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

1 thought on “Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, “Appassionata”: A Turbulent Drama”

  1. Beethoven owed so much to Mozart especially when you listen to Mozart’s cminor fantasia and sonata as well as the aminor sonata. The influence and debt to the Austrian genius is obvious but also in works such as the piano concerto 20 and gminor string quintet + many other works. It is sometimes all too easy to forget the massive progress that was made before Beethoven, (whose admirers sometimes exaggerate his importance to the development of music), by Mozart but also Bach and Haydn.

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