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. It has remained one of his most celebrated compositions. Beethoven dedicated the work to his friend Prince Karl von Lichnowsky. 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.
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. However, Beethoven's sonata uses a unique motif line throughout, a major difference from Haydn or Mozart’s creation.
In its entirety, encompassing all three movements, the work takes approximately 19 minutes to perform.
The sonata consists of three movements:
- Grave (Slowly, with solemnity) – Allegro di molto e con brio (Quickly, with much vigour)
- Adagio cantabile (Slowly, in a singing style)
- 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 exposition, marked Allegro di molto con brio, is in 2
2 time (alla breve) in the home key of C minor and features three themes. Theme 1 features an aggressive rocket theme covering two octaves, accompanied with constant tremolo octaves in the left hand. Beethoven then makes use of unorthodox mode-mixture, as he presents the second theme in E-flat minor rather than its customary parallel major. This theme is more lyrical and makes use of grace notes and crossed hands. Theme 3 has modulated to the mediant, E-flat major, and features an Alberti-type figuration for the bass with tremolo. A codetta, with ideas from the opening allegro, closes the section. Some performers of the sonata include the introduction in the repeat of the exposition (Rudolf Serkin and András Schiff, for example), but most return to the beginning of the allegro section. This movement is one of the few compositions that contain hundred twenty-eighth notes.
The development section begins in the key of G minor. In this section, Beethoven extends Haydn's compositional practice by returning to the introductory section. After this reappearance of the Grave, the composer generates suspense with an extended dominant preparation.
The recapitulation brings back the themes of the exposition in different keys: themes 1 and 3 are played in the tonic key of C minor, then theme 2 is played in the unexpected key of F minor but then returns to the tonic key. The coda is very dramatic and includes a brief reminder of the Grave before ending with a swift cadence.
Grave introduction: first four bars
This movement exemplifies the expressive Adagio style of many slow movements in the classical period. The famous cantabile melody is played three times, always in A-flat major, separated by two modulating episodes; the movement is thus a simple rondo rather than the sonata form more common for movements of this seriousness. The first episode is set in F minor (relative minor of A-flat major), further modulating to E-flat major before returning to the main theme. The second episode begins in A-flat minor and modulates to E major. With the final return of the main theme, the accompaniment becomes richer and takes on the triplet rhythm of the second episode. There is a brief coda.
The famous Adagio cantabile: first eight bars
The main theme of this movement opens nearly identically to an episode in the slow movement of Mozart's Piano Sonata No. 14, K. 457.
The cantabile from this movement was used as the theme music for radio's most widely listened-to classical music program, Adventures in Good Music, which aired nationally in the United States and in many other countries from 1970 to 2007. The theme was performed by Karl Haas, the program's host. Billy Joel used the cantabile as the melody for the chorus of his 1984 song, "This Night" from the album An Innocent Man.
The sonata closes with a cut time movement in C minor. The main theme closely resembles the second theme of the Allegro of the first movement: its melodic pattern is identical for its first four notes, and its rhythmic pattern for the first eight. There is also a modified representation of the melody from the second movement, thus connecting all three movements together. The movement's sonata rondo form includes a coda. The three rondo episodes are in E-flat major, A-flat major, and C major. The common use of sforzando creates a forceful effect.
This theme was used by South Korean artist BanYa in his classical crossover Beethoven virus.
Reactions of Beethoven's contemporaries
The Pathétique was an important success for Beethoven, selling well and helping to create his reputation as a composer, not just an extraordinary pianist. Not only was it immediately popular, it also exposed the world to the characteristics that Beethoven's music would continue to develop in the coming years.
When the pianist and composer Ignaz Moscheles discovered the work in 1804, he was ten years old; unable to afford to buy the music, he copied it out from a library copy. His music teacher, on being told about his discovery, "warned me against playing or studying eccentric productions before I had developed a style based on more respectable models. Without paying heed to his instructions, however, I laid Beethoven's works on the piano, in the order of their appearance, and found in them such consolation and pleasure as no other composer ever vouchsafed me."
Anton Schindler, a musician who was a friend of Beethoven in the composer's later years, wrote: "What the Sonate Pathétique was in the hands of Beethoven (although he left something to be desired as regards clean playing) was something that one had to have heard, and heard again, in order to be quite certain that it was the same already well-known work. Above all, every single thing became, in his hands, a new creation, wherein his always legato playing, one of the particular characteristics of his execution, formed an important part."