Beethoven - Piano Sonata No.23 in F minor, ‘Appassionata’: Full Works Concert Highlight of the Week

Jane Jones has a glimpse into the heart of the contradictory composer.

beethoven's piano

When I skipped practice and decided that I wasn’t made for music, I reckoned without Beethoven. It’s years since my schooldays and now I find myself wishing I’d kept up my piano playing. I don’t beat myself up daily, of course, but when I hear piano works by Brahms, Chopin and Beethoven, I find myself repeating that familiar mantra, ‘If only…’ Amongst Beethoven’s revelatory works composed for his instrument, it’s the Piano Sonata No.23 – the 'Appassionata', which I believe captures the spirit of the man.

Let’s get the name out of the way first. Beethoven composed his F minor Piano Sonata in 1804, and it was published in Vienna three years later, but it wasn’t named the 'Appassionata' for another 30 years when a publisher needed to shift copies of a four-hand transcription of Beethoven’s explosive and dynamic sonata. When these ‘add on’ names properly fit the music, they have a habit of being universally adopted, which is exactly what’s happened to the less snappily titled Piano Sonata No.23 in F minor, op.57.

So what is it about this particular one of the 32 sonatas which seems to give us an insight into the passion at the very heart of the great composer? It’s easy to look at this period of his life immediately after the onset of his deafness and find examples of anger and despair, but nothing equates with - or prepares us for - the Sonata No.23, which Beethoven himself considered the greatest of all his sonatas. The man with the inside track on his teacher at this time was his virtuoso pupil, Carl Czerny, who wrote ‘There is no doubt that in many of his most beautiful works Beethoven was inspired by similar visions or pictures from his reading or from his own lively imagination. It is equally certain that if it were always possible to know the idea behind the composition, we would have the key to the music and its performance.'

Czerny also has a convenient visual for those struggling with the crashing chords, unexpected pauses and shockingly violent outbursts. 'If Beethoven, who was so fond of portraying scenes from nature, was perhaps thinking of ocean waves on a stormy night when from the distance a cry for help is heard, then such a picture will give the pianist a guide to the correct playing of this great tonal painting,' wrote Czerny, seeming to offer some palatable alternative to what I have always thought was a far more painful truth.

This is a piano work of tremendous contrasts, like its composer. Sometimes charming and often passionately in love, Beethoven was equally well known for his outbursts of temper and the arrogant, even cruel, way he would treat people. It’s said he laughed like a man unaccustomed to humour. This character of contradictions, facing the worst possible diagnosis for a musician, is never going to be easy to understand, but listening to the 'Appassionata', it’s possible to reconcile the expressive silences with the furious urgency of the finale, without necessarily knowing which is the ‘cry for help’ described by Czerny. But Beethoven does reveal himself in the piano pieces he wrote with the sole purpose of performing them himself. It means that centuries later, through these intensely personal works, and the 'Appassionata' in particular, we get a glimpse of that troubled heart.