Movement 1: Grave – Allegro di molto e con brio
Movement 2: Adagio cantabile
Movement 3: Rondo: Allegro
The notion of bringing back the Grave’s material at its original slow tempo at crucial points during the course of the Allegro was something new to Beethoven’s style, and it heralds the similarly integrated use of a slow introduction in the ‘Les Adieux’ Sonata Op 81a, and in some of the late string quartets. But the ‘Pathétique’ unifies its contrasting strands to an unusual degree, and the start of the movement’s central development section presents the introduction’s initial phrase transformed into the rhythm and tempo of the Allegro.
The Allegro begins with a staccato theme that spirals upwards, above the sound of a drum roll deep in the bass. In order to maintain the tension during his contrasting second theme, Beethoven has it given out not in the major, as would have been the norm, but in the minor; and the eventual turn to the major coincides with the arrival of a restless ‘rocking’ figuration, which far from alleviating the music’s turbulent atmosphere, serves only to heighten it. With the development section, and its abbreviated reprise of the slow introduction, Beethoven returns to the minor and does not depart from it again. The music’s continual agitation is halted only by the final appearance of the introduction, now shorn of its assertive initial chord, and sounding like an exhausted echo of its former self.
The slow movement forms a serene interlude in the key of A flat major. The sonority of its opening bars, with their broad melody unfolding over a gently rocking inner voice, is one that was much admired by later composers, and the slow movement of Schubert’s late C minor Sonata D958, whose reprise has a similar keyboard texture, provides one instance of a piece that was surely modelled on Beethoven’s example. Schubert also follows Beethoven in absorbing the rhythm of the middle section’s inner voice into the accompaniment when the main theme returns.
The slow movement’s key exerts an influence on the rondo finale, whose extended central episode, almost like a miniature set of variations in itself, is in A flat. Sketches for the finale appear among Beethoven’s ideas for his string trios Op 9, and since those preliminary drafts are clearly conceived with the violin in mind, it is possible that the sonata’s rondo theme was originally destined for the last of the trios, also in C minor. As so often with Beethoven, these initial thoughts show him trying to hit on a suitably dramatic way of bringing the piece to a close. That close is effected both in the sketches and in the sonata itself by means of a gentle fragment of the rondo theme, followed by a peremptory final cadence.
from notes by Misha Donat © 2010