Thematic Compression & Introspection – Beethoven – Piano Sonata 15 in D, Op. 28 (1801)

The notable features of the opening movement of this sonata are the much-favoured same-note ostinato (here perhaps presaging the violin concerto, Op. 61, in the same key), the progressive reduction of the length of the theme (10+10+8+8+4+4 bars), and the foreshortening to as little as one bar in the development.

I am particularly intrigued by the deliberate imbalance in the structure of the theme, which first moves on the first beat of the bar 3 then the on the third beat in eighth notes in bar 4, then again on the third beat but slowed to a quarter note in bars 5 and 6, and then, unexpectedly to the ear, which is anticipating a continuation of a quicker motion of sound, on the first beat but in dotted half notes in bars 7 and 8, to resolve by way of two eighth notes on the last beat of bar 9. At which point two bars of the ostinato return us to the theme, but now placed an octave higher.

Beethoven Op. 28

Beethoven Op. 28

In this sonata there is a remarkable working of this 10 bars’ theme that is deliberately imbalanced in its structure, so as not only to deceive the expectations of the ear, but also, by means of reductions of the length of the theme, showing that manifestations of the essential idea can be organized in many different yet recognizable ways. What is additionally interesting is that such an artistic approach is entirely viable in other of the fine arts.

The second movement, andante, with a staccato base except, tellingly, legato when the theme is re-introduced or varied. Schiff terms the movement melancholy, but it seems to me more like an apprehension of uncertainty.

The scherzo is once again brief and based on motifs of very short duration adumbrated by quickly shifting harmonies.

The final movement is often said to be reminiscent of a bagpipes, but it could as easily be a berceuse, even a barcarolle. It has a kind of restrained tranquility (allegro, ma non troppo, the first time Beethoven uses the qualification in his published works), and, in the development, passages of dense, introspective counterpoint that are harbingers of the later sonatas. And then a conclusion, più allegro, a feature that also presages the types of rapid conclusions favoured in future works (e.g., the Egmont overture, Op. 84, and the string quartets, Opp. 74 and 95).

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