Ludwig van Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas rank alongside his symphonies and string quartets as his most extraordinary achievements. Not only did he compose some of the most beloved piano music ever written—the “Moonlight,” the “Appassionata,” the “Pathétique” sonatas, to name just a few—but he greatly expanded the scale and scope of the genre, creating works of beauty and intensity that have arguably never been surpassed.
In this introduction to Beethoven’s piano sonatas, trace the progression from the early Classical to the revolutionary late sonatas with texts and musical examples. Also listen to some of today’s greatest pianists discuss Beethoven’s sonatas.
The early sonatas show Beethoven absorbing and expanding the tradition of his Classical predecessors, particularly Mozart and Haydn.
In the middle sonatas, Beethoven starts to break with the past, creating works with a greater harmonic and expressive freedom. They also display Beethoven’s remarkable gift for countless transformations of small musical ideas.
The late sonatas redefine the classical concept of a sonata. As Beethoven experimented with different numbers and types of movements, he forged an unprecedented compositional style that incorporated everything from strict counterpoint to proto-romantic harmonies.