Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata
Tragically Beautiful

Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata is one of the composer's most beautiful and haunting pieces...

He wrote the tragic piano piece early in his life, and it's continued to capture listeners' hearts for over 200 years.

It was the piece that first got me hooked on Beethoven's music, and inspired me to start learning piano.

Pathetique's History

Beethoven's piano. Imagine the pathetique sonata played on that!

Beethoven wrote the Pathetique sonata in 1798, when he was 27 years old. It was his 8th piano sonata (he certainly churned them out!).

He published it properly the next year as his Opus 13, with a dedication to his buddy the Austrian Prince Karl von Lichnowsky.

The composer wrote the sonata at a rather interesting time in musical history...

Back in 1798, it was still the glory days of the 'Classical era'. Composers at the time were spinning out highly technical, exquisitely formal musical trinkets in the styles perfected by the likes of Mozart (click for biography) and Haydn.

But Beethoven was already showing a gleam of his future rule-smashing self. The Pathetique follows all the composing rules of the day, but has an extra dimension of expression and emotion which strikes the heart. Beethoven the 'master of passion' is starting to emerge!

It was this melancholy character that inspired the piece's nickname. Pathetique wasn't actually Beethoven's idea - his publisher invented it, coming up with the extravagant title Grande Sonate Pathetique. The name stuck.

Click to explore another of Beethoven's super-famous piano pieces, the airy Fur Elise

The Pathetique's Music

The sonata is in three movements...

  1. Grave: Allegro di molto e con brio (serious, very quick with energy). Starting heavily, this dark movement soon turns fast-paced with a memorable melody.

    We return several times to the dramatically suspenseful opening crashes, before finishing in a ferocious blaze.

    The movement is in Beethoven's favorite key of C minor, which he wrote most of his gloomy and powerful music in.

  2. Adagio cantabile (slow and singing). My favorite movement, this calm section features what I think is one of Beethoven's most beautiful melodies. The warm, sweet, reflective tune seems to waft straight from the composer's heart. Words can't really describe it, so take a listen yourself!

    This melody is played three times, each time with a more complex accompaniment. There are also little contrasting sections which give away the fact the the sonata was written in the 18th century. If they weren't there, the movement easily sounds like it could have come 100 years later!

  3. Rondo: Allegro (quick). This fast, jolly little movement has a completely different character to the previous two. It has a sort of devilish comedy to it. The main melody is extremely similar to the fast melody of the first movement.

    What's going on there, Beethoven?! We also hear a little snippet of the singing melody from movement number 2, so in a way this movement brings everything from the sonata together.

Great Recordings

Three recordings I recommend of the Pathetique sonata...

Alfred Brendel takes the piece slightly more slowly than usual, but with a huge amount of passion and depth. He somehow manages to inject the music with superhuman intensity. Brendel recorded several versions of the Pathetique, but my favorite of all is his first one on Vox.

Artur Schnabel has a more relaxed interpretation than Brendel, with a highly personal and introspective approach. It's intellectual but easily accessible as well.

The recording is from the 30s (on the Classical Masters label) and has somewhat bad sound quality, but the spirit of the performance shines through that.

And finally, the Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau, who recorded Beethoven's full cycle of sonatas in the 90s. His interpretation of the Pathetique sonata is full of richness and granduer, and an interestingly polished violent sound in the faster movements. Great stuff!

Recommended Recording

You might be interested in these other pieces composed by Beethoven:

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