Ludwig van Beethoven wrote his Sonata No. 21, op. 53 in 1804, dedicating it to Count Waldstein of Vienna. It fits in his middle period of composition, along with his third symphony (Eroica), as well as the piano sonatas no. 23 (“Apassionata”) and 26 (“Les Adeiux”). Written shortly after his Heiligenstadt Testament, this work fits in his transitional phase, expanding the old classical forms into early Romantic idioms.
There are three movements:
- Allegro con brio
- Introduzione: Adagio molto
- Rondo: Allegretto moderato – Prestissimo
This work expands classical sonata form in several ways. In the first movement, one of those ways is the key scheme, which features a choral-style secondary theme in the key of the mediant E major. This is quite unconventional, as is the basic idea of the primary theme being first stated in C major before being restated in Bb major, a whole-step below. The development section features a statement of the basic idea in Db major – one half step above the tonic C. The secondary theme in the recapitulation begins in the submediant A major, modulating back to C eventually. Technical challenges in the first movement include groups of measures with straight sixteenth-notes in both hands, fast and repetitive left hand accompanimental figures, and voicing melodic lines over busy right-hand passages. The considerable length – along with some unconventional harmonic progressions – also makes the work difficult intellectually, and daunting to memorize.
Beethoven had initially intended the Andante Favori, WoO 57 to be the second movement of the Waldstein sonata. To shorten the length of the entire sonata, Beethoven opted to write another shorter movement for this sonata, and the Andante Favori was eventually published as its own work. The Introduzione: Adagio molto is far less substantial, and is surprisingly in F major instead of the expected C major. The progression of the basic idea is very shocking, with a false resolution on E major (the 7th degree of F major!) a reinforcement of the E major with a B major chord in first inversion (notably the dominant of E). The movement ends on a half cadence and flows directly into the third movement with a marking Attacca subito il Rondo.
The third movement is perhaps as technically challenging as the first movement, with the left hand keeping very busy with running arpeggios and scalar passages. The melody of the primary theme is played with the left hand crossed over the right hand. The restatement of the primary theme features the melody being played with the top of the right hand while the thumb and index finger trill for several bars in a row. The B section of the exposition features staggered rhythms in the hands, as well as both hands getting long stretches of triplet-sixteenths. There is an unconventional sequence of major-seventh arpeggiations just after the B section. During the recapitulation, both hands have triplet-sixteenth chordal arpeggiations for multiple pages, climaxing in several resounded diminished-seventh chords which lead to the prestissimo section. The prestissimo section also delegates to the right hand the simultaneous duty of trilling and playing the melody. A notorious moment in this piece is also the rapid octave runs in both hands. This section is unplayable for most, especially on modern pianos with a heavy action. Pianists with large hands compensate with glissandos, others just play the run in one voice.
Editions and recordings:
Some editions of Beethoven’s sonatas include:
- Breitkopf & Härtel
- Henle Verlag
- Peters (edited by Claudio Arrau)
Beethoven is among the most performed and recorded of composers. Some notable performers with recordings of the Waldstein sonata include:
- Claudio Arrau
- Daniel Barenboim
- Alfred Brendel
- Martha Argerich
- Valentina Lisitsa
Captain Thaddius’ Hot Take:
This is one of the most beloved piano works (let alone sonatas) in all of keyboard literature. It is a mammoth work, and for aspiring pianists, a dragon to be slain. It is very difficult technically, with requirements of fast runs, left handed voicing, fast rhythmic values in both hands for extended periods, and independence not just between the hands, but between the fingers of the hands! The right hand trill AND melody of the third movement is very difficult and requires great patience and thoughtful persistence.
A dense work, this is probably not the first piece you would show your friend who is interested in classical music but doesn’t know anything. The attention span of the listener needs to last throughout the piece for full appreciation. There is a lot to take in.
The Captain has experience with this piece. As an young undergraduate sailor, he fell in love with the Waldstein, and mentioned to his most beloved music theory professor that he had aspirations to learn the work. This seasoned sailor suggested that the Captain might not be ready, and that pursuing the Waldstein at his current level would be akin to “learning to swim by being dropped in the middle of the atlantic ocean.” “Imagine how good of a swimmer I will be if I survive” responded the Captain. It was a long swim, but three years later, he performed the Waldstein as part of his last undergraduate voyage.