Listen to the Complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas

By Stephen Raskauskas |

Ludwig van Beethoven composed 32 piano sonatas between 1795 and 1822. Conductor Hans Guido von Bülow once described these sonatas as “The New Testament” of music. From the moody “Moonlight,” to the notoriously challenging “Hammerklavier,” to the Shakespeare-inspired “Tempest,” Beethoven’s sonata cycle encompasses a wide range of styles. Each sonata in Beethoven’s monumental collection not only reflect the composer’s compositional innovations, but also his biography. He composed piano sonatas throughout his career, which was marked by triumphs and failures, interpersonal conflicts and serious health issues, as well as several aborted romantic exploits. Listen to and learn about these works below in performance recorded by pianist Matt Hagle on Live From WFMT.

Piano Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 2/1

Beethoven’s second published work, after his Op. 1 piano trios, was a set of Three Piano Sonatas, written in 1795. The opus is dedicated to his famous teacher, Franz Joseph Haydn, with whom Beethoven had begun studying shortly after he relocated to Vienna from Bonn in the winter of 1792. The Piano Sonata No. 1, like the following two in the Op. 2 set, contains four movements instead of three, the typical number used by contemporaries like Mozart and Haydn. Beethoven began to include a scherzo (a light and playful movement) or a minuet (a dance in ¾ time) as the third movement in his piano sonatas. The theme of the first movement, marked Allegro alla breve, is a “Mannheim rocket,” a type melody made up of rapidly ascending notes increasing in volume. Its dramatic feel is often likened to the finale of Mozart’s “Great” Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550. Beethoven adapted material for the Adagio second movement from the then-unpublished Piano Quartet No. 3 (WoO 36/3), written when he was just 15 years old.

Piano Sonata No. 2 in A Major, Op. 2/2

Beethoven’s second published work, after his Op. 1 piano trios, was a set of Three Piano Sonatas, written in 1795. The opus is dedicated to his famous teacher, Franz Joseph Haydn. Beethoven began studying with Haydn shortly after he relocated to Vienna from Bonn in the winter of 1792. In contrast to Op. 2/1, the Piano Sonata No. 2 is more lyrical. It is relatively seldom performed, due in part to a difficult fingering indication that is near-impossible on the modern piano, which has wider keys than its 18th-century predecessor. The cuckoo-like theme of the first movement Allegro vivace takes the form of a call and response. The key-change that transitions from the first theme to the second uses notably innovative harmonic shifts.

Piano Sonata No. 3 in C major, Op. 2/3

Beethoven’s second published work, after his Op. 1 piano trios, was a set of Three Piano Sonatas, written in 1795. The opus is dedicated to his famous teacher, Franz Joseph Haydn, with whom Beethoven had begun studying shortly after he relocated to Vienna from Bonn in the winter of 1792. The Piano Sonata No. 3 could be described as Beethoven’s first “virtuosic” sonata. The lightning-quick trills at the opening of the first movement and in many passages from the fourth movement rondo are quite demanding. Breaking with convention once again, Beethoven includes a cadenza (a flashy passage designed to show off technical prowess) at the end of the long first movement. Just like the Sonata No. 1, Beethoven often refers to melodies from the piano quartets (WoO 36) he wrote as a teenager.

Piano Sonata No. 4 in E-flat major (“Grand Sonata”), Op. 7

This piano sonata, published as a freestanding opus, is one of the longest of Beethoven’s entries into the genre. (The “Hammerklavier Sonata,” written 20 years later, is longer.) The composer dedicated it to the Countess Bablette Kleglevics, whom he took on as a student while staying in Bratislava in 1796. Although there’s no confirmation that the two were involved, Carl Czerny – another Beethoven pupil – hinted that the sonata could instead be subtitled “The Maiden in Love.” The first movement alludes to hunting with figures reminiscent of horn calls. The rondo finale is amorously sweet.

Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor (“Pathétique”), Op. 13

Whether coined by his publisher or by Beethoven himself, the composer thought that the nickname “Pathétique,” or emotionally moving, was well suited for his Piano Sonata No. 8. The critic Anton Schindler reports that Beethoven would play the piece differently each time he was at the piano, never repeating the same interpretation. Many speculate that the work shares deliberate similarities with Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 14, K. 457, such as its key signature and its approximate tempo markings. Beethoven’s Adagio also displays parallels with the spacious theme of K. 457’s second movement. Beethoven reuses several short melodic fragments over the course of all three movements of the “Pathétique,” transforming them each time to match their new context.

Piano Sonata No. 9 in E major, Op. 14, No. 2

In 1798, Beethoven dedicated his Two Piano Sonatas, Op. 14, to Baroness Josefa von Braun. This may have been a calculated move, since her husband – the director of the court theater of Vienna – would end up providing the venue for the premiere of his Symphony No. 1 two years later. During a performance of the Piano Sonata No. 9, the critic Anton Schindler commented that Beethoven played the first section of the Allegretto second movement with great emotion before pausing at the section marked “Maggiore” and giving a calmer account of its remainder. In 1801, Beethoven arranged the material of this sonata to be played by a string quartet.

Piano Sonata No. 10 in G major, Op. 14, No. 2

In 1798, Beethoven dedicated his Two Piano Sonatas, Op. 14, to Baroness Josefa von Braun. This may have been a calculated move, since her husband – the director of the court theater of Vienna – would end up providing the venue for the premiere of his Symphony No. 1 two years later. The second sonata in the Op. 14 set displays a humor that may show the influence of Beethoven’s former teacher, F. Haydn. A master of musical wit, Haydn wrote pieces like the “Surprise” Symphony and “The Joke” String Quartet that willfully defy listeners’ expectations to great comic effect. The last movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 10 is a scherzo with overlapping rhythms, jolting harmonies, and unexpected silences.

Piano Sonata No. 12 in A-flat major (“Funeral March”), Op. 26

The opening of the twelfth piano sonata presents a theme and set of variations. While unconventional, this move has a precedent in another genre-busting work: Mozart’s well-known Piano Sonata No. 11 in A major, K. 331. The third movement in Beethoven’s work, whose full subtitle is “Funeral March on the Death of a Hero,” bears clear thematic resemblances to Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. He composed both concurrently, and the symphony has a movement marked ‘Marcia funebre.’ The third movement of the Piano Sonata No. 12 is the only work in this genre that Beethoven arranged for orchestra. Another arrangement for four trombones and men’s choir, with a text by Ignaz von Seyfried, was played at the composer’s funeral in 1827.

Piano Sonata No. 13 in E-flat major, Op. 27, No. 1

Both of the Op. 27 piano sonatas bear the cryptic subtitle “Sonata quasi una fantasia” (“Sonata, almost a fantasy”) but it’s number two, the famous “Moonlight,” that gets most of the attention. A fantasia is an improvisatory work that is meant to ignore the boundaries of a rigid framework like sonata form. It seems like an oxymoron that a sonata could also be a fantasy, or vice versa. Nevertheless, Beethoven manages to reconcile the two ideas in both Op. 27 works. Like a fantasy, the pieces sound spontaneous, contrasting, and are played attacca (without pauses between movements). Much of the musical weight and action is delayed until the last movement in order to provide the sensation of accelerating. And, on top of all of those characteristics, Beethoven still follows the prescribed ins and outs of sonata form.

Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor (“Moonlight”) Op. 27, No. 2

Beethoven’s best-known piano sonata got its nickname from the German poet Ludwig Rellstab. Rellstab found the Adagio sostenuto of the first movement evocative of the moon shining serenely on Lake Lucerne in central Switzerland, and it stuck! Beethoven dedicated the piece to Josephine von Brunsvik, his longest-lasting romantic interest. She is one of the possible recipients of the poetic “Immortal Beloved” letter which was recovered, sans addressee, from the composer’s estate. This relationship would prove futile, since serious involvement with Beethoven, a commoner, was prohibited by Josephine’s aristocratic family. Both of the Op. 27 piano sonatas bear the cryptic subtitle “Sonata quasi una fantasia” (“Sonata, almost a fantasy”) but it’s number two, the famous “Moonlight,” that gets most of the attention. A fantasia is an improvisatory work which is meant to ignore the boundaries of a rigid framework like sonata form. It seems like an oxymoron that a sonata could also be a fantasy, or vice versa. Nevertheless, Beethoven manages to reconcile the two ideas in both Op. 27 works. Like a fantasy, the pieces sound spontaneous, contrasting, and are played attacca (without pauses between movements). Much of the musical weight and action is delayed until the last movement in order to provide the sensation of accelerating – the Presto finale of the “Moonlight” is a test of any pianist’s mettle. And, on top of all of those characteristics, Beethoven still follows the prescribed ins and outs of sonata form.

Piano Sonata No. 15 in D major (“Pastoral”), Op. 28

With the 15th sonata, Beethoven returns to the four-movement structure common to his earlier piano sonatas, beginning with a movement in sonata-allegro form. “Pastoral” refers to the placid tranquility of the rural country, far removed from the stimulation of life in the crowded city. The first and last movements of the work use rustic allusions to a bagpiper and the breeze. Although Beethoven’s publisher, A. Cranz, likely tacked on the nickname after the piece was finished in 1801, the countryside must have been on Beethoven’s mind around this time. The composer began sketches for the Symphony No. 6 in 1802, to which he himself attributed the “Pastoral” moniker.

Piano Sonata No. 16 in G major, Op. 31, No. 1

Beethoven’s student Carl Czerny writes of an anecdote during work on the Three Piano Sonatas, Op. 31, sometime in 1802. Apparently, the composer told his mandolinist friend, Werner Krumpholz, something like, “I am only a little satisfied with my previous works. From today on I will take a new path.” These pieces were still in progress in October of that year when Beethoven scrawled a forlorn letter to his brothers, often called the “Heiligenstadt Testament,” privately lamenting his worsening deafness. The condition of his hearing may have prompted Beethoven to work even harder on new material, fearing that his time was limited. The first sonata of this set, Beethoven’s 16th, does not totally break character. Nevertheless, techniques such as switching between major and minor modes during the second theme of the first movement provide indications of larger disruptive tendencies to follow in his work. Perhaps ironically, the second movement Adagio grazioso uses references to Italian opera.

Piano Sonata No. 17 in D minor (“Tempest”), Op. 31, No. 2

Beethoven’s student Carl Czerny writes of an anecdote during work on the Three Piano Sonatas, Op. 31, sometime in 1802. Apparently, the composer told his mandolinist friend, Werner Krumpholz, something like, “I am only a little satisfied with my previous works. From today on I will take a new path.” These pieces were still in progress in October of that year when Beethoven scrawled a forlorn letter to his brothers, often called the “Heiligenstadt Testament,” privately lamenting his worsening deafness. The condition of his hearing may have prompted Beethoven to work even harder on new material, fearing that his time was limited. According to the critic Anton Schindler, when he pressed Beethoven about a narrative basis for the Piano Sonata No. 17, the composer told him to read Shakespeare’s The Tempest. There have since been many comparisons of the roiling themes of the first movement to Shakespeare’s protagonist, Prospero, the exiled sorcerer and former Duke of Milan. Prospero conjures a great storm to maroon his conniving brother Antonio on his island, in an attempt to restore his and his daughter’s rightful place.

Piano Sonata No. 18 in E flat major (“The Hunt”), Op. 31, No. 3

Beethoven’s student Carl Czerny writes of an anecdote during work on the Three Piano Sonatas, Op. 31, sometime in 1802. Apparently, the composer told his mandolinist friend, Werner Krumpholz, something like, “I am only a little satisfied with my previous works. From today on I will take a new path.” These pieces were still in progress in October of that year when Beethoven scrawled a forlorn letter to his brothers, often called the “Heiligenstadt Testament,” privately lamenting his worsening deafness. The condition of his hearing may have prompted Beethoven to work even harder on new material, fearing that his time was limited. The third sonata of Op. 31 earns its playful nickname from the last movement, marked Presto con fuoco. Its second theme simulates a jaunty horn call, rousing the men and dogs to pursue their sport. “The Hunt” can be heard across all four movements of the Sonata No. 18, a lively romp that hardly pauses for breath, though the tender and retrospective third movement Minuet allows a bit of respite.

Piano Sonata No. 19 in G minor, Op 49, No. 1

Although the Two Piano Sonatas received an opus number concurrent with their publication in 1805, they were actually composed about eight years earlier, placing them chronologically closer to the Sonata No. 4. By all accounts, Beethoven – who routinely withheld “unsatisfactory” works from publication, sometimes indefinitely – did not want to see these two pieces published. However, his brother Caspar disagreed, and brought Op. 49 to a Vienna publishing house to ensure that it would not be lost. They are often referred to as the leichte sonaten (light sonatas) due to their relatively facile technical demands. It may be easy on the fingers, but the lightweight Piano Sonata No. 19 still packs a punch. The first movement Andante is economical, conveying plenty of feeling with hardly any development between its first two themes and a quiet recap.

Piano Sonata No. 20 in G major, Op. 49, No. 2

Although the Two Piano Sonatas received an opus number concurrent with their publication in 1805, they were actually composed about eight years earlier, placing them chronologically closer to the Sonata No. 4. By all accounts, Beethoven – who routinely withheld “unsatisfactory” works from publication, sometimes indefinitely – did not want to see these two pieces published. However, his brother Caspar disagreed, and brought Op. 49 to a Vienna publishing house to ensure that it would not be lost. They are often referred to as the leichte sonaten (light sonatas) due to their relatively facile technical demands. The Sonata No. 20 – perhaps more aptly characterized as a sonatina, or mini-sonata – is considered by many to be the least difficult of the Beethoven piano sonatas. Beethoven reused the theme of its second movement in the Op. 20 Septet, written in 1799, which indicates that he may indeed have intended to let the Op. 49 sonatas pass into obscurity. That is, until Caspar decided otherwise.

Piano Sonata No. 21 in C major (“Waldstein”), Op. 53

Beethoven composed the “Waldstein” sonata soon after he received a new fortepiano (the modern piano’s most recent predecessor) from the French craftsman Sébastian Érard. It is possible, though undocumented, that Beethoven’s patron and the dedicatee of the work, Count Ferdinand Waldstein, subsidized the transaction in 1803. While the first movement is expansive, driving, and difficult, the second movement is fleeting. It’s a brief introduction marked Adagio molto, taken from a more fleshed-out draft of what was going to be the middle movement. One biography of Beethoven claims that the composer became furious when, upon previewing the “Waldstein,” a friend remarked that it was far too long. Apparently, Beethoven eventually realized that his friend was right. Fortunately, the excerpt’s original context was published on its own the following year as the Andante favori, WoO 57. The Adagio continues without pause into the third movement, whose opening gestures lend the piece its alternate nickname in Italian: “L’aurora” refers to the image of the rising sun that many listeners hear. At full daybreak, the dawn melody becomes a series of blazingly quick scales, reminding both the player and the listener that the “Waldstein” is considered one of Beethoven’s most difficult works for piano.

Piano Sonata No. 22 in F major, Op. 54

This sonata could be considered a humorous break for the ears between its two monumental neighbors, the “Waldstein” and the “Appassionata” Sonatas. Similarly to the second movement of the Piano Sonata No. 16, many interpretations of the first movement of the Sonata No. 22 consider it as a parody of some of Beethoven’s

contemporaries. The first movement, a Minuet, approaches the development of its first theme in a stop-and-go manner. The second movement is an Allegretto in Beethoven’s classic perpetual motion style, never ceasing its stream of sixteenth notes until the last chord.

Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor (“Appassionata”), Op. 57

Like the Piano Sonata No. 1, the “Appassionata” begins with notes moving upward in a “Mannheim rocket,” a type of melody made up of rapidly ascending notes increasing in volume. In the first movement, we hear a seamless melding of percussive chords and delicate ornaments. The first movement contains a rhythmic reference to what would become the main theme of the Symphony No. 5 (bum-bum-bum-baah), begun around the same time as the “Appassionata” in 1804. As in the “Kreutzer” Sonata of 1803 for violin and piano, the second movement is an Andante with variations on the quiet subject stated at the outset. The variations maintain their composure until dropping from two sour, tense chords directly into the much more lively finale. Beethoven had nothing to do with the nickname assigned by the publishers to his Piano Sonata No. 23, but the name may be well-justified regardless. Rumor has it that Beethoven found himself at this point conflictedly in love with both Thérèse and Josephine, the sisters of the work’s dedicatee, the Count Franz von Brunsvik.

Piano Sonata No. 24 in F-sharp major (“à Thérèse”), Op. 78

Four years passed between Piano Sonatas Nos. 23 and 24 while Beethoven worked on the Symphonies Nos. 4-6 and the “Rasumovsky” String Quartets, among other works. He dedicated his Piano Sonata No. 24, of 1809, to the Count von Brunsvik’s sister, Thérèse, with whom he had become deeply enamored. It is possible that Thérèse, not Josephine (the Count’s other sister, and a former love interest of Beethoven’s), was the mysterious subject of the poetic “Immortal Beloved” letter which was recovered, sans addressee, from the composer’s estate and dated just a few years later. The piece begins with a single phrase, marked Andante cantabile, which flows into a more expansive Allegro ma non troppo. The second movement is a compact Allegro.

Piano Sonata No. 27 in E minor, Op. 90

Written in 1814, the same year of the premiere of Beethoven’s penultimate Symphony No. 8, the Piano Sonata No. 27 is his return to the genre after five years of silence. Carl Czerny, one of Beethoven’s students, recalled that the composer considered adding a programmatic byline to the work, “Struggle Between Head and Heart.” This would have been an allusion to the love life of the work’s dedicatee, Count Moritz Lichnowsky (brother of Beethoven’s earlier patron, Prince Karl), a temperamental man courting a temperamental opera singer at the time. By this point in his career, Beethoven would often indicate tempo and expression in his native German, marking the passionate first movement “With vigor and continuous sentiment” and the second, a sonata-rondo, “Not too fast and very singable.”

Piano Sonata No. 29 in B flat major (“Hammerklavier”), Op. 106

In keeping with his decision to mark his music with German comments rather than Italian, Beethoven subtitled the last five of his 32 numbered piano sonatas “Hammerklavier” (piano, in German), dismissing the possibility that they might be played on the harpsichord. Nevertheless, it was only the 29th that retained this designation in posterity, possibly due to its mammoth scope both in length and in technical demands. The composer dedicated it to the Archduke Rudolf, a cardinal and patron of the arts, upon its completion in 1818. The period of its composition was marred by a series of arduous hearings during which Beethoven fought for custody of his nephew, Karl. After the fanfare to open the first movement, followed by the miniature Scherzo, Beethoven proceeds to the giant, ethereal Adagio sostenuto, which can take up to 20 minutes to perform. The piece closes with a fugue in three voices, marked “with some license” to account for some of its wilder outbursts.

Piano Sonata No. 30 in E major, Op. 109

Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas were commissioned in 1819 by the Berlin-based publisher Moritz Schlesinger, who talked the cash-strapped composer down to a payment of 30 ducats for each piece from the 40 he requested. They arranged a deadline in three months’ time, but several illnesses (that would eventually become fatal) delayed the Piano Sonata No. 30 until the following year. Franz Liszt was the first to champion this work, including it in his recital programs as early as the 1830s. Unusually, its first movement alternates a vibrant Vivace with an Adagio espressivo over its entire length, not pausing on either for more than a fleeting thought. After a short Prestissimo in sonata form, the theme and six multi-tiered variations of the finale exceed the length of the previous two movements by almost double.

Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat major, Op. 110

Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas were commissioned in 1819 by the Berlin-based publisher Moritz Schlesinger, who talked the cash-strapped composer down to a payment of 30 ducats for each piece from the 40 he requested. They arranged a deadline in three months’ time, but several illnesses (that would eventually become fatal) delayed the Piano Sonata No. 31 until 1821. The first movement is structured as a sonata that borrows part of its first subject from the second movement of Haydn’s Symphony No. 88. The short Allegro second movement makes heavy use of contrasting dynamics, expressed as a phrase marked piano (soft) immediately phrase marked forte (loud). This leads without pause into the third movement, which includes a three-voice fugue much like the finale of the “Hammerklavier” Sonata. The construction of the fugue also bears similarities to the Agnus Dei from Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, which was completed a few years afterwards and sketched in the same notebook.