The Classical Sonata: Works by Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, and Clementi

Mozart: Fantasy in C Minor, K. 475, and Sonata in C Minor, K. 457


The C minor sonata’s position as the pinnacle of Mozart’s solo keyboard oeuvre is challenged only by the A minor sonata (K. 310). Yet the C minor sonata (composed in 1784), because of its greater sonority and scope, coupled with its more marked influence on later composers, is doubtless the greater of the two. Though the C minor sonata is eminently classical in form, in substance its quasi-operatic dramatic intensity presages the sonatas of Clementi and Beethoven, in whose hands the expressive powers of the piano would reach new heights.

Whether Mozart intended the fantasy to be performed along with the sonata is still debated, although the answer to this question at first glance seems unambiguous: not only were the two works published together as a single opus by Artaria, Mozart’s publisher in Vienna, but also they seem inextricably linked. The notion of prefacing the more tightly woven sonata with the free form of the fantasy is analogous both to the Baroque conception of the fantasy and fugue and to the 19th-century performance practice of beginning a program with a piece of a more improvisatory character (often a prelude or fantasy). In addition, the fantasy and sonata use similar thematic elements. Particularly noteworthy is their similar use of the bass register and octaves. Both works, in fact, begin the same way—C to E-flat with octave doubling—after which they differ, the fantasy proceeding lyrically through a two-phrase sequence of melodic chromaticism and the sonata through two ascending Mannheim-rocket figures (incidentally, a technique also employed in the opening bars of Beethoven’s F minor sonata, Op. 2, No. 1). The two openings thus comprise parallel phrase lengths in which Mozart clearly defines the character of each piece. From a performance standpoint, the legato phrases beginning the fantasy should be played freely (with rubato), while the non-legato figure that starts the sonata should be played crisply and more metronomically. Interestingly, the abrupt thirty-second scales concluding the fantasy, though leading expectedly to the tonic triad, lack a sense of finality. They function, rather, as a direct lead-in to the broken-chord equivalent with which the sonata commences attaca.

In analyzing the sonata as a whole, one can scarcely avoid a comparison with Beethoven’s celebrated "Pathétique" sonata, Op. 13, in the same key of C minor. Similarly to Mozart’s fantasy, the grave introduction of the Pathétique sets a tone of foreboding for the subsequent storms that ensue in the sonata’s outer movements. The first movements of the two sonatas are both notable for their rhythmic intensity, biting dynamic contrasts, and epic grandeur. The noble adagio middle movement of the Mozart C minor is mirrored in the yearning melody of the Pathétique. Both slow movements typify Liszt’s aphorism “A flower between two abysses,” used to describe the second-movement allegretto from Beethoven’s "Moonlight" sonata, Op. 27, No. 2. Finally, the third movement of the Mozart C minor, written in rondo form, is orchestrated similarly to the rondo finale of the Pathétique. Thematically, the primary statements of both rondos are characterized by an otherworldly mystery that is juxtaposed against intermittently tempestuous torrents of sound. The conclusion of the Mozart C minor sonata in particular exemplifies the unmistakably romantic expressionism of the composer’s later works.

Mozart: Fantasy in C Minor, K. 475

Mozart: Sonata in C Minor, K. 457, I: Allegro

Mozart: Sonata in C Minor, K. 457, II: Adagio

Mozart: Sonata in C Minor, K. 457, III: Allegro Molto

Beethoven: Sonata in G Major, Op. 14, No. 2 

Though lacking in complexity and weight compared with either the mighty structures of the "Pathétique" and "Moonlight" sonatas or the magna opera of Beethoven’s late period, this G major sonata (composed in 17981799) exhibits a tight structural integrity and a pleasing melodic continuity.

The melodic lines in the first movement, particularly the noble theme that soars above the polyphonic texture to end the exposition and the recapitulation, evoke a certain rustic tranquility. In the development of this movement, Beethoven considerably darkens the tone. Particularly illustrative of this shift in mood is the polyrhythmic two-against-three theme that emerges halfway through the development in a pianissimo-to-forte subito contrast. The brief tempest ends as quickly as it began, however, in the return to the recapitulation. Beethoven signals this return with a B-flat major seventh chord, prolonged by a fermata to increase the tension of the contrast. The coda of the first movement sums up the lyricism present throughout. A listener accustomed to the often thundering finality of a Beethoven coda might be surprised by the wispy afterthought represented in the penultimate thirty-seconds of this movement.

The middle movement is perhaps more quintessentially Beethovenien. In form, it is a theme with three variations, marked la prima parte senza replica by the composer to indicate that the first half of each variation should not be repeated. Salient features of this movement include the use of rests, notably in the theme, and sforzato accents at the conclusion of each variation to accentuate the stateliness of the marchlike motif as the transitions between variations occur.

Though labeled a scherzo, the third movement is essentially a rondo in form, composed in a fairly regular ABACABA pattern. However, the movement certainly satisfies the literal definition of a scherzo—that is, a humorous piece to be played briskly and lightly. Here we see the influence of Haydn’s style galant on the youthful Beethoven. The movement conveys the feeling of a lively country dance and thus is an apt response to the pastoral lyricism of the first movement. On a more technical level, Haydn’s influence is also evident in the offbeat rhythms of the opening three bars and the pervasive use of triplets. The conclusion of this movement, like that of the first, has the effect of a smorzando, again calling attention to the thematic unity of the two outer movements, akin to the closing stanzas of two eclogues, and strongly contrasting with the fortissimo chords concluding the second movement.

Beethoven: Sonata in G Major, Op. 14, No. 2, I: Allegro

Beethoven: Sonata in G Major, Op. 14, No. 2, II: Andante

Beethoven: Sonata in G Major, Op. 14, No. 2, III: ScherzoAllegro Assai

Haydn: Sonata in C Major, Hob. XVI/50 

Composed in 1794, this sonata is arguably the most perfect fulfillment of Haydn’s mature experimentation with the form. In addition to being more technically demanding than most of Haydn’s earlier sonatas (note the passages in thirds in the first movement), this C major sonata is more orchestral in sonority. This development in Haydn’s style of writing for the piano may be explained by the fact that the composer wrote this sonata, along with the late E-flat major sonata (Hob. XVI/52), not as didactic material for students, but for the English virtuoso Therese Jansen (a student of Clementi) to play on tour.

Among what are considered the five or so sonatas of Haydn’s late period, the C major seems the most unmistakably representative of Haydn’s style. In the first of the two late E-flat sonatas (Hob. XVI/49), for example, Mozart’s influence, particularly in timing and phrase periodicity, is immediately apparent. The interspersing of frenzied passagework with lilting melodic motifs in the second E-flat (Hob. XVI/52), by contrast, is more typical of the Sturm und Drang style of Beethoven, who at this point is just about to burst onto the musical scene. While the C major also has its share of influences, its particular blend of rhythmic drive, intensity, and humor may make it the most distinctly Haydnesque of these three great sonatas.

The opening staccato salvo of the first movement, a broken first-inversion C Major tonic triad, establishes a playful tone from the outset. As with the composer’s earlier sonatas, a fascination with rhythmic delineations is apparent in the thirty-seconds and triplets that emerge, though here they are sparser and calculatingly positioned in the outer sections of the exposition and recapitulation for greater theatrical effect. The development section is marked by expansive harmonic modulation and a teasing, suspenseful return to the recapitulation.

The second movement exhibits the free melodic expression that is so characteristic of Haydn’s late works. With its filigree passagework, thirty-second staccato octaves, and polyphonic melodic lines, it is among the most difficult middle movements in the Haydn sonatas. The coda of this movement is notable for its contrapuntal dialogue, depth of sonority, and allargando and calando effects (the una corda pedal helps here). This movement contains some of the most wholeheartedly romantic music Haydn wrote for the piano.

This sonata also concludes with a rondo of sorts, although its form is less rigorously organized than that of the rondos in the Mozart C minor or Beethoven G major. Throughout this movement, Haydn heralds the return to the primary theme by employing a brief fragment of it, which he separates from the “official” return with a rest lengthened by a fermata. While this effect can easily become cloying if overemphasized by the performer, it can both amuse and create atmospheric tension for the listener if played with point, melodic direction, and rhythmic subtlety.

Haydn: Sonata in C Major, Hob. XVI/50, I: Allegro

Haydn: Sonata in C Major, Hob. XVI/50, II: Adagio

Haydn: Sonata in C Major, Hob. XVI/50, III: Allegro Molto

Clementi: Sonata in F# Minor, Op. 25, No. 5 

This is probably one of the best-known Clementi sonatas, frequently played by Horowitz. The Clementi sonatas as a whole are vastly underrated pieces (though Horowitz did play a significant role in their partial revival). In addition to his wonderfully satisfying melodies and Scarlattiesque rhythmic energy, Clementi, like Liszt, was a pioneer in the development of piano technique, employing octaves and double notes for passage playing. Thirds were his specialty (he uses them to great effect in the third movement of this sonata).

Mozart, after a piano competition with Clementi (deemed by those present as a draw), snidely remarked of Clementi’s playing, “His thirds are impressive, but like all Italians he’s a charlatan without a farthing’s worth of taste.” Undoubtedly, there was a bit of jealousy underlying Mozart’s remarks, and justly so: though the end result of Clementi’s labors is, of course, far less significant, few, if any, other composers of the day could challenge Mozart in keyboard prowess and improvisation. In addition, Mozart may have noted the slickness of Clementi’s melodies and his seamless fluidity in developing thematic ideas, both salient characteristics of Mozart’s music as well. Presumably he must have at times seen something in the Italian’s style, for he borrowed a small portion of the theme from Clementi’s B-flat sonata, Op. 24, No. 2, as the central rhythmic motif for the overture of his opera The Magic Flute.

Of the three movements in this sonata, the first is probably the most reminiscent of Scarlatti. In making this comparison, one might note in particular the repetitions of the arpeggiated passages and the chromatic pianissimo melodies that occur near the end of each half. The second movement has somewhat of the character of a recitativo à la Liszt and is notable for its wide spacings. Arguably the greatest of the three movements, the presto is the most emblematic of Clementi’s bravura style. In addition to the use of legato octaves and extended passages in thirds, two technical elements rarely seen in classic-period music, the movement is noted for its relentless rhythmic vitality, culminating in brilliantly assertive dual-octave arpeggios.

Clementi: Sonata in F-Sharp Minor, Op. 35, No. 5, I: Allegro Espressivo

Clementi: Sonata in F-Sharp Minor, Op. 35, No. 5, II: Lento e Patetico

Clementi: Sonata in F-Sharp Minor, Op. 35, No. 5, III: Presto      © Joseph Renouf 2012-2016