Ludwig Van Beethoven: Sonata Number C Minor, Opus 13 “Pathetique”

Beethoven wrote the Pathetique sonata when he was twenty seven and it is only one of two that he gave a title to. He used the term Pathetique in the ancient Greek sense of Pathos or “with feeling.” He did not mean for it to sound sad pitiable as the term pathetic connotes nowadays.

Young artists often are full of bravado–and try to show feats of technical brilliance to capture attention and make their name. This does not seem the case with the Pathetique. Though supposedly quite complex and difficult to play, it sounds wonderfully lyrical and masterfully attained Beethoven’s goal of being full of emotion.

My friend John Kim told me a while back, however, that Beethoven’s music was so different and passionate from what was being written at the time, that it was branded as “obscene!” Supposedly, women upon hearing this shocking music, would become short of breath and swoon. So though when I listen to it today and find it almost prematurely mature in the depth of the feelings in this piece by a mere 27 year-old.   Perhaps Beethoven was just trying to turn himself into a “babe magnet” after all.

Not to put too fine a point on it, I took refuge in classical music during my adolescence, partly from shyness. Listening and getting caught up with the emotions in music was a way of channeling what raging hormones were causing me to experience. If I developed a crush on someone back then, it was much easier for me to go home and listen to a moving piece of music than it was to actually act upon it, ask the person for a date, and risk rejection.

“Youth,” older people are fond of saying, “is wasted on the young.” But thank god we’re only young once. Some people, wracked with the pain of shyness and rejection, turn to drugs, alcohol, food or other addictive behaviors. Fortunately I discovered the more enduring–and infinitely more healthy–outlet of classical music.

The first movement of the Pathetique starts out slowly with dark sounding chords, that sound a bit sad and pensive. But it soon takes off on a faster more tuneful tack, which lifts the spirits. Eventually, it returns to recap the opening. This alternating between the slow and fast continues for the rest of the movement. The second movement is a slow and beautifully romantic melody that was used by Karl Haas on this public radio show, “Adventures in Good Music.” The finale is a fast Rondo, which means of the form A,B,A,C,A,D,A, where the different letters stand for the melody in different keys or separate melodies altogether.

Beethoven grew up in a musical family and by the age of 13 had secured a position as court harpsichordist for the Elector of Bonn. Though invented in 1709, the piano forte did not gain popularity until the latter half of the century, which coincided with Beethoven’s own rise. The piano combined the force and brilliance of a harpsichord, with the clavichord’s ability to play crescendo and diminuendo. Beethoven wrote works for the solo piano all his life, pushing the envelope of the instrument as well as his own. Referring to his works for solo piano, Stravinsky called Beethoven the “master of the instrument.” You can definitely hear why in the Pathetique.


About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

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