Review Summary: The Beginning.
In his Pulitzer nominated biography of Beethoven, “The Music and the Life“, Lewis Lockwood described Opus 2. No 1 in F minor as a “masterpiece.” Although I would not go quite that far, Opus 2. No 1 is a wondrous feat of musical engineering. In fact, Beethoven’s first transcended — if not surpassed entirely — anything Haydn or Mozart had done in the genre. Then again, Haydn and Mozart admittedly reserved their compositional prowesses for other genres, the symphony in Haydn’s case, and the piano concerto in Mozart’s.
It’s important to note that Beethoven, as was tradition, published the F minor in a set of three, with a sonata in A major, then in C major following. It was not traditional, however, to publish the minor sonata as the first in the set. Movement one’s famous rising arpeggio is an allusion to the finale of Mozart’s 40th symphony in G minor. Lockwood however turns our attention to the second movement of a little-known work, the Piano Quartet in E flat Major, WoO 36, No. 1, a work Beethoven composed at the tender age of fourteen, three years before Mozart’s symphony. Here we notice the same rising arpeggio, later altered to duple time in the F minor.
The opening arpeggio floats into one of the movement’s many motivic cells, a descending diatonic 8th note triplet followed by a single quarter note turn upwards, which Beethoven weaves throughout the movement. Beethoven sounds the material of theme two before its actual introduction, the thematic material of which he spins out from another motivic cell, a descending diatonic five note run. Only moments later theme two is presented, now underneath an anxious repetition of E flat lower register octaves in 8th notes that effortlessly blends into a crescendo of rising three note ascending leap and turns. Following are two fortissimo descending diatonic runs end capped with uneasy chromatics. The exposition ends with a finale full of buoyant V-I syncopated action in A flat major.
If the thematic material sounds like average galant classicism, although not true, you wouldn’t be that far off the mark. However, it is in the development section that Beethoven harnesses his unique sound. Here, we already have the utilization of soundscapes outside the scope of the Mozartian style. Beethoven introduces the main theme in a proper key, A flat major, but then introduces a series of key and sonority shifts that cycles an impressive five times before landing back on F minor. All the while we have our trademark B: dissonances, chromatics, sforzandos, and perhaps the most quintessential aspect of Beethoven’s music, an inherent urgency to arrive home.
Much of Beethoven’s most popular work is known for the struggle inherent in the music. Yet, B was much capable of expressing serenity and simplicity. Movement II, a slow adagio in F major, exudes a soft tenderness. Our main theme feels as if it is floating through the clouds, never venturing below middle C. Even the clouds of theme B, although accumulating some minor key moisture, ultimately does not precipitate. They lighten back into the A theme for our recapitulation which joyfully sails home.
After a short dance-like minuet and trio, movement IV, in true Beethovian fashion, roars out of the gates with non-stop virtuoso left-hand triplet arpeggios. The movement is composed of a white-hot maelstrom punctuated by brief moments of clarity that ultimately crowns the darkness of the work's clouds over the lightness of the work’s sunshine.
With Op. 2 No. 1, along with the A and C major sonatas, Beethoven meant to burn his musical prowess into the minds of the Viennese aristocracy. As with with the Op. 1 piano trios, the ever-self-conscious Beethoven used the F minor as part of his arrival statement, and present to Europe the mind of Herr Beethoven they certainly did.