Beethoven's Piano Sonatas

Course No. 7250
Professor Robert Greenberg, Ph.D.
San Francisco Performances
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Course No. 7250
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Course Overview

Beethoven was a revolutionary man living in a revolutionary time. He captured his inner voice—demons and all—and the spirit of his time, and in doing so, created a body of music the likes of which no one had ever before imagined. "An artist must never stand still," he once said. A virtuoso at the keyboard, Beethoven used the piano as his personal musical laboratory, and the piano sonata became, more than any other genre of music, a place where he could experiment with harmony, motivic development, the contextual use of form, and, most important, his developing view of music as a self-expressive art.

Pushing the Piano to Its Limit and Beyond

Spanning the length of his compositional career, Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas provide a window into his personal musical development, and they show the concept of the piano as an instrument and the piano sonata as a genre undergoing an extraordinary evolution.

The sonatas are not simply compositions for the piano, but are about the developing technology of the piano itself, an evolving instrument that Beethoven pushed to its limits and then beyond, ultimately writing music for an idealized piano that didn't come into existence until some 40 years after his death.

An Engaging and Exhilarating Professor

As in his previous courses, Professor Greenberg combines his perceptive analyses of musical excerpts with historical anecdotes, metaphors, and humor. He shows what goes on inside a musical composition: how it came to be written, how it works, and how—as is often the case with Beethoven—it may break all the rules to achieve a new and powerful effect. This course is somewhat technical and although musical knowledge is helpful, it is not necessary.

Popular, Experimental, Revolutionary, Shocking

Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas include some of his most popular works as well as some of his most experimental. This course touches on every one of these fascinating pieces, approaching them chronologically, from the terse and powerful first sonata of 1795 to the revolutionary Hammerklavier Sonata of 1818 and the radical last three sonatas of 1820–1822.

In addition to the Hammerklavier, you will explore in detail the other sonatas that, by virtue of their popularity or other special qualities, have been bestowed with evocative nicknames. These include:

  • Pathétique (Piano Sonata no. 8 in C Minor, op. 13): The modern popularity of this piece has obscured its shocking originality, which led a contemporary to characterize Beethoven's work as "lots of crazy stuff."
  • Funeral March (Piano Sonata no. 12 in A-Flat, op. 26): Beethoven's first 11 piano sonatas challenged and eventually broke the bonds of the 18th-century Classical style. In this work, he fully embraced a genuinely experimental, avant-garde approach to the sonata.
  • Moonlight (Piano Sonata no. 14 in C-Sharp Minor, op. 27, no. 2): The composer Hector Berlioz wrote that the haunting first movement of this famous work is "one of those poems that human language does not know how to qualify."
  • Tempest (Piano Sonata no. 17 in D Minor, op. 31, no. 2): Although Shakespeare's The Tempest reportedly inspired this sonata, the thematic parallels between the two works are elusive. But like the title of Shakespeare's play, Beethoven's sonata must qualify as one of the most expressively "tempestuous" in the repertoire.
  • Farewell (Piano Sonata no. 26 in E-Flat, op. 81a): Also known as Les Adieux and Das Lebewohl, this programmatic work commemorates the departure from and return to Vienna of Beethoven's close friend Archduke Rudolph.

Not all of Beethoven's greatest piano sonatas have nicknames. The last three are conventionally known by their opus numbers—109, 110, and 111—and are among Beethoven's most pathbreaking works.

"Oh, to Have Heard Him Play!"

Beethoven first achieved fame as a thrilling and unorthodox pianist who treated the piano, according to his contemporaries, in an "entirely new manner."

"When Beethoven played, expression always came first," says Professor Greenberg. "Beethoven was no more capable of slavish adherence to a steady beat than he was able to follow the constructs and rituals of Classicism. Oh, to have heard him play!"

To be present while Beethoven played was considered by contemporaries to be a revelatory experience. Johann Wenzel Tomaschek, a rival piano virtuoso, observed: "Beethoven's magnificent phrasing and particularly the daring of his improvisation stirred me strangely to the depths of my soul; indeed, I found myself so profoundly bowed down that I did not touch my piano for several days."

Piano manufacturers saw things differently. According to Andreas Streicher, Beethoven was so violent at the keyboard that he was "unworthy of imitation. ... He carries on in a fiery manner, and treats his instrument like a man who, bent on revenge, has his archenemy in his hands and, with cruel relish, wants to torture him slowly to death."

Nonetheless, once he became famous, Beethoven rarely if ever had to buy his own pianos, as piano builders vied with each other to lend him instruments. Nor did Beethoven let shortcomings of contemporary pianos limit his creativity. In his Piano Sonata no. 7 in D, op. 10, no. 3, he expands two musical phrases into high and low registers that didn't exist on the keyboards of the day.

Transferring Despair into Musical Action

Beethoven's childhood was dominated by abuse and loss. Already a bundle of gastric ailments and psychological neuroses, he went deaf over the course of his young and middle adulthood. He was desperately unlucky in love. Desiring a child, he did everything in his power to steal his nephew Karl from the boy's mother; when he succeeded, Karl attempted suicide.

As he entered his final decade, Beethoven became genuinely paranoid. And yet, says Professor Greenberg, Beethoven translated his experience into action—musical action—by composing pieces that by some amazing alchemy universalized his problems and his solutions.

Analyzing Beethoven's "Game"

Professor Greenberg analyzes many musical passages, taking you note-by-note, phrase-by-phrase through different movements of the sonatas, showing how Beethoven plans and achieves his surprising effects. Beethoven paid scrupulous attention to all aspects of his compositions, and Professor Greenberg elucidates these features and brings them vividly to life, such as thematic development, tempo, large-scale dramatic progression, and psychological manipulation by the performer.

You will learn a wealth of musical vocabulary: terms such as Viennese Classical style, sonata form, theme and variations, exposition, modulating bridge, recapitulation, cadence, minuet, rondo, fugue, and scherzo.

What You Will Hear: Extraordinary Performances by a Celebrated Pianist

Beethoven died 50 years before the invention of sound recording, so we will never hear his voice or the sound of his playing.

You will hear literally hundreds of excerpts of Maestro Claude Frank's recordings over the span of the course. Frank's recording of the 32 sonatas was originally released for the Beethoven bicentennial in 1970, and was hailed as "one of the year's 10 best" by Time magazine.

Truly, Beethoven's piano music is his voice, emerging from his mind, through his fingers, to our ears and hearts. And his piano sonatas are, more than any other of his amazing works, his personal testament, expressed in his own voice.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 45 minutes each
  • 1
    Beethoven and the Piano
    Professor Greenberg introduces the course with a brief biography of Beethoven and the early history of the piano followed by a discussion of the recordings of Beethoven's piano sonatas used throughout the course, performed by the distinguished pianist Claude Frank. x
  • 2
    Homage to Mozart
    This lecture explores the Classical style that Beethoven inherited from Haydn and Mozart, highlighting some of its more notable features. Then we look at Beethoven's Piano Sonata no. 1 in F Minor, op. 2, no. 1, from 1795, as both an homage to Mozart and an example of Beethoven's pianistic audacity. x
  • 3
    The Grand Sonata, Part 1
    Beethoven's first four piano sonatas are four-movement works that are orchestral in scope, reflecting Beethoven's concept of the piano as a major instrument. We look at the second of his opus 2 set—Sonata no. 2 in A—as an example of these "grand sonatas." x
  • 4
    The Grand Sonata, Part 2
    Continuing our study of Beethoven's grand sonatas, we examine Sonata no. 3 in C, no. 3, op. 2, and Sonata no. 4 in E flat, op. 7. In both these works, we see Beethoven's early artistic declaration that he was not interested in slavishly following the Classical tradition. x
  • 5
    Meaning and Metaphor
    In his three opus 10 sonatas, Beethoven continues his formula of composing a triad of starkly different works, ranging from darkly passionate to witty to grand. We look at the first of these pieces: Piano Sonata no. 5 in C Minor. x
  • 6
    The Striking and Subversive, Op. 10 Continued
    Piano Sonata no. 6 in F, op. 10, no. 2 remained a special favorite of Beethoven's for many years after its composition. We examine the elements that make it seem so playful, before turning to the grander work that concludes the opus 10 set: Piano Sonata no. 7 in D. x
  • 7
    The Pathétique and the Sublime
    We focus on one of Beethoven's most popular piano sonatas: no. 8 in C Minor, op. 13 (Pathétique). Professor Greenberg shows how time and popularity can trivialize even the most revolutionary creation, rendering us immune to what was once considered new and shocking. x
  • 8
    The Opus 14 Sonatas
    Beethoven's music can be supple, light-hearted, quick-witted, and genuinely humorous, just as it can be heroic, magnificent, and spiritually profound. Beethoven's lighter side is delightfully on display in his two opus 14 piano sonatas: no. 9 in E and no. 10 in G. x
  • 9
    Motives, Bach and a Farewell to the 18th Century
    We focus almost entirely on the first movement of Piano Sonata no. 11 in B flat, op. 22, to understand Beethoven's developing compositional priorities and the influence of Bach on his music. Written in 1800, this work is in many ways Beethoven's farewell to the 18th-century Viennese Classical style. x
  • 10
    A Genre Redefined
    From this point on, each of Beethoven's piano sonatas is markedly different from what came before it. No. 12 in A flat, op. 26 (Funeral March) shows a remarkable degree of contrast between its movements and has, as its third movement, an anguished funeral march. x
  • 11
    Sonata quasi una fantasia—The Moonlight
    The most popular of all of Beethoven's piano works is his Sonata No. 14 in C Sharp Minor, Op. 27, No. 2 (Moonlight). Imbued with tragic feeling, the Moonlight is almost impossible not to relate to the composer's progressive hearing loss. x
  • 12
    Lesser Siblings and a Pastoral Interlude
    We study two underappreciated works: Sonata no. 13 in E flat, op. 27, no. 1 continues Beethoven's assault on the Classical sonata template, while Sonata no. 15 in D, op. 28 (Pastoral) is a revolutionary work that elevates musical pastoral clichés to a high art. x
  • 13
    The Tempest
    While the groundbreaking Third Symphony was Beethoven's public declaration of his "new path" as a composer, the piano sonatas were, collectively, his workshop for getting there—none more so than Sonata no. 17 in D Minor, op. 31, no. 2 (Tempest). x
  • 14
    A Quartet of Sonatas
    We explore the other two opus 31 sonatas: no. 16 in G (which literally saved the life of pianist Claude Frank) and no. 18 in E flat. We also look at the opus 49 pair: no. 19 in G Minor and no. 20 in G; both were published against Beethoven's wishes and have since become favorites of young players. x
  • 15
    The Waldstein and the Heroic Style
    Piano Sonata no. 21 in C, op. 53 (Waldstein) is like no other music written by Beethoven or anyone else. We study this remarkable piece—from its unrelenting opening theme to its breathtaking prestissimo ("as fast as possible") conclusion. x
  • 16
    The Appassionata and the Heroic Style
    Likened to Dante's Inferno and Shakespeare's King Lear, Sonata no. 23 in F Minor, op. 57 (Appassionata) is not only esteemed by audiences, it was also one of Beethoven's favorites among his piano works. With the Waldstein, it is a quintessential example of Beethoven's "heroic" style. x
  • 17
    They Deserve Better, Part 1
    We examine two Beethoven sonatas that deserve more attention than they are generally accorded: no. 22 in F, op. 54, and no. 24 in F sharp, op. 78. The former is an inspired, virtuosic, and genuinely experimental piece of music; the latter is one of the strangest and most adventurous works in the repertoire. x
  • 18
    They Deserve Better, Part 2
    Continuing our exploration of Beethoven's often overlooked piano sonatas, we study no. 25 in G, op. 79, and no. 27 in E Minor, op. 90. The opening movement of op. 79 is a parody of Classically styled piano sonatas, while op. 90 opens with great pathos and tenderness. x
  • 19
    The Farewell Sonata
    Piano Sonata no. 26 in E flat, op. 81a (Les Adieux) was dedicated to the Archduke Rudolph, an aristocratic patron and friend of Beethoven's who was fleeing Vienna ahead of Napoleon's armies—hence, the Farewell Sonata. We look at the piece as a mirror of contemporary events and as program music. x
  • 20
    Experiments in a Dark Time
    Piano Sonata no. 28 in A, op. 101, is unique among Beethoven's 32 in that he had someone else's hands and spirit in mind when he composed it—namely his brilliant student Baroness Dorothea von Ertmann. It is also one of Beethoven's most rigorous and experimental works composed to that point in his life. x
  • 21
    The Hammerklavier, Part 1
    Piano Sonata no. 29 in B flat, op. 106 (Hammerklavier) was the groundbreaking work—the first masterpiece—of Beethoven's late period. It is the most virtuosic keyboard music ever written to its time. In this lecture, we cover the first of its four movements. x
  • 22
    The Hammerklavier, Part 2
    We continue our study of the Hammerklavier, focusing on the paradoxical fourth movement fugue, composed seemingly without limits or limitations. The Hammerklavier has been called "monstrous and immeasurable," a sonata like no other. With it, Beethoven opened the door to a new expressive world. x
  • 23
    In a World of His Own
    Beethoven's last three piano sonatas owe much to his epic Missa Solemnis ("Solemn Mass") which was also composed in the period 1820–1822. We explore the spiritual and compositional links to the Missa Solemnis, particularly as they relate to sonatas no. 30 in E, op. 109, and no. 31 in A flat, op. 110. x
  • 24
    Reconciliation
    Beethoven completed his final piano sonata, no. 32 in C Minor, op. 111, in 1822—five years before his death. Opus 111 seems obviously Beethoven's valedictory statement for the genre; it ties up loose ends, yet it is so stunningly original that it caps, rather than continues, the composer's run of 32 sonatas for piano. x

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Your professor

Robert Greenberg

About Your Professor

Robert Greenberg, Ph.D.
San Francisco Performances
Dr. Robert Greenberg is Music Historian-in-Residence with San Francisco Performances. A graduate of Princeton University, Professor Greenberg holds a Ph.D. in Music Composition from the University of California, Berkeley. He has seen his compositions—which include more than 45 works for a wide variety of instrumental and vocal ensembles—performed all over the world, including New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles,...
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Reviews

Beethoven's Piano Sonatas is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 61.
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Returned after watching the first DVD I bought this course as a gift for my mother. She didn't make it through the first lesson before she decided to return it. She rarely returns gifts. She didn't like the way the teacher taught.
Date published: 2019-06-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Beethoven's Piano Sonatas I bought this course when it was on sale. However, I am a fan of Professor Greenberg's so I decide to but this course. I am a music novice when it comes to knowing the technical terms of music. As a novice I learned a lot. To commit yourself to this course you need a desire to learn something new. Because at times Professor Greenberg discusses technical terms and styles that are beyond entry level students. People with with more experience and knowledge of music will get more out of this, but I am glad I bought this course and what I learned from it.
Date published: 2019-03-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas Although I haven’t gotten too far into this course, I can already tell it’s going to be another Greenberg winner just as all my other Greenberg courses. Well spoken, attention to detail, and right on the money with facts. As I have said before, in my book, Robert Greenberg is a Walking Human Encyclopedia Of Musical knowledge. I would without question recommend this and his other courses to anyone who loves Classical Music.
Date published: 2019-01-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Another Greenberg tour de force In another of Robert Greenberg’s tours de force, this course provides 18 hours of in-depth presentation, examination, and discussion of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas. Its comprehensiveness is similar to that of his parallel course on the string quartets (that is, not for the musically naïve or only marginally interested), which I have to say has had a lasting impact on me. As usual, he seasons and spices the discussion with humorous or ironic references to pop culture, and occasionally lapses into the South Jersey street talk of his childhood—but these diversions always have a legitimate purpose and assist in understanding the points being made, and I think they add rather than detract. The course is masterfully organized, presenting the 32 sonatas more or less chronologically and placing them in biographical and historical context as well as covering a good bit of music theory along the way. Its effectiveness is augmented by the extensive use throughout of pianist Claude Franks’s recordings of the sonatas, as well as by Greenberg’s frequent illustrations on the piano. It’s hard to imagine anyone teaching music appreciation—at admittedly a pretty high level—more effectively or enjoyably, at least for me.
Date published: 2018-12-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Greenberg Hits One Out of the Concert Hall I’ve taken well over a dozen of Professor Greenberg’s courses and own several more that I have yet to watch (or listen to). Obviously I am a Greenberg fanboy and love his courses. As always Dr. Greenberg offers up a blend of humor (OK, some of you understandably won’t care for it), history, biography, music, music appreciation and music theory. In this course the history is of Beethoven’s life (although not too much—one can always take the Beethoven “Great Masters” course for that), the development of the piano (and there is another Greenberg course for that in some detail), the development of Beethoven’s musical growth, and most especially that musical growth as related to his piano sonatas (including a fair bit of technical, music jargon and theory). As with most who chose to take this course, I have a laypersons' familiarity with Beethoven’s music including his piano sonatas. Some are quite familiar to me, while others I probably could not name upon hearing them at first, and still others I have only heard a few times and never in person. And while I can usually follow the basic sonata forms, I confess that I really get lost when listening to the later works. After listening to these lectures, at least I now understand why I could never figure out what was going on in the last movement (for example, there are many others) of the Hammerklavier. And even though I still won’t be able understand or be able to follow the technical details of what Beethoven accomplished, I at least know what is going on in general terms. Professor Greenberg reveals something new for me in each one of these lectures and in each one of the sonatas, including the ones that I thought I knew quite well. I consider this course a perfect blend of entertainment and instruction—a little of everything, a lot of musical education and often some enlightenment. I do have a nit to pick. While I understand the effort to pack as much as possible into 45 minutes there are a few times when a musical example ends abruptly, and the lecture resumes. For many passages this is just fine. But please never again end the musical selection on an open cadence and then talk for another two or three minutes. Also, as is rightly pointed out, the end of Sonata # 31 is profound. Give the listener a moment or two to reflect on the end. Don’t resume the lecture immediately after the final note. Also trying to follow the Word Scores on a downloaded version is very difficult, as one is forced to page back and forth while following the music. I imagine that this is a non-issue in the printed version, but very distracting in the downloaded version. I think that the ability to read music and have some idea of basic theory will be helpful in this course, although Professor Greenberg is very helpful in outlining what one needs to know early on. Later on, put on your seat belts as he discusses key changes, etc.
Date published: 2018-12-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great presentation Greenberg is so enthusiastic and professional, even if you were not interested in music, you might enjoy it. If I were taking a course in another profession, which I have been over the decades, I would just go sit in on any presentation he was making.
Date published: 2018-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Another great course by Professor Greenberg Professor Greenberg uses exciting and memorable techniques to explain Beethoven's piano sonatas, to enhance my enjoyment, help me play the easier ones, and entertain me while I exercise.
Date published: 2018-10-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding lecturer! The Robert Greenberg lectures are wonderful! As he feeds the listener extensive details on the life and music of Beethoven he injects humorous asides that keep you chuckling and wanting more. A chronological look at the music includes numerous excerpts, quotes from experts of musicology and his own analysis that give the listener a real appreciation of the man and his piano sonatas.
Date published: 2018-08-17
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