Beethoven composed 32 piano sonatas, and each one is heralded as a masterpiece. I personally love listening to Beethoven’s piano works, but many are not suitable for relaxation.
Today I will give an analysis of Beethoven’s 12th piano sonata, which I believe is the most relaxing Beethoven piano sonata.
(If you’d like to see this content in video form, watch my YouTube video here.)
Beethoven The Visionary
Beethoven was a visionary. He is considered the transitional composer between the Classic and Romantic eras of music, and was so influential on future composers that many automatically accepted they would never reach the same compositional heights as Beethoven.
Richard Wagner, the well-known opera composer, famously said that Beethoven’s 9th symphony was the pinnacle of the symphony.
One of the reasons Beethoven was a visionary is due to his ability to write music based on his personal emotions. Prior to Beethoven, it was extremely rare for composers to write music for personal reasons. Composers lived off of commissions, and would write music when hired. Some composers had long-term patrons which allowed them to write very prolifically, but they still composed because they were given payment. One example of a composer who was extremely prolific due to a long-term patron is Joseph Haydn (he wrote 106 symphonies!).
Beethoven, too, was commissioned to write many of his works, but Beethoven experimented with composing music that reflected his personal, emotional struggles. He wrote several pieces based on his love interests, such as the famous “Für Elise.” He also experimented with programmatic music, or music that tells a story, particularly his 6th symphony which tells the story of spending a day out in nature.
Why Beethoven Usually Isn’t Relaxing
As you probably know, Beethoven gradually became deaf, to the point of complete hearing loss (he composed the 9th symphony completely deaf). Many of his middle and later works reflect his personal frustrations with his medical condition. The most blatantly obvious way he musically portrayed these frustrations is through his use of sudden, often violent, dynamic changes.
Dynamics are how loud or soft a piece of music is played. Composers will notate the volume for how loud or soft they want a particular passage to be played. In music we use Italian terms, and these are the common dynamics employed from soft to loud (with their symbol):
- Pianissimo (pp) – very soft
- Piano (p) – soft
- Mezzo Piano (mp) – medium soft
- Mezzo Forte (mf) – medium loud
- Forte (f) – loud
- Fortissimo (ff) – very loud
Beethoven would frequently write sudden dynamic changes, and many times they are startling to hear. There is a famous example in his 3rd symphony where Beethoven shocks the listener with two measures suddenly louder than the music before and after it.
There are several other ways Beethoven would musically portray his frustrations (tempo, orchestration, etc.), but let’s keep this explanation as basic as possible. The basic point is that you can audibly hear Beethoven’s struggles when listening to his music.
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 12
The 12th piano sonata was composed between 1800-1801, and contains four movements. Even though this is his 12th piano sonata, this piece still occurs early in Beethoven’s career. His 1st symphony was written around the same time as this piano sonata.
This sonata is one of the most commonly studied for music theory students due to its unusual structure. Thankfully, the unusual structure does not detract from its relaxing qualities.
Let’s quickly remind ourselves of some of the traits we look for in relaxing classical music (read full article here):
- Instrumental only (no text or lyrics)
- Simple Form
- Consistent “Calm” Tempo
The first trait is easily met since this is a solo piano piece. This piece also meets the criteria of a consistent “calm” tempo. Again, “calm” can vary person-to-person, however we are looking for a tempo between 60-80 beats per minute since this imitates our resting heart rate. Most editions of the printed music do not indicate a specific metronome marking, rather Beethoven indicated the tempo with a descriptor (e.g. fast, slow). However, you will find that most performances fall within this tempo range, and the tempo stays largely the same for the entire piece.
The other two traits (repetitive and simple form) work hand-in-hand for this piece, and are extremely important because repetition creates familiarity. Every movement is extremely repetitive. The second and third movements are both (essentially) in ABA form, meaning the opening material is repeated at the end of the movement. This is not how a music theorist would label these movements, necessarily, but I will say this for simplicity’s sake.
The fourth movement is in rondo form, or a form where the A material is constantly repeated. In other words, the form might look like this: ABACA.
As an additional point, this piece has no sudden, or violent, dynamic changes, which is unusual for Beethoven. In fact, most of the piece is written at a soft dynamic.
Movement I: Theme and Variations
The first movement is of particular interest because it is a theme and variations. As the name implies, a theme and variations begins with a theme which is then altered, embellished, or expanded in subsequent variations. Typical elements of the variations can include: changing the rhythm, adding ornamentations, and changing the key. This movement is a theme and five variations. The image below shows the original theme. And don’t worry if you can’t read music…just look at the shape and contour of the melody.
Even the theme itself is extremely repetitive. If you look at the first eight measures (top line) and compare it to the second eight measures (bottom line), you’ll notice that both halves of the theme are almost identical. Having this much familiarity is important because the more familiar we are with the theme, the less our brain has to work.
Now let’s look at one of the variations and see how the theme is hidden within the variation. In the printed music, it may look confusing. However, when you listen to the music you will clearly hear the theme. Trust me, you do not need to be a trained musician to hear this…our brains are very capable of deciphering the music for us.
Notice the notes that are highlighted. If you compare the highlighted notes to the first eight measures (top line) of the theme, you will notice that every note is accounted for. An interesting observation of this variation is that the notes of the theme are often the third note of a group of three.
Again, looking at the music may seem confusing if you can’t read music. Just trust me, and your brain, that when you listen to the music it will be clear to you.
Movement III: Marcia Funebre
It’s hard to determine which movement of the 12th piano sonata is the most famous, but many would argue it is the third movement. The movement’s subtitle is “marcia funebre” (funeral march), however its full subtitle states “marcia funebre, sulla morte d’un eroe” (funeral march, regarding to the death of a hero).
As mentioned above, the movement is in ABA form. Additionally, the melody is repeated many times in a row, but often in a different key. The key changes do not make the melody harder to hear. This is another aspect of the sonata that is studied by music theory students, but again does not detract from its relaxation for the average listener.
It’s worth pointing out that the movement’s funeral march theme presents a fascinating connection to sleep. Sleep and death have often been depicted together in art and religion…think of death being referred to as an “eternal sleep.” This may be a topic for another time, but I just wanted to point out that connection.
Movements II and IV
From a musical standpoint, there is much more to be said about these movements, and the piece as a whole. However, for our purposes of understanding its relaxation qualities, we don’t have much more to say.
Both, again, are very repetitive. These two movements are livelier than the others, but not necessarily energetic. Just how lively or energetic these movements sound will vary from performance to performance, and I encourage you to listen to several recordings by different pianists to see which recording you prefer.
The fourth movement is the most rhythmically active of all the movements, but the atmosphere sounds more like a boat strolling on the water. There is nothing about this movement, in my opinion, that will over-excite you and prevent relaxation.
Beethoven’s 12th piano sonata stands out among the rest as one of the most unique and unusual sonatas he wrote. Particularly, the 12th piano sonata is the calmest sonata he wrote, and, in fact, one of the calmest pieces he ever wrote.
The amount of repetition in this piece, especially melodically, gives the listener so much familiarity with the music that our brain is free to work less and relax.
Below is a video of three different recordings (back-to-back-to-back). The piece as a whole is only about twenty minutes long, but I would encourage you to listen to all three recordings. You will discover that the recordings can sound quite different from one another, and you might begin determining what you do and don’t like about particular recordings.
Welcome to the world of Beethoven’s piano sonatas.