Abstract: Generic Ambiguities in Beethoven’s Sonata in F major op. 54:
An Innovation or Self-enterprise?
Lying between the two gigantic neighboring sonatas, Waldstein and Appassionata, Beethoven’s op
.54 in F major, a sonata of only two movements, must be considered one of the most original if somewhat neglected piece of the composer. Of the three concomitant sonatas written around 1803-1805, the years marking the beginning of Beethoven’s middle period of compositional style, Sonata op. 54 stands relatively on its own. Carrying no specific dedication to any individual patron, this work amounts to the only exception with the composer’s works written in the same period. The Waldstein Sonata (op.53) and the Appassionata (op.57), for instances, were dedicated respectively to Count Waldstein and Count Brunsvik; while both the Triple Concerto op.56 and Symphony no.3, “Eroica,” op.55 were dedicated to Prince Lobkowitz. The fact that Beethoven decided to keep the “miniature” for himself seems to lend support to the argument that the piece has a character all of its own.
In the following discussion, I shall offer an analysis of the F major sonata in an effort to lay bare its generic ambiguities. I shall also attempt to postulate how generic choices were made, taking into account both the socio-cultural milieu of the early 19th-century
, and the innovative and revolutionary instinct of Beethoven. I shall argue that it is the external socio-cultural environment as well as Beethoven’s internal innovative, self-enterprising attitudes that constitute the creative force for this tiny work. I shall start off my exploration by reviewing the historical background of the years spanning Beethoven’s middle style-period. Next, I shall attempt a structural analysis of the work. The discussion of Beethoven’s innovative features reflected in the music then follows. I shall also observe the formation of this revolutionary attitude with reference to both the internal and external factors, namely, Beethoven’s self-constructed image of “genius” and the mass-produced image of “genius” in the early 19th-century Vienna. Finally I shall explore Beethoven’s own marketing strategy in promoting this generically ambiguous sonata, to see how he built himself up as one of first self-enterprisers in the music publishing industry of the early 19th-century Vienna. Vienna
Tovey, among others, considers the F major Sonata a work of extraordinary beauty and subtleties. It represents what can be regarded as Beethoven’s “Socratic humor” carried to the full. A “sonata” in name but of materials more suited for a minuet and a toccata, this “Socratic irony” is also evidenced in his grouping of two monothematic movements in the same key. The piece was as much applauded for its subtlety and humor as for its experimental nature. Charles Rosen regards it as essential to the composer’s stylistic development. Frohlich Martha, siding with Rosen, refers to it as the first important two-movement sonata by Beethoven. William Kinderman, another Beethoven scholar, claims that the directional process and ongoing synthesis of experience explored in the second movement of the sonata, described as a perpetumn mobile, have received further development in some of Beethoven’s late sonatas, such as the “Arietta” of op. 111. Kinderman discerns a variety of innovative approaches to the genre amongst the composer’s middle-period sonatas, particularly regarding to the problem of welding the successive movements into a unity.
While scholars long regarded op.54 an anomaly, few undertook the task of considering the auditory experience of the work, let alone exploring the implication of its generic ambiguity, which, however, is what makes it one of the most original works for the piano in the composer’s middle style-period. Marked “In Tempo d’un Menuetto,” the first movement has been variously interpreted as a monothematic rondo, a variation, or a minuet-scherzo with da capo reprises. Yet it is the absence of a sonata-allegro movement, rather than what has sprung up to take its place, which holds a challenge to, and helps extend the boundary of, the very notion of the genre.
The two-movement structure of the sonata may, as some argue, have its precedents in some of the piano sonatas of Haydn’s, but its substance is almost entirely of its own. For in Haydn’s case, generic expectations are always met by the presence of a sonata-allegro movement, whereas it is the sole purpose of Beethoven to defy what has often been taken for granted. By introducing a minuet-scherzo like movement in his sonata, and by compressing the formal plan into a pair of movements, Beethoven tries consciously to break the generic contract set up between the audience and his work, inviting the former to question previously held assumptions of the genre.
The finale of the F major sonata can be understood either as a two-part contrapuntal toccata suggested by Tovey, or, as I would argue, as an etude. But the enormous development section launched after an extremely short exposition may, alternatively, remind us of a monothematic sonata in a nascent form. But what is certain, however plausible the interpretation, is the ambiguity of the genre, the very element by which Beethoven has succeeded in extending the “sonata” legacy in the development of the genre.
Apart from its contribution to the overall meaning of the sonata, op.54 also reflects Beethoven’s attitude toward the genre. Presented as neither preeminently “heroic” nor “lyrical”, the F major sonata comes closest to what Rosen had in mind when he said, “the most prestigious form of serious music was Beethoven’s piano sonata.” Once considered a kind of “Hausmusik” (music in the home) confined to the aristocratic salons and amateurs at home, the piano sonata, a genre Beethoven had much to contribute, had come to be regarded as one of the greatest achievements in the
Beethoven’s piano sonatas also helped toward effecting the change from a patron system dominated by the church and the court to an open system of music publishing and concert performance. They formed a bridge that served to connect music practised at home to that performed in the concert hall. The F major sonata, for one, and in particular its second movement, typically presents the kind of technical challenge that often remains a formidable obstacle to all but the most accomplished musicians.
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, 1792-1803. Vienna Berkeley, California: Press, 1995. University of California
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 I will suggest that 1803-1823 is the middle period of Beethoven’s musical style. In 1803, the renowned symphony no. 3 op. 55, Eroica, was started composing, marking the revolutionary spirit of Beethoven’s compositional manner. First piano sonata of the middle-period musical style was Waldstein op. 53. Of the thirty-two Beethoven’s piano sonatas, twenty were written in his first-period and twelve for the middle-period. The last piano sonata was finished in 1822.
 Donald F. Tovey, A Companion to Beethoven’s Pianoforte Sonatas, (Southampton: The Camelot Press Ltd., 1931), 161-62.
 Charles Rosen, Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas: A Short Companion, (
New Haven and : Yale University Press, 2002), 189-91. London
 Beethoven has written seven pieces of two-movement sonata during his career. Please refer to Martha Frohlich, “Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in F Major Op. 54, Second Movement: The Final Version and Sketches,” The Journal of Musicology 18, no. 1 (Winter 2001): 100-101.
 William Kinderman, “Beethoven,” in Nineteenth-century Piano Music, ed. by R. Larry Todd, (
: Routledge, 2004), 63. New York
 Kinderman regards Beethoven’s revolutionary middle-period of Beethoven’s musical style began from 1802 onward. It is a bit earlier than my suggestion. Please refer to footnote 1. For further information, also see: Kinderman, Beethoven, 59.
 Of nine Haydn’s mature two-movement sonatas, only the op.
54 G does not contain sonata form movement. Please refer to Laszlo Somfai, The Keyboard Sonatas of Joseph Haydn: Instruments and Performance Practice, Genres and Styles, transl. by the author in collaboration with Charlotte Greenspan, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995), 195.
 Rosen, Beethoven Piano Sonata, 4-6.