November 2010

Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 13 "Pathétique"

by Ludwig van Beethoven

We've talked about Beethoven a few times now. Here is another piano sonata from his collection of compositions.

In 1798, Ludwig van Beethoven wrote this piano sonata that he, himself, named Pathétique (pronounced pa-theh-TEEK). The publisher actually expanded the title to Grande sonate pathétique, and Beethoven approved. The word pathétique is French, and, although it sounds like the English word "pathetic", the two words don't quite mean the same thing. "Pathetic" means to arouse pity, or to make you feel sorry for something. Pathétique means "passionate" or "emotional". This is what Beethoven had in mind when naming this piece.

As this is a sonata, it has three movements. The first movement is marked Grave - Allegro di molto e con brio, which means "Slowly, solemnly" (grave), then "quickly with much vigor". The second movement (which we'll be listening to) is marked Adagio cantabile, which means "slowly in a singing style". The last movement is marked Rondo: Allegro. "Rondo" is a particular form, but "Allegro" means "quickly, lively".

Jon's Introduction to This Piece:

I would have discovered this piece about the same time as I did the "Moonlight" Sonata (see December 2009 Music of the Month). It is very common for recordings of Beethoven piano sonatas to include: "Moonlight", "Pathétique", and "Appassionata" (typically in that order as well). We had a recording of these three sonatas, and I believe it was Vladimir Horowitz performing them. I was probably about eight years old, when I started listening to it.

"Moonlight" was my favorite of the three, but I did come to love and appreciate "Pathétique" over time. I also remember Schroder playing the second movement in "A Boy Named Charlie Brown" (more on that in the Extra Credit section).


To keep things short for those with small attention spans, I'm just going to assign you the second movement from the sonata. It is easily the most well-known, and it is very quiet and soothing. Enjoy!

Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor "Pathétique" - Second Movement: Andante cantabile by Ludwig van Beethoven (5:52)

For those interested, this recording features Rudolf Serkin playing the piano.

Jon's Interpretation:

The Italian word cantabile (pronounced kahn-TAH-bee-lay) describes singing. The idea is to perform the music as if you were singing it. This movement sings. It's a beautiful, peaceful, and above all, ingeniously simple. One of the hardest things a composer can attempt is to create a brand new simple melody that will be remembered long after it's performed. Beethoven succeeded with this movement.

When you're feeling tense, worried, or, for whatever reason, you just need to unwind, this is the piece to listen to.

Extra Credit:

First off, for those who want to follow along, or for those who just want to look at a really cool looking document that's over 200 years old, here's the original score of the sonata.

Original Piano Score for Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor "Pathétique" by Ludwig van Beethoven

Next, if you want to take the time, you won't be disappointed. Here are the other two movements. The first movement starts out very slow, and almost angry, but then moves to something very quick and tense. It requires a very skilled pianist. The third movement is similar, but more melodic. Enjoy!

Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor "Pathétique" - First Movement: Grave - Allegro di molto e con brio by Ludwig van Beethoven (9:29)

Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor "Pathétique" - Third Movement: Rando: Allegro by Ludwig van Beethoven (4:19)

I had mentioned earlier that there was a segment in the animated movie "A Boy Named Charlie Brown" in which Schroder plays the second movement from the "Pathétique" Sonata. Charles M. Schultz (the creator of "Peanuts") was a big fan of Beethoven, and this came out through the character of Schroder. This segment is an odd departure from the movie, and is kind of reminiscent of Disney's Fantasia. While you watch this, understand that the animators have never made any effort to have Schroder's hands coordinate with the music being played. Just let it go.

And finally, a little modern twist. Pop artist Billy Joel (also a big Beethoven fan) wrote a song for his "An Innocent Man" album in 1983. The central theme of the album was 1950s "doo-wop" style. There's a song on the album called "This Night", which starts out it kind of a slow, ballad-like "doo-wop", but the chorus should sound a little familiar to you. Take a listen.

This Night from An Innocent Man by Billy Joel (4:18)