Title Page of the Bossler Edition
of Beethoven's first Piano Sonatas,
the so-called "Electoral Sonatas"
In turning to Beethoven's first attempts at sonata compositons, we have to return from the 1790's and Haydn's most mature sonatas to the Bonn of the year 1783. In March of that year, Neefe wrote this of his pupil in his report for "Cramers Magazin".:
"Louis van Beethoven, son of the aforementioned tenorist, a boy of eleven years, and of promising talent. He plays the piano very well and with great strength, sight-reads well, and, to put it in a nutshell: For the most part, he plays the Well-Tempered Clavier by Sebastian Bach, which Herr Neefe has put into his hands. Those who know this collection of preludes and fugues in all the keys (which one can perhaps describe as the non plus ultra in our art) will know what that means. As far as his duties allowed him, Herr Neefe has also instructed him in thoroughbass. Now, he is instructing him in composition, and for his encouragement, he had 9 Variations of his for the Pianoforte engraved at Mannheim. This young genius deserves support so that he could travel. Were he to continue as he has begung, he would certainly turn into a second Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart" (Translated from: Ley: 26).
From April - June 1783, Beethoven substituted for Neefe--during the absence of Kapellmeister Lucchesi--as cembalist (harpsichordist) at the rehearsals of the court theatre productions. After the Elector's departure for Münster, in June 1783, he was able to once again devote more time to his own compositions.
Thus, in addition to some smaller works, he also wrote his first three piano sonatas, which he dedicated to his Elector, Mazimilian Friedrich (Thayher: 54) and which, in October of that year, were published by Bossler in Speyer (Thayer: 57), see also the title page of this section, "Drei Sonaten für Klavier, dem Hochwürdigen Erzbischofe und Kurfürsten zu Köln gewidmet un verfertiget von Ludwig van Beethoven, alt eilf Jahr" ["Three Sonatas for Pianoforte, dedicated to His Eminence the Archbishop and Elector of Cologne, composed by Ludwig van Beethoven, eleven years old" -- translated from the facsimile text]).
Many Beethoven biographers and researchers, and that rightfully, assume that the text of the dedicationi was not written by Beethoven, himself, but rather by his father or by Neefe:
Text of the Dedication
Since my fourth year, music has begun to become the first of my youthful pursuits. Having become acquainted with this dear muse that called forth pure harmonies in my soul so early on, I grew to love it, and, as it often appeared to me, it grew to love me, in turn. Now, I have already reached my eleventh year; and ever since, in hours of blissful solitude, my muse has often whispered to me: "Try it and write down the harmonies of your soul!" Eleven years--I thought--and how would the author's role suit me? And what would men of our art say to it? I was almost shy. Yet, it was the will of my muse--I obeyed and wrote.
And may I now, Gracious One! dare to put my first youthful works at the foot of Your throne? And may I hope that You will grant them the encouraging approval of your mild fatherly eye? -- Oh, yes! After all, sciences and arts have always found their wise protector, generous furtherer in you, and blossoming talent has always thrived under Your gracious fatherly care.
Full of encouragement, I dare to approach You with these youthful attempts [at composition]. Accept them as a pure gift of childlike reverence and look with favor
upon them and upon their young creator
Ludwig van Beethoven" (Translated from the facsimile text).
According to Thayer Beethoven has written on a copy of these first sonatas, "These Sonatas and the Variations on Dressler are my first works" (Thayer: 69), and in the footnote to this remark, Thayer still reports that on the copy that belonged to Otto Jahn, there was a pencil note by Beethoven: "Before these works, however, songs and a set of variations in C minor appeared in an issue of Bossler's Journal" (Thayer: 69); however, Thayer points out that Beethoven must have been wrong here, since these earlier works were not published by Bossler but rather by Goetz.
In our Biographical Pages, we discussed the topic of Beethoven's reference to his age at length and also what Solomon has to say to this. Of course, in 1783, Beethoven was not eleven, but rather twelve years old.
The journey Neefe hoped that Beethoven would soon be able to go on did still materialize in the fall of this year, when he went to Rotterdam with his mother (see the relevant section of our Biographical Pages). In the Haag court document with respect to the concert that was held there, it is referred to 'Mons. Beethoven, forte-piano, 12 J[years]'. According to Albrecht and Cooper, the twelve-year-old was paid a higher fee than all other performing artists, namely 63 florins.
What Beethoven might have looked like around this time (appr. 1784) can be seen in a painting at Joyce Maier's Website.
To the Music Criticism of these Sonatas
What do musicologists have to say about these early works of Neefe's protegee?
Let us proceed chronologically and start with Maynard Solomon:
"The three "Electoral" Sonatas for Piano, WoO 47 (1783), are unadventurous three- movement works, with little development, utilizing simple rondo and variation techniques. Some claim they are modeled on the music of C.P.E. Bach; others hear in them echoes of Neefe, Haydn, Stamitz or Sterkel. However, in the Sonata in F minor can be heard anticipations of the Sonata, op. 13 (Pathetique) of 1798-99, and Schiedermair noted that the main theme of its third movement contains an idea that reappears in the Sonata, op. 10 no. 2, as well as in the scherzos of the Third and Fifth Symphonies" (Solomon: 46).
After Solomon's remarks, we can still offer you Barry Cooper's comment:
"The second sonata, in F minor, is perhaps the most original of the three, especially it first movement which begins with a slow introduction; this is followed by an Allegro based on falling scales, but the slow, introductory material returns unexpectedly, in B flat minor, just before the recapitulation, resulting in a highly original structure. This and the overall mood clearly foreshadow Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata. The third sonata is in D major to contrast with the flat keys of its two predecessors. Its middle movement is a minuet with six variations, the fourth of which has extremely rapid demisemiquaver figuration that is scarcely playable at a normal minuet speed. The finale, however, is headed 'scherzando', suggesting a humorous mood that was to become very common in Beethoven's music.
The three sonatas are not without their weaknesses, chief of which is, once again, insufficient sense of continuity; changes from one section to the next are often awkward, and the problem is only really overcome in the finale of No. 3. Nevertheless these sonatas show many fine and original touches, and an emphasis on orchestral style that suggests Beethoven was already looking towards composing symphonies. The custom of severing them from their thirty-two successors, by disregarding them in the standard numbering system and omitting them from supposedly complete editions and recordings of Beethoven's piano sonatas, is quite unjustifiable. There is far less distance between these three sonatas and those of Op. 49 than between the latter and the 'Hammerklavier'" (Cooper: 10-11).
Link to Listening Samples
Finally, we can also offer you a link to listening samples of these works (listening samples 1 - 12):
Listening Samples of zu WoO 47
We wish you a great deal of listening enjoyment!
For those of you who want to explore this topic further in a serious manner, we can offer you a link to the Beethoven Bibliography Data Base of the Ira Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies in San Jose, California:
WoO 47 - Search