Beethoven: Sonata 17 ‘The Tempest’

June Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven

painting of beethoven with music score

‘The TEMPEST’ Sonata 17 in D minor, 1801-02

I have quite an emotional attachment to Sonata 17. After Liszt’s La Campanella this was the piece that not only hooked me but reeled me in. It has influenced works of fiction I’ve written and is one of the reasons I thought of starting this project in the first place. It is also why I had to come to Beethoven after Liszt.

At 25 minutes Sonata 17 comes in three movements. It’s written in traditional sonata form of fast- slow- fast. But really it’s a twinkling, rolling, thundering piece which moves to the next movement without quite leaving behind the last movement. The influence of the beginning is there at the end and the middle and as it goes on this journey, it does something to my heart. It’s full of love and storms and never-ending rolling drama and I can see why at a glance it might have been compared to Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

To me this music is a wide flowing river with lush water meadows all around it. The seasons passing over this scene like a time lapse camera. As winter falls the magnificent skeletal oaks lose their leaves, the nearby wheat fields lay harvested and empty. The calm surface of the river belies a frantic energetic nonstop motion underneath. It is life and death to those that live around it.

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Storms amass over head. They come and go and blow and rage and the next dawn the river remains unchanged, the water fervent, forever flowing away from something and towards something else. It cannot stop. Around it the seasons continue to change, daffodils and tulips line the water meadows, the skeletal oak trees sprout new leaves and the water moves on and stays the same at the same time.

stormclouds over fields

Again we get a sense of Beethoven’s fiery temperamental undercurrent. He never married, although he was close to both his brothers and adopted his nephew Karl (a relationship that too was fraught and dramatic). He was known for eccentricity and erratically odd behaviour, but such fame these days would have found him inundated with lovers and perhaps he was back then. This is the pre-Liszt rock star times. He was revered Beethoven but he wasn’t the seductress that Liszt was. So I suspect that what we get instead is all this energy, all this inner turmoil, possibly even loneliness, grief, poured into pieces of music like this. What might we have lost, by way of fire and passion and ill temperament if he had had somewhere else to direct those emotions and all that energy.

*Images courtesy of public domain and the author

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