Composed between 1801 and 1802.
The first sonata of Op.31 is by far the funniest of the 32 Beethoven sonatas, and it is a bit difficult to explain why it is not one of the most famous of all; all movements feature engaging melodies and brims with humor from subtle to ironically gross.
You’ve got the first movement, where the hands can’t play together and the development is built almost entirely around an apparently inconsequential motif, the second, which is a joyfully overlong and increasingly absurd parody of (bad) Italian opera, and the third, full of wily chromatic movement and wry counterpoint.
Czerny reported that Beethoven declared after writing the sonata no. 15: I'm not very satisfied with the work I've done so far. From this day on I will take a new way. An important concert of Beethoven's works took place at the Theatre an der Wien, Tuesday, April 5, 1802. The program consisted of the Symphony no. 2, op. 36, the Piano Concerto no. 3, op. 37, and the oratorio Christus am Oelberge (revised two years later and published as op. 85). Reviews were mixed, but the well-attended concert was a huge financial success. There is evidence that the composer was aware of the concordat that Napoleon signed with Pope Pius VII, a document that restored the ownership and influence of the Catholic Church after the ravages of the French Revolution. During this time, Beethoven admired Napoleon as a hero who fought for the poor and who had opposed the oppression of French royalty. Beethoven later withdrew his approval when Napoleon's military initiatives began to threaten Vienna.
Beethoven received a request from the Zurich publisher Hans Georg Nägeli (1773–1836) to include three sonatas in a project entitled Répertoire des Clavincinistes. Beethoven negotiated a fee and began writing the three Op. 31 sonatas. Nägeli published the first two sonatas in the spring of 1803 without having sent proofs to the composer. Beethoven found so many errors in them (approximately eighty apparently) that he immediately instructed his brother Carl to send them to the Bonn publishing house. Nikolaus Simrock (1751–1832), who published a corrected edition a few months later. Giovanni Cappi published all three sonatas together for the first time in 1805, erroneously called Op. 29. These first editions differ in many details. Scholars believe that all three may contain errors, the Simrock and Cappi editions having copied some of Nägeli's errors and added more of their own, possibly due to haste. There are no autographs for these sonatas. Sketches suggest that sonata No. 17 was written first, and sonata No. 16 > began as a string quartet.
The first and third movements of this work are filled with humor through rests, sforzandi, dynamic contrasts, and prolonged cadences. The second movement is unique among sonatas for its barcarole spirit and elaborate ornamentation. Unfortunately, this sonata has been dismissed by some of the early writers as inferior, possibly because they did not recognize the humor of the outer movements or the elegance of the second.
The first, second and third movements open with melodic lines moving towards the G key.
The opening theme consists of two elements, one with a descending motif in the form of a scale and chords that alternate between the hands. First in G major, then immediately in F major. This relationship is often discussed in the opening of Sonata No. 23 but overlooked in this sonata, it is possible that the rhythmic juxtaposition of chords in this theme , competitions at bars 4, 6, etc., as well as the extended dominant arpeggios and fermata, at bars 39 to 45, are intended to be humorous.
The second theme and its following elaboration alternate between B major and B minor, the exposition coming to a rest in the minor mode. The remark about the pitch relationships of the first theme, the use of the median as the pitch for the second theme area can often be seen in Sonata No. 23 but bypassing this work, the juxtaposition of G major and B major can also be seen in the Piano Concerto no. 4, Op. 58, at the opening of the first movement.
The alternate chords of the first theme open on G major and progress through C minor and F major, stopping at B♭ major.
The scaled figure of the first theme is extended into a more elaborate passage, developing in B♭ major, C minor, and D minor.
The dominant arpeggios of the exposition are recalled and are followed by a more dominant setup using the rhythm associated with alternating chords and adding a minor ninth from bar 182.
The opening segment of the second theme area alternates between E major and E minor.
The second theme arrives at the opening tone, which becomes the basis for the material used in the repetition of the rest of the exposition.
The coda opens with the scale of the first theme, as a passage, which is prolonged in arpeggios in dominant key.
Clever use of thematic bits, silences, and dynamic contrasts combine to create a mockery, bordering on humorous in this move, often eliciting laughter from the audience.
This movement features an elaborate ornamental passage, there are cadences, trills and double notes, similar to accompaniments on a guitar. The meter may suggest the Venetian gondolier music known as the barcarolle, a style later incorporated into piano pieces by Mendelssohn, Chopin, Poulenc, Bartók, and others.
Each A section is made up of an internal ABA array. The return of section A is larger after section B is much more decorated than its initial declaration.
The B section opens with continuous sixteenth notes up to bar 53, first in C minor and then in A♭ major. Less actively the transition follows in bars 53–64, but the sixteenth note activity returns in the A section, which now appears as an accompaniment to the A theme.
The coda continues with decoration, it opens with multiple trills. A reference to the opening phrase appears in the left-hand theme at bar 108.
Beethoven calls this movement a rondo, but it is related to a sonata-allegro, for the two B sections are in the dominant and the tonic respectively, the C section develops the A theme, and the final return of A breaks up into the coda. This arrangement is reminiscent of the final movement of Sonata No. 13.
The development of the A theme moves kaleidoscopically through G minor, C minor, E♭ major, C minor, F minor, B♭ minor, A♭ major, and G minor, using fragmentation, imitation and extension.
An additional section based on material from theme A paves the way for the final return within a development.
The last appearance of theme A is in a fragmented form with separate phrases, tempo changes, and long breaks.
The final coda moves to a presto tempo based on the opening of the A theme. As in the coda of the first movement, staccato chords, rests and dynamics generate humor.