Composed between 1801 and 1802.
The Tempest Sonata is one of those crazy feats of compositional genius whose sheer craft is undetectable because it’s so emotionally compelling from the very first listen. But there is no harm in briefly listing what makes it so extraordinary, I suppose.
In the 1st movement nearly everything is built up from the first line of music – the motifs of a arpeggio, scale, and turn. It’s kind of impossible to unhear once you know they’re there, and it’s a level of motivic integration that represents the perfection of the technique Haydn developed. There’s also the incredibly dramatic use of long, developed, recitative-like passages as contrast to passages of searing intensity, and the introduction of wonderfully dark new material in the recapitulation. The 2nd movement is unreasonably beautiful, and the famous 3rd features some of the most gorgeous modulations ever put to paper. Note also how the dramatic movement happens not in the almost unchanging figuration, but in the harmony, where turbulence and restlessness is often followed by very long periods of total harmonic stasis, usually as a dominant preparation.
The Tempest nickname comes from Anton Felix Schindler (1795–1864), a Moravian violinist who was Beethoven's domestic assistant in the 1820s, when the composer needed help due to to his hearing disability. After hearing a performance of this sonata and the Sonata No. 23, Schindler reported asking the composer: Give me the key to these sonatas, and Beethoven replied: Just read Shakespeare's The Tempest. Although Schindler's account mentions two sonatas, the one with the nickname Tempest was attached only to this one. Schindler is reputed to have magnified his importance in the composer's life in his biography of Beethoven (1840, revised 1860). Contemporaries denounced Schindler's reporting as inaccurate. In addition, recent investigations found that Schindler forged texts in Beethoven's conversation books.
The first and second movements open with slow arpeggios, followed by a rising motif at bars 1 and 2 in the first movement and at bar 2 in the second.
The rising motif of the first movement ends on the fifth of the scale; the ascending motif of the second movement goes to the third of its key; the opening motif of the third movement moves to the tonic on the first downbeat. These reasons sound similar.
All nicknames for the sonatas were given by third parties, none by Beethoven himself.
The slow opening and its appearance throughout the movement is reminiscent of the first movement of sonata no. 8, although in this work the opening slow is much shorter and indicates a motif that becomes an integral part of the first theme wherever it is used.
The first theme consists of two motivic ideas. The first is an ascending chord scheme that appears in a Long tempo, bars 1 and 2, 7 and 8. Slowly rolled chords that start a four-note motif, it would seem the Signature of Beethoven. This ascending chord motif reappears in the Allegro section from bars 21 and 22, here without introductory arpeggios.
The second motif comprises a fast two-note eighth-note figure, in Allegro tempo, beginning at bar to bar 3.
The second theme area opens in the dominant minor, being linked to the second motif of the first theme by its use of a two-note figure in eighth notes, albeit in a different pattern.
A new section on minor acts to bring the exhibition to a close. After opening with cadences of syncopated chords, it continues with hands exchanging motifs, one hand playing eight-note patterns, the other playing two-note slurs and longer sustained lines.
The broken chord arpeggios heard in the opening return, now more elaborate and written with grace notes, move from the second inversion in D major through an inversion of a diminished triad on D♯ to the second inversion of F♯ major, each arpeggio culminating in the reaffirmation of the prominent four-note motif in the exposition.
The four-note motif in its Allegro form provides the basis for this section opening in F♯ minor, moving to outline tonic chords in B minor, G major, C major, A major. and D minor, and coming to rest on the dominant of the opening tone.
This section functions as a transition to the recapitulation, unfolding in a pattern of eight notes in thirds that decorate the dominant harmony and coming to rest with descending whole-note chords and a descending monophonic line.
The recapitulation is unusual in that much of the material is rewritten, more so than in any other of the composer's piano sonatas to this point.
The motifs that open the movement are each expanded with single-line recitatives. These are marked to be played with the pedal in all early sources. Line results get blurry, especially nowadays with modern pianos. Some publishers offer alternatives in the use of the pedal, and some recommend a half pedal. The evidence can be traced through five parts in which Beethoven commented that the passage should sound like a voice in a vault.
The last note of this measure, a sixteenth note, is in dispute. Early editions print D♭, but it is changed to C in an extant copy given as a gift by the composer. Therefore, it is possible that Beethoven himself made the change.
There is no counterpart in the exhibition for this hectic pace. It features passage chords and arpeggios describing cadences in F♯ minor, G minor and diminished seventh chords leading to the second theme area.
There is no significant coda, but at the close the measures expand the sonority in D minor with chords and arpeggios in the left hand, once again invoking the use of the damper pedal.
The structure of the sonata-form without development is sometimes called truncated sonata-allegro. The structure also occurs in the second movements of sonata No. 1, No. 5, and with a slight modification, No. 26, in this movement the end of the exposition is at bar 42, the recapitulation begins at bar 43.
This material acts as a transition to the second theme, passing to the dominant one in the exhibition. It has considerable importance in the movement ensemble, however, due to its length, its tension, and the striking drumroll triplets in the lower register of the keyboard. The material again functions as a closing section for both the exposition and the recapitulation.
The second theme appears as expected in the dominant and tonic.
This part of the recapitulation is varied by the inclusion of an arpeggio in 1/32 backing notes. Note the similarity to the recapitulation of the second movement of sonata no. 1, where part of the reappearance of the first theme is also more elaborate.
This coda uses the opening motivic figure of the first theme, expanding it slightly. The final part stands out for its variety and fine texture, suggesting an orchestral coloration.
Although delivered in sonata-allegro form, this movement proceeds in perpetual motion using sixteenth-note melodies or accompaniments almost without interruption. In this sense its perpetual motion is similar to the final movement of the sonata no. 12.
The second thematic area is in the dominant minor, minor key. This relationship also occurs in Sonata No. 1, fourth movement; Sonata No. 14, third movement; Sonata No. 23, third movement, and Sonata No. 27, first movement.
The development is based solely on a figuration of the opening theme. It moves in G minor, A minor, diminished sevenths resolving to D minor, C minor, B♭ minor, and G♭ major, reaffirming the theme in B♭ minor, and finally moving into a dominant setup for the recapitulation.
One change plays B♭ minor, F minor, C minor, and G minor.
A long coda based on the first theme recalls the opening of the development section, settles into a reaffirmation of the first theme marked fortissimo until bar 351, and extends the closing theme with cadence figuration.