In Beethoven’s relatively short life he devoted significant time to composing for the instrument that he made his own: the piano. Even though Beethoven composed nine astonishing Symphonies, sonatas, and concertos for violin, string quartets, and choral works it is perhaps his piano music where we meet face to face with the monumental spirit of Beethoven.
Aside from the five Piano Concertos Beethoven composed a total of thirty-two Piano Sonatas. Each sonata has merits of its own and is abundant with challenges and delights in equal measure, but which is considered to be the easiest and which the most difficult?
Beethoven Sonatas By Difficulty
The question raised in the article’s title only prompts further questions that seek to clarify what can be understood by difficulty. In all of the thirty-two Beethoven sonatas, there is a technical difficulty but there are also the more elusive interpretative challenges. The purely technical can in a sense is measured by the demands that Beethoven makes on the pianist however tasking any pianist with the problem of realizing Beethoven’s musical intentions can prove more difficult.
There appears to be broad agreement amongst pianists that the ‘easiest’ sonatas are what attract the sub-title ‘Leichte Sonata’ or literally ‘light sonata’. Beethoven composed the Piano Sonatas 19 and 20 (Op.49; Nos 1 & 2 in G minor and G Major), between 1795-6 with intention of them being played by friends or keen amateur musicians and students.
This sounds as if these two-movement sonatas can be easily dismissed but this is not the case. Even though they may be ‘light’ sonatas in that they have a brief duration, they are works of substance and merit on many levels. Technically they do not make the demands of other sonatas but they are not simple to play with the attention to detail they need.
The Sonatas that follow numbers 19 & 20 are No. 25 in G (Op.79);
No.9 in E (Op.14; No.1);
No.10 in G (Op.14; No.2);
No.1 in F minor (Op.2; No.1),
and No.5 in C minor, (Op.10; No1).
These are for many pianists, but not without exception, in steadily progressive order of difficulty. Each of these fine works has a breath-taking selection of technical and interpretative challenges to offer any pianist. No.25 is nicknamed ‘The Cuckoo’ and is only a little longer in duration that nos. 19 & 20.
Nevertheless, this sonata is not straight forward to play fluently and with the necessary nuance. The F minor Sonata (No.1), Beethoven dedicates to Haydn and even though their relationship was not the sunniest, Beethoven held Haydn in the highest of esteem even if he was loathed to publicly admit it.
The sonata has many traits of Haydn that bring humor and eloquence to the composition. It already has the voice of Beethoven sounding though the music and is a test for any accomplished pianist.
Interestingly, many pianists place the ‘Pathétique Sonata’, (No.8; Op.13), at this point in the list.
As one of Beethoven’s most adored and admired works, it presents an array of intricacies that a less than diligent pianist could overlook. The next sonata equal in terms of popularity has been placed towards the middle of the difficulty list. This is the ‘Moonlight Sonata’ (No. 14 in C# minor; Op.27; No.2).
There is sometimes mention that the last movement is the only one that displays any genuine challenge but this is a dangerous stance to adopt in the face of so many blasé performances that substitute speed for poise, clarity, and understanding of the composer’s intentions. The C minor Sonata does represent a significant leap forward for Beethoven’s formal development of the concept of a sonata and the sub-title ‘quasi un fantasia’ underlines this. For me, this sonata also contains some of Beethoven’s most lyrical melodic writing, notably in the central slow movement.
Moving through the Sonatas, Nos. 7, 6, 15, 3, 12, and 18 all come before the famous ‘Moonlight Sonata’; Op.27; No.2.
The opening movement is the one that presents a range of technical and musical challenges. Here, the balance between the hands is vital as well as maintaining the delicate phrasing of the melody without allowing it to be overpowered by the triplet accompanying figure. Equally the central movement is not to be easily dismissed whilst the finale if tackled at too faster a tempo can easily become jumbled nonsense.
As we progress towards the more difficult of the thirty-two sonatas, we encounter No.26 (‘Les Adieux’);
and the infamous ‘Appassionata’, No. 23.
Each of these monumental works demands virtuosic technical facilities at many points during the works. This is not enough to produce a credible and convincing performance, as I would suggest a thorough knowledge of Beethoven is crucial to playing these later Sonatas well and with the eloquence they deserve.
At the far end of the list is the Piano Sonata No.29; Op. 106 in B flat major. This Sonata has been given the title of ‘Hammerklavier’ and almost without exception is felt to be the most difficult piano sonata Beethoven composed.
What you discover in this sonata is almost every facet of the Beethovian style from highly experimental harmonic shifts, reinvented structures, gigantic moments of explosive emotion, and rich, melancholic melodic writing. It feels as if Beethoven is pushing the instrument and the performer to the very limits of what is physically and emotionally possible.
This is an immense sonata lasting as long as fifty minutes. It requires some substantial physical stamina as well as considerable concentration to deliver a performance of this work. At the time, many considered it to be unplayable but Franz Liszt was one of the first pianists to play it publicly. The four movements of the sonata each are worlds in their own right. Even though Beethoven uses ‘sonata form’ for the first movement the development section takes the structure into remarkable and unpredictable territory.
The second movement ‘Scherzo: Assai Vivace’, lightens the mood for a short time before the central slow movement.
There is no possible way to hear and learn this movement other than through the comprehension of its expression of pain. It seems to look forward to the works of Chopin and Liszt but is cloaked in the sorrow that haunted Beethoven all his life. For the finale, Beethoven pulls out all the stops and fluently composes one of the most difficult pieces ever written for the piano that includes a fugue that is a masterful piece of contrapuntal writing.