Beethoven Piano Sonata “Pathetique” in C minor
Notes by Fred Haight
Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata, in 3-PARTS (the second of the C-Minor Series)
Part One: Why is this work called “Pathetic”?
Beethoven’s electrifying Piano Sonata #8 in C minor, op.13, known as the “Pathetique”, was composed in 1798, when he was 28 years of age. It shook the musical world. Nothing like it had ever been heard. Today, we often listen passively, like it is old hat. Put yourself in the shoes of someone hearing it for the first time, and imagine the shock they felt.
Though it was his publisher who chose to call it “Grand Sonate Pathetique”, Beethoven approved of the title! Why would he approve of his work being called pathetic? Perhaps the word meant something different back then than it means today. Throughout this series, we will identify how the kindred spirits of Beethoven and the great poet Friedrich Schiller collaborated, though they never met. We have to consult Schiller in order to understand what pathetic actually means.
In his essay, On the Pathetic Schiller wrote:
“Representation of suffering (pathos)-as mere suffering-is never the end of art, but, as a means to that end, it is extremely important. The ultimate end of art is the representation of the super-sensuous, and the tragic art in particular effects this…in that it makes sensuous, our moral independence from the laws of nature, in a state of emotion.
“Only the resistance, which it expresses to the power of the emotions, makes the free principle in us recognizable; that resistance, however, can be estimated only according to the strength of the attack…nature must have first demonstrated… its entire might before our eyes..
“It is not art, to become master of feelings, which only lightly and fleetingly sweep the surface of the soul. But, to retain one’s mental freedom in a storm, which arouses all of sensuous nature, belongs to a capacity of resisting that is above all natural power; that is infinitely sublime.”
Thus, the Pathetique sonata, is not born out of personal suffering, nor does it wish to make us feel sorry for the individual who suffers—a feeling which, however heartfelt, cannot change anything. Rather, it demonstrates to us the potential to bring about change, by summoning something deep within, that rallies us to: “take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them.”
We provide a recording of the first movement, by the late Claudio Arrau, who resisted an overly-rushed tempo. We will discuss the scientific aspect, in the next episode.