The creation of a canon: Patterns in reception of Beethoven's piano sonatas

Date of Completion

January 2003






The thirty-two piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven have long enjoyed canonic status in both the concert hall and the classroom, a distinction in part based on their critical reception history during the years 1800–1900. The nineteenth-century reception history of the Beethoven piano sonatas, while generally positive in its assessment of the repertoire, is characterized by great diversity of authors, published material, and intellectual approach. The critical reception that appeared during Beethoven's lifetime is especially challenging to evaluate. Reviewers in these early days of music journalism were mostly enthusiastic about Beethoven's sonatas, but they were unsure how to account for his originality and often relied upon anachronistic aesthetic criteria in rendering their judgments. The early writings of Adolph Bernhard Marx had a profound impact on the development of Beethoven reception, and his reviews of Beethoven's last three sonatas demonstrated an Idealist approach that established an important precedent for future reception of the late music. Reception of individual sonatas in the remainder of the nineteenth century was largely programmatic in nature, apparent in the multitude of poems and stories that were troped onto the music. It was also very common for authors to interpret individual sonatas, especially the Sonata in C-sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 2, as a musical reaction to an event or series of events from Beethoven's own life. Publications that addressed the sonatas collectively were framed in more formalist parameters. The books of Wilhelm von Lenz and Ernst von Elterlein viewed the sonatas as a basis for tripartite periodization of Beethoven's music, while Marx and Carl Reinecke each published pedagogically-oriented guides marketed toward the player. A monumental two-volume book by Wilibald Nagel intertwined analyses of the sonatas with hermeneutic interpretation and pointed the way for twentieth-century Beethoven criticism. Broadly considered, the reception history of the Beethoven piano sonatas provides an illuminating narrative of the process by which this repertoire entered and remained in the Western music canon. Their performance history and critical reception in the nineteenth century echo the network of cultural values that appraised these sonatas as structurally and aesthetically definitive, a view widely held still today. ^