Variations: Beethoven’s Sweet, Sunday Second Movement of Sonata No. 8 in C Minor

Don’t judge a piece of music by its genre. It’s as simple as that. Atwood Magazine’s ‘Variations’ column discovers and discusses pieces, composers, conductors, old and new, all of which have contributed to the growth and expansion of the Classical genre. Turning grey from misrepresentation and preconceived notions, engaging with Classical music can dissolve the elitist, rule-bound confines of its historical origin and remind the mainstream of its relevance and significance.

András Schiff breathes innocence into Beethoven’s “Adagio Cantabile,” maintaining a borderline sunny mood from the core movement of the Pathetique Sonata in C Minor.

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 13- “Pathetique” 2: Adagio Cantabile. Simple translation: Beethoven’s emotional piece for piano in a slow, singing style. The Pathetique is one of the 19th century classical composer’s most celebrated sonatas. Written in 1798 when he was only 27 years old, the piece helped solidify Beethoven’s reputation as a skilled pianist and popular composer.

"Pathétique" sheet music
“Pathétique” sheet music

Of the three movements that comprise the complete Pathetique sonata, I find the second movement to stand alone as an amiable listen. “Adagio Cantabile” does not continuously introduce new melodies and textures ⏤ it’s mildly dynamic and melodically repetitive. It’s steady. While C Minor might be the key of the entire Pathetique, “Adagio Cantabile” modulates between major and minor keys making for a rich, melancholy sound ⏤ not too bright and excitable, and not too depressing and dark. While the movement does venture slightly in its three explorations of the main melodic theme, it’s a local sort of venture ⏤ noticeable distinctions, not distractions.

The experience of listening to “Adagio Cantabile” is to be fully immersed ⏤ effortless listening on a Sunday morning stroll, or a relaxing moment in the midst of a busy day. There are no jarring evolutions that snap you out of its ease. When experienced between listening to the movements that come before and after, its straightforward nature is only emphasized in comparison. The third movement in the Pathetique sonata features fast, scale-y runs up and down the keyboard. Highly technical and mesmerizing in its own right, but certainly stuns with its sonic diversions.

Hungarian pianist András Schiff  breathes innocence into “Adagio Cantabile” through his own interpretation and performance. In playfully falling into each rearticulation of theme and momentarily delaying phrase endings, he separates the movement into distinct parts without prioritizing one over another. Keeping frills and embellishments to a minimum, the second movement played through Schiff’s fingers moves like a lullaby. Climbing in register through swells as opposed to leaps, and keeping the triplets in the last thematic iteration light and spirited, Schiff’s interpretation of Beethoven’s movement maintains a borderline sunny mood ⏤ perhaps an unforeseen vibe coming from the core movement of the Pathetique Sonata in C Minor.

András Schiff
András Schiff

Listen to András Schiff’s live performance of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 13- “Pathetique” 2: Adagio Cantabile, alone or in context with the other two movements, below.

“Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor” – Beethoven

‘The Piano Sonatas, Volume II’ – Beethoven / András Schiff

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