A Tale of Two Rondos: Beethoven's Sonata in C major, Opus 53 (Waldstein), and Clementi's Sonata in C major, Opus 34, no. 1

James MacKay, Loyola University New Orleans

Beethoven's Waldstein Sonata, Opus 53 (1804) is widely considered a landmark in piano music. Its extended upper range and expanded role of the damper pedal stems from his acquisition of a 5½ octave Erard piano in 1803, while its harmonic boldness furthers the experiments of his Opus 31 piano sonatas. Its rondo finale explores new sonic vistas with its middle-register arpeggios, embedded in a wash of pedal, which Heinrich Schenker calls "a spiritual, almost transcendental, binding together of larger groups," while Alfred Casella praises its "ethereal and diaphanous sound."

Despite the finale's novel opening sonority, the movement has a clear precedent in a movement written nearly a decade earlier by Muzio Clementi: the concluding rondo of his Sonata in C major, Opus 34, no. 1, published in 1795. Clementi's finale begins with a wash of sound in the upper register, whose sonorous quality greatly resembles the sound-world of the Waldstein's rondo. (The Erard for which Beethoven composed Opus 53 resembled in sonority the English keyboards for which Clementi wrote his Opus 34 sonatas.) Moreover, both rondos feature a distinctly Hungarian B section, and a lengthy, mysterious retransition to their A section's final statement.

Beethoven likely knew of this precedent: he held Clementi's keyboard music in high regard and owned many of his works. While acknowledging Beethoven's more expansive conception (his vast 140-measure coda has no equivalent in Clementi's rondo), internal evidence suggests that Clementi's work served as a model for the Waldstein rondo, which Beethoven composed as a respectful homage.