Ludwig van Beethoven

Preludes (2) Through All 12 Major Keys, for piano (or organ), Op. 39

    Description by John Palmer

    In his later years Beethoven, like many other composers, turned to the music of J. S. Bach for new ideas. However, Beethoven's admiration of the late Baroque master began while he was still in Bonn. Possibly as an homage to Bach's preludes and fugues in every key, Beethoven composed two Preludes, both employing each of the 12 major keys. These are less successful works than his later contrapuntal masterpieces, such as the Piano Sonata No. 28, Op. 101, the first movement of the String Quartet, Op. 131, and the Grosse Fuge, Op. 133. It is possible that Beethoven wrote the Preludes, Op. 39, as composition exercises for his teacher, Christian Gottlob Neefe (1748-1798). The Preludes were published in 1803 by Hoffmeister and K├╝hnel in Leipzig.

    Each Prelude opens in C major and travels around the circle of fifths in the "sharp" direction -- C to G to D, etc. -- and end up back at C major. The Baroque conception of the pieces is most evident in the linear writing, with independent inner voices.

    The first Prelude of the pair is in common time and opens with the theme in the right hand, imitated a measure later in the left. The imitation ceases, however, after only two measures. The piece is generally in three voices with moments of four-voice texture, notably in the C sharp major segment, which for a moment abandons the eighth note pulse. The tune of the very first measure remains consistent throughout the Prelude, appearing at every change of key and for long stretches in every measure. Beethoven stresses the descending four sixteenth notes of the theme in the sections in E flat and B flat, counterbalancing these with upward motion in the F major passage before returning to the theme in full to close in C major.

    Cast in cut time, the second Prelude features a quarter-note rhythm almost exclusively. The theme, only four measures long, has fewer landmarks than the theme of the first Prelude, and the music seems to meander from key to key. The texture is consistently dense except in a few places, such as the beginning of the E major passage, which opens with one line in the left hand only. Several keys -- D, A, F sharp and E flat -- appear for only one measure each. Once Beethoven reaches C major and a nearly literal repeat of the opening measures, he begins the process again, this time allotting only one measure to each of the key areas.

    Parts/Movements

    1. No. 1
    2. No. 2

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2016 BIS BIS 1942
    2015 Avi / CAvi-music AVI 8553321
    2013 Brilliant Classics 94630
    2011 Brilliant Classics 94052
    2010 Genuin 89530
    2007 Cascade Records 2200
    2007 Brilliant Classics 93525
    1997 DG Deutsche Grammophon 453 733-2GCB8
    Naxos 553798
    Cascade Records 2235
    Brilliant 93525/59
    Nuova Era 7010