Beethoven’s “missing” piano sonatas: the three Kurfürstensonaten, WoO 47

Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas have been declared “The New Testament” of solo keyboard music, with Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier the “Old Testament”.
What even some longterm Beethoven aficionados are unaware of (as was I, to my great shame) is that the canonical count of 32 (beginning with Op. 2 Nr. 1 in F minor, and ending with Op. 111 in C minor) excludes several juvenile works that Beethoven didn’t feel merited an Opus number.

Much has — rightly — been made of Mozart being a child prodigy at composition. Beethoven is often cited casually as a “late bloomer” in comparison, as he was in his mid-twenties when Three Piano Trios, Op. 1 and the Op. 2 piano sonatas were published. Yet at age twelve and thirteen, he wrote three piano sonatas dedicated to his first patron, the Kurfürst [i.e., Prince-Elector] of Cologne, Prince-Bishop Maximilian Friedrich von Königsegg-Rothenfels. These are known among musicologists as the Kurfürstensonaten, and numbered WoO 47: WoO stands for Werk ohne Opuszahl [work without an opus number] in German, but can conveniently be read as “without Opus” by English speakers.

They are clearly juvenile works, but already harbingers of the greatness that is to come. Particularly WoO 47 Nr. 2 in F minor floored me when I first heard it: one can hear foreshadowing of some elements of the later Pathetique Op. 13 in the related key of C minor (which has one “flat” fewer). I am obviously not the first, and won’t be the last, to note that Beethoven often gravitated to C minor and F minor (or their relative majors Eb and Ab, respectively) for his most “Sturm und Drang” works.

WoO 47 No 2 in F minor, performed by Mikhail Pletnev

I won’t deny that Op. 2 No. 1 in the same key — written when Beethoven was twice as old, and dedicated to his composition teacher Joseph Haydn — is a much more mature work, but this doesn’t stop me from enjoying this early work.

A lighter side of young Beethoven comes out in WoO 47 No. 3 in D major.

Enjoy!