In many ways Beethoven is the most personal composer of all time. As modern concert-going has paradoxically become a more private experience, many have found his supreme accomplishments in the works for smaller forces -- the string quartets, of course, and the piano sonatas, that most solitary and concentrated of performance situations, a single musician alone on a stage.
As Beethoven ended his twenties and began his thirties, his piano music underwent the first of many stylistic transformations. Gone was the brilliant pianism of his earlier sonatas, cast aside in favor of a new, more mellower Beethoven emphasizing tranquillity, lyricism, and serenity.
This new, more spiritual style, drawing on the balanced intimacy of string quartet writing (so evident right from the opening of the "Pastoral" Sonata), foreshadows Beethoven's late works, where he completely transcended the world of the piano's hammers and strings and reached his greatest spiritual heights.
One interesting way Beethoven creates tranquillity in the "Pastoral" Sonata is through the repeated use, throughout the sonata, of long pedal-points in the bass. This serves not only to create stability but to draw and focus our attention away from small details to the larger motions and structural events of the music. Compare this with the earlier sonatas such as op. 7, where textures change abruptly and in quicksilver fashion.
Beethoven had, in effect, found an ingenious way to change the level and scale at which we listen to music. Some 85 years later, in Mahler's Symphony no. 1, we can hear this idea of pedal-points creating large plateaus of sound taken to a further extreme. In that piece, we can easily take in minutes of sound as a single "chunk."
Beethoven's op. 7 sonata is perhaps the most intriguing of the early sonatas. Already we see Beethoven establishing his trademark style: vivacious, impetuous music full of drama, rhythmic energy, contrast between the utmost extremes, and the element of surprise.
To form one's own style at such an early age is remarkable, but for Beethoven this question of identity (both musically and personally) was to be a life-long obsession. Our image of Beethoven as a non-conformist, rugged individualist was largely true, as we know now from his numerous letters and writings.
In early Beethoven the issue of identity is musically tied up with the notion of differentiation. Judging from reports of his piano performance and conducting style, Beethoven emphasized and exaggerated differences in music far more than his predecessors. Each movement, each section, each phrase seems imbued with an individual character, and dramatic, even gut-wrenching contrasts naturally resulted from the combination of all these imaginative parts. And yet, the sequence of textures is brilliantly conceived to make a fascinating journey. Beethoven's new music could not be listened to in a detached, objective way; it drew you in for an emotional and spiritual roller-coaster ride...
Beethoven said, "Art always demands of us something new," and indeed his music is brimming with new ideas. The performer is presented the rarity of a surplus of riches. The fruit is ripe and easily harvested.