Q&A: Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata – Practising the Piano

I had a question from a reader this week who requested some suggestions for the tremolos in Beethoven’s Sonata op. 31 no. 2, often referred to as the “Tempest Sonata”.

Q: I find it difficult to make the development section of this piece interesting. The rolled chords seem boring when I play them, and I get self-conscious. Maybe this is why the tremolos in the right hand afterwards feel stiff and awkward too. 

I find it most interesting that you relate your awkwardness in the long tremolo section to feelings of self-consciousness in the previous few bars, rather than any specific technical (mechanical) difficulty with the tremolo itself. The opening bars of the development section (marked Largo) are not difficult to play from a technical point of view, but they require some organisation and imagination.

The Largo

The most obvious practical issue with the Largo (bars 93-98) has to do with how we organise the rolled chords. We are clearly going to need to make a decision about which hand plays what, and there are several solutions to this. My suggestion is to try not only the solution in the edition you have, but to consult other editions too. I work from a Henle score, but I have several others on my shelves for reference. Schnabel has an excellent way of doing this, but here are two from editions freely available in the Petrucci Library – from Sigmund Lebert’s and Alfredo Casella’s editions.

Sigmund Lebert
Sigmund Lebert


Alfredo Casella
Alfredo Casella

After you’ve decided on which hand plays what, you’ll need to think about the speed and shape of the spread chords. Are you going to play each at the same speed, or are some faster than the others? How do we decide? I suggest first playing the progression of harmony as block chords in whatever reduction works for you (something like what I have below), and listen to the relative intensity levels of the chords. The diminished chord in bar 2 has an air of mystery about it, while the F# major chord in its second inversion is magical (for me it’s the softest of the three). Any second inversion chord is going to need something else to happen after it – do you feel it might be the promise of a I64-V7-I progression into F# major that never ends up happening?


I take the first spread at a leisurely pace, the second somewhat faster and the last one rather slowly (and as softly as I can).

It is important to hold onto the last note of each phrase, the note marked with the fermata. Hold this note and don’t move your body! Beethoven is stopping and thinking about where he is going next. We know what’s coming next because we have heard the work hundreds of times, but we must create an atmosphere of mystery and suspense. In the crotchet rests at the end of bars 94 and 96, move slowly but directly to the next hand positions without giving anything away.


Notice the fermata in bar 98 is over a semibreve (whole note). There is no rest at the end of the bar. What does this mean? To me, it means hold it longer and move into the ff bar at the last possible moment. This maximises the dramatic outburst in F# minor.

The Long Tremolo

Let’s move to the tremolo itself. Again, your choice of fingering is going to be very important and there are a few possibilities.

Here’s what appears in Schenker’s edition:


Using 2+1 with 4 in alternation for this RH tremolo is a strong choice (Henle has this fingering too) but again it is not the only one. Schnabel uses 3+1 with 5, which I admit I find very awkward. Kendall Taylor in his excellent edition (particularly good for fingerings) prefers 3+2 with 5 (and then moving to 4+1 with 5 in bar 103).

Whichever fingering you settle on, you’re going to need to control the tremolo rhythmically so that it fits together with the LH precisely (the tremolo is not a free-for-all). Practising with accents on the crotchet beats is good to begin with. Add a strong accent to the first note(s) on every RH group of three, playing the second and third notes very lightly. If you like, you can practise using a slow-quick-quick slow rhythm (and the inverse quick-quick-slow, but make sure to accent the first “quick” and not the “slow”). From here, accent in groups of six (a strong accent on the first note of the triplets that fall on each of the two main beats in the bar).

A practice suggestion that works extremely well is to play the LH complete at full speed adding selected notes in the RH while omitting others. For example, first apply this pattern to the whole of the passage (bar 99 – 119):


And next, this skeleton:


From here, you might pursue the idea further – play the first three RH groups in each bar and omit the last; play one bar complete (landing on the downbeat of the next) and taking one bar off, etc (you can generate more possibilities). At all times make sure to play the LH complete while observing Beethoven’s forte and piano contrasts carefully.

Needless to say you’ll need to use forearm rotation to drive the RH – the fingers alone won’t do the job. The hand needs to be somewhat firm, the movements generated from the forearm with the elbow kept stable (in other words, not wobbling around or dropping down). The rotary movements should be enough to keep you loose, but if you sense fatigue setting in you can experiment with adding to the rotations very tiny movements along the length of the key (a very small arc from front of the key towards the back of the key, and then back out again).

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