The Waldstein receives its name from Beethoven's dedication to Count Ferdinand Ernst Gabriel von Waldstein of Vienna, a patron as well as a close personal friend of Beethoven's. Like the Archduke Trio (one of many pieces dedicated to Archduke Rudolf), this one bears Waldstein's name though there are other works dedicated to him. This sonata is also known as 'L'Aurora' (The Dawn) in Italian, for the sonority of the opening chords, which conjures an image of daybreak.
The substantial movements of the work are the first and third, each taking about 11 minutes to perform.
The sonata opens with repeated chords, played pianissimo. This initial straightforward, but anxious rhythm is devoid of melody for two bars. It then swiftly ascends and follows with a three-note descent in the middle register and a four-note descent in the upper. More of this teasing rhythm rumbles forward, until 45 seconds later, when the notes seem to almost stumble over themselves.
The second subject group, marked dolce, is a sweet chordal theme in E major. Though not unprecedented (the first movement of the Op. 31 No. 1 sonata also has a second group in the mediant), this was the first major work in which Beethoven had chosen to modulate elsewhere than the customary fifth up for the second group, an idea to which he would return to later (in the Hammerklavier Sonata, for example).
The Rondo begins with a sweet and consoling tune played pianissimo, which soon comes back fortissimo, over daringly fast scales in the left hand and a continuous trill on the dominant in the right. Beethoven then introduces the second theme—a series of broken chords in triplets—but soon interrupts it with a turbulent section in A minor that foreshadows the central episode.
Soon the music returns to C major, and the sweet theme is repeated before being followed by a series of staccato octaves in C minor that mark the start of the central episode, one of the few cases of where such melodic change is seen, a theme repeated in larger works like the Emperor Piano Concerto. Soon the octaves are accompanied by swirling triplets in first the left and then right hands; the music grows more tense and runs into a series of angular chords, which transitions into a more quiet and almost mysterious section, which returns after much drama to the C major theme, which is then played in a triumphant fortissimo.
The second theme reappears, followed by another long line of beautiful dance-like music, which is perfectly characteristic of Beethoven. Another series of fortissimo chords is struck, ushering in a short, delicate pianissimo section, and the movement seems to die away, but then unexpectantly segues into the Prestissimo coda, a wondrous section that plays with the various themes of the movement and more before ending in a triumphant rush of grandeur.