In the second theme of the recapitulation of Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata where the bass line goes into the treble clef and the bass register becomes part of the melody, I see the marking ben tenuto il basso. I tried looking it up last night and couldn't find an answer. Google translate said that this means "well held down", but that wouldn't be the musical definition, I know it wouldn't.

From finding out that ben in Italian means well and my knowledge of Italian musical terms, here is the best that I could translate it to:

Well held in the bass

So from that translation, here is what I think Beethoven is trying to get across with that marking:

Hold the bass notes as though there was a fermata in the bass, in other words, longer than your normal tenuto, while the melody is an accented staccato.

Is that what Beethoven is trying to get across with the marking?

EDIT: Here is what I see in the Schirmer edition, or whenever I look at Sonata Album Book II published by the same people. I use the Schirmer edition, partly because it makes it so easy to see where the recapitulation starts. But here is what I see in that edition:

enter image description here

As you can see, ben tenuto il basso is clearly marked here under the same measure that has the poco crescendo marking.

  • In my edition of the Pathetique Sonata I can not find that expression "ben tenuto il basso" anywhere. I looked at a couple of edtions on IMSLP and did not find that expression there either, On IMSLP there is an urtext edition, but also here I could not find that expression anywhere. There are many editions on IMSLP and I didn't check all of them. But I get the impression that Beethoven did not write it. Anyway please post an image so we can see it. Commented May 1, 2019 at 12:33
  • I posted an image from the edition that I have, the Schirmer edition which has that marking.
    – Caters
    Commented May 1, 2019 at 15:19
  • Thanks for the image @Caters. I found the Schirmer edition on IMSLP and took a look. It is the publisher's suggestion on how to interprete the music. I can see there are several suggestions in this edition not indicated by Beethoven. So in my opinion "ben tenuto il basso" in this case simply suggests that the whole notes should be played as a melodic line and not just as a note on the first beat in each bar. I would say that that is how pianists would usually actually play it even it is not spelled out by Beethoven, because it makes musically sense. Commented May 1, 2019 at 18:30
  • An addition to my former comment: It should hopefully be clear that you do not need to worry about what you think Beethoven is trying to get across because Beethoven did NOT write "ben tenuto il basso". Commented May 1, 2019 at 23:00

2 Answers 2


Finding the edition the OP referred to (https://imslp.org/wiki/Special:ImagefromIndex/11070/torat) didn't take long.

It's the sort of marking that always reminds me of a John Cleese joke in Fawlty Towers: "You should be on Mastermind. Specialist subject, the bleedin' obvious."

Looking through the editors of editions on IMSPL to find somebody full of their own self importance who might write such a thing, my first guess was correct: Godowsky - the guy who rewrote 57 variations on the Chopin Etudes, because he didn't understand why the originals were so already so difficult, being unable to see past the mere technical problem of pressing down the piano keys in the right order.

So, it means absolutely nothing. As pidgin-Italian, it translates as something like "that bass line should be well held down, man!!"

The only logic for it that I can see is that Godowsky (not Beethoven!) decided the four notes in question ought to be slurred in two pairs, but playing the slurs that he invented for no reason is hard, so he decided to add some words saying "yes I really do mean this".

Throw that edition away, and look at what Beethoven wrote. When he adds some textual instructions, they are always both practical and important.

While I was writing this the OP posted an picture which confirms the source as the Godowsky edition. Schirmer just republish anything that is out of copyright, without bothering to say where they got it from. Before the internet, Schirmer editions were cheap, but mostly garbage. Now you can get better sources from the internet for free in sites like IMSLP, they are just garbage.


It simply means you need to play the bass tenuto.

In this case I'd say he means the bass line in the treble clef, but it would help to see the relevant passage.

(To me tenuto and fermata are quite different, i.e. I wouldn't describe it like that. Tenuto means you should hold the note to the maximum full value, but definitely not exceed it. While fermata does give you that liberty - or rather even implores you to do so)

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