The sonata has three movements:
The first movement is written in a kind of truncated sonata form. A melody that Hector Berlioz called a "lamentation" is played (mostly by the right hand) against an accompanying ostinato triplet rhythm. The movement has made a powerful impression on many listeners; for instance, Berlioz wrote that it "is one of those poems that human language does not know how to qualify." The work was very popular in Beethoven's day, to the point of exasperating the composer, who wrote "Surely I've written better things."
The second movement is a relatively conventional minuet and trio; a moment of relative calm written in D-flat major. This key signature is enharmonically equivalent to C-sharp major, that is, the tonic major for the work as a whole. The slightly odd sound of the first eight bars seems to be the result of the minuet starting in the "wrong" key; i.e. the dominant key of A-flat major. The music settles into D-flat only in the second phrase, bars 5-8.
The stormy final movement, in sonata form, is the weightiest of the three, reflecting an experiment of Beethoven's (also carried out in the companion sonata, Opus 27 no. 1 and later on in Opus 101) of placing the most important movement of a sonata last. The writing has many fast arpeggios and strongly accented notes, and an effective performance demands flamboyant and skillful playing. Beethoven was known to break hammers and strings when he played, and it is easy to imagine this happening when he performed this movement.
Of the final movement, Charles Rosen has written "[it is] the most unbridled in its representation of emotion. Even today, two hundred years later, its ferocity is astonishing."
The musical dynamic that predominates in the third movement is in fact piano. It seems that Beethoven's heavy use of sforzando notes, together with just a few strategically located fortissimo passages, creates the sense of a very powerful sound in spite of the overall dynamic