Beethoven’s Late Piano Sonatas
If ever a composer were to be remembered as going out swinging, that composer would be Beethoven. As ‘sunset’ periods go, the blaze of glory that the late piano sonatas and quartets, the Diabelli Variations, the Missa Solemnis and Ninth Symphony lit up in the historical firmament can still be felt warming the programs of concerts around the globe.
The sonatas of Opp. 109, 110 and 111, the composer’s last hurrah in the piano sonata genre, were written between 1820 and 1822. As his sketchbooks show, these three sonatas were worked on all at the same time and may thus be thought to form a triptych, if you will, of Beethoven’s last thoughts on the piano sonata as a genre.
A strong feature of the late instrumental works is their increased concentration of musical thought. Compressed into brief utterances of compelling significance, they seem reduced to their essentials, their composer quite unconcerned about the rules of polite aristocratic musical conversation that characterized his early period.
Emblematic of this increased density of thought is an increased density of texture that often tends towards the contrapuntal, and in particular towards the fugal, as in the finale to the Sonata in A flat Op. 110. Curiously paralleling this phenomenon is an increased density of pure sound, audible in the flamboyant use of trills as pedal sonorities, not just in the bass, but in the top and middle registers, as well. The gradual build-up of sound generated in this way can be heard happening, bar by bar, in the final pages of the Sonata in E major Op. 109.
All this creates not just interpretive challenges for musicians courageous enough to take on these sonatas, but daunting technical challenges, as well. Paul Lewis is brutally honest in this regard, summarizing as follows the gauntlet thrown down by “that belligerent, outspoken, deaf German.”
You know, he’s too bloody-minded to make what he writes convenient for the piano. When he has an idea, he just writes what he wants to, and if sometimes it almost doesn’t work on the instrument – well, that’s your problem. You just have to find a way through it.
Such difficulties notwithstanding, grim resolve and technical grit are exactly the right qualities to bring to works that, despite their eccentricities, have not just remained in the piano repertoire, but crowned it.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in E major Op. 109
Beethoven creates in this three-movement sonata an imaginative journey between contradictory emotional states that arrives, in the end, at a reconciliation of opposites. The first movement is a dreamy star- gazing fantasy in moderate tempo that segues into a frighteningly focussed agitato second movement of nightmarish intensity. All divisions are healed, however, in a theme and variations finale that gives voice to both lyrically expansive and contrapuntally driven emotions in turn.
The first movement is remarkable for its compactness, with an exposition that completes its run in a mere
16 bars. The work opens with a succession of amiable harmonies, divided between the hands, that seem to float in the air, fluttering like the wings of a fledgling bird. But a startling diminished 7th arpeggio calls a halt to these innocent musings to introduce a little cheek-to- cheek duet between the soprano & tenor as a second subject before a rapturous series of arpeggios and scale figures soars up and down the keyboard to complete the thought. And that’s it. The exposition is over. On the first page of the score.
These three contrasting elements – fluttering broken- chord harmonies, lyric duet, and keyboard-sprawling figuration – form the entire content of the movement, dominating its development, recapitulation and coda.
In a move deliberately designed to heighten the contrast between the improvisatory-sounding first movement and the pointedly purposeful second, Beethoven moves from E major to its evil twin,
E minor. The musical drama of this movement comes from the struggle of a frantically rising right-hand figure and a sternly descending passacaglia-like bass line, an opposition that summons up a mood of high seriousness and relentless forward drive. This is no scherzo (there is no ‘trio’ middle section) but rather another sonata-form movement, and a highly unorthodox one at that. It seems more concerned with continuous contrapuntal development than the contrast between first and second subjects, and their respective key centres. Despite the breakneck pace, pervasive chromaticism serves to give a sharp edge of pathos to this movement’s sometimes mysterious murmurings and frequent violent outbursts.
The last movement theme and variations ends this sonata in a spirit of peace and reconciliation, flecked at times with a tinge of religious ecstasy. And how could it not, given the shadow of J. S. Bach that has hovered over the sonata from its opening bars? The broken chord figures of the first movement look back to the ‘pattern’ preludes of the Well-Tempered Clavier while this movement’s cadenza-like exaltations of arpeggios find their correlative in similar outbursts of spiritual bravura in Bach’s organ toccatas. More explicit reference to the Baroque master of Leipzig is made in the second movement, which is shot through with canons and passages in double counterpoint. And now, in this finale, we encounter a slow elegiac melody of almost religious solemnity, with the rhythmic imprint of the sarabande (emphasizing the second beat of the bar), and harmonized with the melodically-conceived bass line of a Lutheran four-voice chorale setting.
The first variation is an Italian opera aria for keyboard, while the second features a hocket-style alternation of the hands that outlines the theme in interlocking stroboscopic flashes of melody. Baroque instincts come more fervently to the surface in Variation 3, a vigorous exercise in two-voice double counterpoint. Variation 4 thickens the texture to a full four imitative voices, leading to the even more severely imitative texture of Variation 5.
In his final variation Beethoven moves to transform his theme, ever so gradually, from a plain chordal harmonisation into a whirling sea of swirling figuration and twinkling stars in the high register before finally presenting the original melody once again in all its original simplicity.
A nod to Bach’s way of ending the Goldberg Variations, perhaps?
Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in A flat major Op. 110
Beethoven’s second-last piano sonata shares much of the goodwill and warmth of its Op. 109 antecedent but offers us a much rougher ride on the emotional plane. Its three movements pass from human sympathy to rough country humour, then finally from operatic despair to the safe harbour of consolation, resolve and triumph.
The warmth of emotion radiating out from the first movement of this sonata is evident not only in its unhurried pace and the vocal nature of its themes, but explicitly referred to in Beethoven’s first-bar indication: con amabilità (likably). Especially ingratiating in this movement is the passage that leads from the first to the second theme: an ear-tickling, delicate tracery of arpeggios that lovingly spans four octaves up and down the keyboard, even transcending its lowly status as transition when, in the recapitulation, it richly envelops the first theme’s return appearance, like a luxuriant wrap of costly fur.
One has to wonder if Beethoven is just buttering us up for mischief, though, given the pranks he has prepared in the second movement, a scherzo and trio in 2/4 time. This movement, full of shuffle and bustle, is made all the more raucous by what some musicologists politely call Beethoven’s ‘antiphonal dynamics’ but which others less diplomatically refer to simply as ‘shouting’. The first example comes in the response to the opening phrase which, if performed authentically in period style, should sound like a toddler bringing his rubber ducky joyfully and repeatedly into contact with his bath water.
This is not a coincidence. The childlike humour of this movement derives from the use of melodies from
two popular songs in German dialect: Unsa Kätz häd Katz’ln g’habt (Our cat has had kittens) and Ich bin lüderlich, du bist lüderlich (I’m a dissolute slob, and so are you). An odd brace of sentiments, to be sure, mixing domestic rejoicing on the feline front with a blithe lack of concern in matters of personal hygiene. Calls for further enquiry into the relationship between these two semiotic signifiers has gone unheeded in the scholarly community, but perhaps that is all for the best.
The multi-sectioned third movement divides its sympathies between the world of lyrical operatic complaint and that enlivening burst of hope that a right proper fugue never fails to inspire in the downtrodden. This movement, in short, is one of those resounding happy endings that Beethoven in his late period was famous for. But the good news isn’t announced right away as it is in the last movement of, say, the Fifth Symphony. Beethoven makes us work for our victory plum in a succession of sombre soliloquies and plaintive laments.
First comes an exploratory recitative, Adagio ma non troppo, that tests the waters before a sadly songful
Arioso dolente of some emotional urgency pleads its mournful case to our ears. Not to worry, however. A bold three-voice fugue, studded with rising fourths and other optimistic signals of new beginnings, strides forth to the rescue. Gathering an organ-like authority when its bass begins to boom out in octaves, it suddenly loses heart and yields to a second arioso dolente even more halting, more sobbing and despairing than the first. But liking what it hears in the growing sonority of a major chord, repeated over and over, it issues into a second fugue, this time with the theme turned upside down, in inversion. Here is where Beethoven pulls out all the stops, giving full rein to his fugal fury in passages of thematic diminution and augmentation. Finally, this figuration blends imperceptibly into a kind of throbbing accompaniment that allows the fugue subject to soar out and dominate the texture as pure melody.
A final flourish of arpeggios, reminiscent of the first movement’s engaging tracery but much more resolute, ends the sonata on a note of triumph.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in C minor Op. 111
Beethoven’s farewell to the piano sonata genre is a two-movement work of striking contrasts – contrasts of form (sonata-form vs. variation form), of key (C minor vs. C major), of tempo (allegro vs. adagio) and of mood (restless argument vs. transcendent serenity).
The work opens with a slow introduction in grandstyle, Maestoso, in the double-dotted manner of a Baroque French overture. But disturbingly, its first chord is a diminished 7th, casting deep uncertainty onto its harmonic intentions. More grand gestures, just as unsettling, sweep up from the bass like a lumbering dinosaur waving its massive tail, but then the tension goes underground. A mysterious passage ruminates with menacing portent until a rumbling crescendo in the bass issues into the movement’s forthright first subject, a ‘call of fate’ theme worthy of the Fifth Symphony (also written in the composer’s famous ‘C minor mood’). Betokening the seriousness of the proceedings, the transition passage that follows launches directly into a driving fugato to which the brief appearance of a fleeting moment of lyricism, in the second subject, provides little relief.
The textures in this movement are unusually stark, often reduced to mere unisons between the hands ranging over vast swathes of the keyboard, or grittily gnawing away at a contrapuntal conundrum in a feral frenzy of frustration. All fury spent, whether purged or repressed, the movement seethes to its conclusion, ending in a C major chord that seems more a reprieve than a resolution.
This, of course, is the key of the theme and variations that follow, but there the resemblance ends. Constructed out of the simplest harmonic materials, the theme of this finale, with its bland harmonies and open melodic intervals of 4ths and 5ths, seems more a canvas left intentionally blank than a melody of sharply defined character to be exploited and embellished.
Variation movements were traditionally the ‘light fare’ in a collection of sonata movements, sandwiched between movements of greater discursive weight laid out in more complex formal patterns. This variation movement outweighs all previous Beethoven piano finales in its seemingly impossible pairing of earthly profundity and celestial radiance.
‘Forget what you know of the piano,’ Beethoven seems to be saying, ‘let us converse in pure sound.’ While
many variation sets had aimed to start over with each new ‘take’ on the theme, emphasizing the variety of guises in which it could be dressed up, Beethoven drives his variations forward with a simple, unified purpose, achieved principally by a gradual, but continual increase in the pace and complexity of rhythmic patterning.
What begins as a simple skeleton of a theme in relatively stable note values is slowly transformed into a luminous multi-layered wall of sound, shimmering with high trills and pulsing with the thrill of low tremolos. That he should bid farewell to the piano sonata with as soft, as simple, and as eloquent an ending as concludes this sonata confirms his place in music history as not just one of the great rebels, but one of the great poets, as well.
Donald G. Gíslason © 2015