Sonata in C minor Op. 111 Archives - Vancouver Recital Society

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PROGRAM NOTES: FILIPPO GORINI

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata A flat major Op. 110

Beethoven’s penultimate piano sonata is remarkable for the utter simplicity of its musical ideas and the directness with which they are expressed. The most obvious late-period features of this work are an extremely wide keyboard range and a melding of slow movement and finale into a continuous musico-dramatic unit.

The first movement, marked con amabilità (likably), opens with a tune one could well imagine accompanying a thoughtful walk in the forest. Simple as it is, it moves to become simpler still, passing into a songful melody-and-accompaniment texture before evaporating into a delicate pattern of harmonic lacework luxuriantly caressing the keyboard over a space of four octaves. It is this gracious pattern of figuration, almost Romantic in its warmth of tone and celebration of keyboard colouring, that most attracts the ear in this movement. Its complete absence from the central development section is amply compensated for when it rises richly up from the bass to inaugurate the return of the main theme in the recapitulation.

The second movement is one of Beethoven’s most jocular scherzi. Its main section is based on two popular tunes of the time: the feline nativity ode Unsa Kätz häd Katz’ln g’habt (Our cat has had kittens) and the anti-hygienic anthem Ich bin liederlich, du bist liederlich (I’m so slovenly, you’re so slovenly). Inspired thus in equal measure by the reproductive capacity of household pets and the haphazard grooming habits of the Austrian male, Beethoven lards his first section with rhythmic irregularities, dynamic surprizes, dramatic pauses and other raw signifiers of loutish humour. The central section continues the mayhem with a series of tumble-down passages high in the register, rudely poked from time to time by off-beat accents.

The sonata concludes with a wonderfully vivid piece of musical theatre, rife with dramatic contrasts and unusual turning points in the musical action. Combining the traditional lyrical slow movement and triumphant finale, it opens with an evocation of the opera stage: a lonely solo voice pleads its case in a halting recitative and then in an affecting lament of considerable intimacy over soothing & sympathetic triplet pulsations, set in the troubled key of A flat minor.

But then, like a ray of Enlightenment sunshine announcing the triumph of Reason over Emotion, a three-voice fugue steps onto the stage, replacing the little sigh motives and rhythmic hesitations of the previous section with quietly confident, evenly spaced 4ths and 3rds, the same intervals used in the opening bars of the first movement.

All this Baroque counterpoint fails, however, to ward off a relapse into pathos as the heart-rending arioso returns, even more plangently whimpering than before, until Beethoven astonishes us with the ultimate coup de théâtre. In what could only be construed as a musical representation of strengthening psychological resolve, we hear the same major chord, repeated over and over, getting louder and louder, leading back to the fugue theme, now presented in inversion. A new mood of quiet triumph and victorious liberation spills over into increasingly elaborate fugal lacework until even the fugal pretense is dropped and the sonata concludes in a glorious songful strain of rejoicing expressed over five octaves of the keyboard.

Béla Bartók
Sonata Sz. 80

In 1926 Bartók’s musical style took a ‘Bachian’ turn towards more clearly polyphonic textures. His Sonata from that year presents us with three movements in two distinct character profiles. The opening and closing movements are bold, direct and massively self-confident, characterized by driving energy and a machine-like sense of rhythm. The slow middle movement, by contrast, is unremittingly bleak, filled with dull, aching dissonances that audience members who have experienced dental surgery may find triggering.

The first movement opens with a motive comprised of a short skip and a series of hammered repeated notes, reminiscent of the striding pulse of the last of Stravinsky’s Three Scenes from Petrushka. Stravinskian, as well, is the sonic resonance ringing out clearly from the well-spaced chords that accompany this stomping, hammering pulse throughout the movement. Bartók doesn’t really present us with ‘themes’ as such, but rather short motivic cells that are continually varied, and frequently subject to hemiola effects as they shift in alignment, rhythmically, with respect to the bar line. This is a very athletic movement, with many sudden changes of register, including passages in which the right hand leaps across the left in order to punch out notes deep in the bass.

If repeating the same action over and over again and expecting a different result is the very definition of insanity, then the opening 6 bars of Bartók’s 2nd movement—featuring an A-flat-E-flat-F chord in the left hand, repeatedly set against a jarring E natural in the right—are clear cause for concern. This movement is bafflingly dissonant. Textured in uncompromisingly gritty 3-voice counterpoint that plods foreword at a relentless quarter-note pace, it offers little to orient the ear in its tangled texture of semitones and minor 9ths: only occasional reminders of the opening harmonic sound-salad and a fixation on rising scale figures. Even the abruptness of its final cadence, normally a place of emotional resolution and rhetorical disarmament, comes as a shock to the nervous system.

The monothematic final movement is by comparison a pleasant jog in the park. Its principal concern is a jaunty little folk tune of a pentatonic stamp announced at the outset. The melodic outline of this ditty—a gapped space of five tones down, then back up—gives it the air of a sea shanty, but the more it gets varied with repetition the more it starts to sound like “Good King Wenceslas”. Despite its constant changes in time signature between 3/8, 2/4 and a very Stravinskian 1/4, this movement manages nonetheless to come off as a real toe-tapper.

Karlheinz Stockhausen
Klavierstück IX

The 20th century witnessed the development of new approaches to thinking about the sounds that make up what we call ‘music’. The 12-tone system of Arnold Schoenberg spawned the serialist movement, dominated by a search to create new formal structures for music organized around ‘series’ (i.e. fixed patterns) of pitch, dynamics, timbre and other properties of sound. And then, beginning in the 1950s, sounds never heard before by human ears, artificial sounds created electronically, were admitted into the composer’s toolkit.

German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen was at the centre of all these developments, producing works based on the newly developed structural principles, and utilizing the new sound palettes that had been discovered. Through this work he quickly became the public face of avant-garde contemporary music—so famous, in fact, that he is featured in the crowd of faces on the cover of the Beatles’ 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (fifth from the left, in the back row).

The 19 works that Stockhausen composed with the title Klavierstücke (keyboard pieces) between 1954 and 2003 embody some of his most important ideas about how music can be internally organized, and the sound gestures that can form part of it. The ninth piece in this series, Klavierstücke IX completed in 1961, is one of his best-known piano works.

This work presents many challenges to the uninitiated, as the parameters of music that we are used to identifying—harmony, melody and rhythm—are not hierarchically deployed in the way that we take for granted in ‘traditional’ music. But a listener coming to this music for the first time should not be overly concerned with its ‘geometric’ dimensions—for example, with how the rhythmic proportions throughout the piece are organized by the Fibonacci series 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21 (etc.) in which each number in the series is the sum of the two preceding numbers. Nor try to count how many times the dissonant four-note chord that opens the work is played in the first (shall we say) ‘phrase’, and how many times in the second. (It’s 139 and 87, for those who like to keep track).

Analytically-oriented listeners might attempt to follow the two main ideas in the piece that alternate in dialogue: the opening four-note chord repeated at varying speeds and dynamic levels, and a slowly rising chromatic scale. But committed admirers of impressionism will want to just set their minds free, close their eyes, and imaginatively listen to the sounds emanating from the stage as if they were the soundtrack to a movie, asking themselves as they listen: what kind of movie is this?

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in C minor Op. 111

Beethoven’s last sonata is surely his most poetic essay for the piano, conceived as a musical diptych expressing the contrasting states of human existence—earthly struggle and spiritual transcendence—framed in terms of the raw elemental building blocks of music itself. It comprises a fast-moving, contrapuntally active sonata-form movement in the minor mode matched with a slow-paced, harmonically stable set of variations in the corresponding major mode.

There is a skeletal starkness to the musical fabric of the first movement, its jagged leaps over harmonically aberrant intervals evoking a mood of worried restlessness, a mood only reinforced by frequent scurrying passages of fugato that seem to emphasize a disunity between the voices rather than their complementarity. Strikingly lacking in this movement is any sense of lyrical repose. The 2nd subject appears only briefly, more in the spirit of emotional exhaustion than heartfelt fulfillment. At every turn, Beethoven seems to emphasize the unusually large space that separates the voices and the hands (separating the mortal from the divine?), at one point orchestrating a climactic antiphonal exchange between treble and bass of more than six octaves.

The C major chord on which the C minor first movement ends is taken up in the second movement Arietta, marking not only a change in mode, but a fundamental change in the construction of the musical texture. Instead of angular motivic gestures we have an eloquently simple and well-rounded melody. Instead of contrapuntal conflict we have harmonic fullness and warmth. The first three variations introduce the compositional process that will guide this melody through its successive transformations: a gradually increasing animation in the figuration accompanying the variation theme. The 3rd variation arrives at degree of elation that in its syncopations prefigures the arrival of jazz, before the timbre turns dark with low murmurings underpinning melodic fragments of the theme pulsing above.

It is here that Beethoven begins to gaze up at the stars in textures that twinkle luminously in the highest register of the keyboard. As the theme becomes ever more cradled in the swaddling clothes of its enveloping figuration, it appears to glow, sonically, from within, by means of pearly chains of trills, until is transmuted, finally, into the essence of the divine.

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

PROGRAM NOTES: MURRAY PERAHIA

Johann Sebastian Bach
French Suite No. 6 in E Major BWV 817

The spirit of the dance can be felt across a wide range of Bach’s works, from the fugues of the Well-Tempered Clavier to the Mass in B minor. For Bach lovers with toes eager to tap, then, an entire suite of dance pieces comes as veritable picnic for the ear. In this regard, the French Suites are among Bach’s most immediately appealing keyboard works and the Sixth Suite especially so for the wide range of dance genres represented in it.

The standard Baroque suite as practiced in German lands comprised an allemande, a courante, a sarabande and a gigue, with any number of other dances filling out the space between sarabande and gigue – the so-called galanteries. These latter Bach lays on with a liberal hand, giving us in his French Suite No. 6 in E Major a largely French-inflected list of additional dances, including a gavotte, a polonaise, a minuet and a bourrée.

The influence of French lute music is apparent in the opening allemande with its pervasive pattern of arpeggiated chord guration. Broken chord gures in the so-called style brisé (“broken style”) were a staple of the lute repertoire and widely adopted in the harpsichord literature of the late Baroque era because they provided a means for implying a multi-voice texture within a continuous stream of short-value notes. The peppier courante, while also unfolding in a steady stream of 16ths, relies far more on the impressive effects to be gained from standard idiomatic keyboard writing, especially runs and single lines passed between the hands.

The dignified sarabande expresses its grandeur by means of a gradual widening of the distance separating left and right hands, extending out to more than three and a half octaves at its height in the second half. It is also the most ornamentally decorated of the dances in this suite, simply rippling with trills in its melodic line against more philosophical ruminations in the bass.

The galanteries (gavotte, polonaise, minuet & bourrée) are typically French, with all the fashionable frills and ruffles of the early-18th-century style galant on full display. The gavotte hops while the polonaise purrs and twinkles, with an abundance of mordents. The minuet is a moderately paced sequence of short elegant phrases, breathlessly outpaced by the more rustic bourrée that follows.

The gigue nale displays the traditional mix of leaps and scales that normally characterize this exuberant English dance, with its opening theme turned upside down, as is the custom, at the start of the second half.

Franz Schubert
Impromptus Op. 142 D 935

Schubert was a pianist, but not a touring virtuoso trying to carve out a career for himself by burning up the keyboard in front of an ever-changing audience of strangers in the various capitals of Europe. His audiences were small, familiar, and local, and his smaller pieces such as his Impromptus Op. 142 reflect especially well the social setting for which they were composed. One hears the sounds of Viennese popular music, dance music in particular, and occasionally the close-position chordal textures of recreational part-singing.

The first impromptu in F minor is a simple A-B-A-B-A rondo with a mock-stern introduction that soon dissolves into the kinds of buoyant, quivering keyboard textures that “spoke” very well on the Viennese piano, with its relatively light action. The utterly enchanting B section features a whispering murmur of broken chords in the right hand over top of which the left hand enacts a dialogue between bass and treble on either side.

The second impromptu, in the form of a minuet and trio, is simplicity itself, dividing its attention between an anthem-like chordal opening theme, of small range and intimate character, and a wide-ranging middle section of rippling broken chords that drives (lovingly) to a sonorous climax.

Impromptu No. 3 in B at is theme and five variations. The theme is a gently toe-tapping melody of balanced phrases, varied in all the standard ways: rhythmic subdivision, textural infilling, elegant ornamentation, and a thickly scored, passionately throbbing minore variant. The last variation resembles a Czerny piano etude of unusual elegance and élan.

The impromptu with the most personality in the set is the last one in F minor, a rondo that really wants to be a scherzo. It hops and bounces, twinkling away in the minor mode, full of restless energy that erupts from time to time into overt displays of keyboard moxie in sudden outbursts of jarring trills and dazzling runs.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Rondo in A minor K 511

Within the diminutive confines of this little five-part rondo, with its lilting but melancholy siciliano theme is a miniature masterpiece of motivic concentration and emotional rhetoric.

The principal motives at issue in the large-scale working out of the piece as a whole are revealed in the melodic construction of its opening phrase: the fth degree of the scale, ornamented by a chromatic turn gure, drops to the tonic (home note of the key), then rises back up by chromatic half-steps the same distance as it fell before being swept towards a half-cadence by a full-octave scale in the purest melodic minor mode. This contrast between the pleading, pathos-tinged whimpering of chromatic half steps and the mood of forthright self-assurance evoked by the diatonic scale is played out in the rondo’s successive alternations of refrain and episode.

Both episodes (the contrasting B and C sections of the A-B-A-C-A form) are in the Major mode and begin in an optimistic, psychologically healthy frame of mind. Before long, however, the mood of each is progressively undermined by the increasing prevalence of chromatic scale gures in the texture, a Wagnerian leitmotiv (before its time) that seems to be calling back the opening refrain in the minor mode.

The opening ornamental turn figure haunts this piece at many levels. It occurs almost 50 times as a melodic embellishment, but it also permeates many of the melodic gestures in larger note values, most notably in the rolling left-hand figures at the work’s close.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in C minor Op. 111

Beethoven’s last piano sonata presents the composer in the two guises that characterized his musical genius: as earth-bound raging titan and heaven-seeking poet of the human spirit. Its two movements correspondingly display the widest possible contrast in structure and mood, comprising a restless and argumentative sonata-form allegro in the minor mode followed by a placidly serene variation-form adagio in the tonic major. Both movements strive to push musical expression beyond known limits with an almost religious intensity of feeling, but they address different gods. Dionysus provokes the frenzied ravings of the first movement, Apollo the mystical contemplations of the second.

The first movement’s maestoso introduction presents the ear with a defiant gesture, a jagged downward leap of the harmonically unstable interval of a diminished 7th, answered by a jangling trill higher up. There seem to be volcanic forces at play in the way that much of this movement’s turbulent musical material rises abruptly to the surface after suspenseful passages of eerie calm. Scurrying passages of unison between the hands lend a skeletal starkness to the musical fabric while contrapuntal episodes of fugato only seem to concentrate its fury, not tame it. Emblematic of the extremes within which the argumentation of this movement operates is the sheer amount of sonic distance that often separates the hands. One climactic antiphonal exchange between treble and bass takes place over 6 octaves, and the movement’s final chord, which arrives more out of emotional exhaustion than from a sense of resolution, extends over a space of 5 octaves.

This spaciousness of sound distribution characterizes the way in which the second movement’s opening theme is harmonized, with a good two octaves separating the angelic melody of the right hand from the bass tones giving it harmonic meaning down below. The movement begins in a mood of elegy and contemplative repose, moving by small steps in its initial variations into more animated figuration, each growing naturally out of the previous. Contrast and variety is not the aim here, but rather organic development. Particularly spectacular is the arrival of a sparkling and jazzy third variation out of the dotted rhythms of the second. From this point on, however, the mood turns increasingly poetic, with a concentration on the heavenly timbres of the high register lovingly supported, from time to time, by a plush carpet of rumbles from the deep bass. Beethoven seems to be speaking to us outside of the world of normal harmony, in pure sound. In a blurry texture of tremolos and trills spanning the full range of the keyboard, his theme rises above all earthly cares, as if transfigured, leading the movement to a serene close.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

 

Program notes: Paul Lewis

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

 

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