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Allegro molto [1'57]
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Beethoven was fifty. Though completely deaf, the ageing composer stood at the height of his creative powers. While rumours circulated that he was ‘written out’ since few of his pieces had recently been published, Beethoven was sketching several gigantic new works: the Missa Solemnis, the ‘Diabelli’ Variations, and the Ninth Symphony. Then, in the spring of 1820, he turned for the last time in his career to his favourite medium of the piano sonata. Between 1820 and 1822, he repeatedly set the Mass aside in order to write a trilogy of piano sonatas for the publisher Adolf Schlesinger, which became one of the outstanding achievements of Beethoven’s late style.
The compositional origins of the Sonata in E, Op 109, actually preceded his negotiations with Schlesinger. It was apparently another request, from the editor Friedrich Starke, that motivated Beethoven in April 1820 to write a ‘new little piece’ or bagatelle – this is what eventually became the Vivace ma non troppo of the sonata. Beethoven seems to have originally contemplated a new two-movement E minor Sonata (like his earlier sonata Op 90) with the independently conceived first movement. In the end, however, he integrated all three movements through a network of motivic and thematic relationships.
The first movement of Op 109 reflects Beethoven’s interest in parenthetical structures that enclose musical passages within contrasting sections. The opening Vivace material is interrupted after only eight bars, as it reaches the threshold of a cadence on the dominant of E major.
The cadence is not granted but evaded in the ensuing fantasy-like Adagio passage, whose elaborate arpeggiations make a striking contrast with the Vivace material, with its uniformity of rhythm and texture. Yet, when the music finally arrives firmly on the dominant cadence, this is timed to coincide with the resumption of the Vivace music in the very same register as before. The entire Adagio section is thus positioned at the moment of the interrupted cadence, and the resulting parenthetical structure give the effect of a suspension of time, or the enclosure of one time within another.
The bold and unpredictable quality of the music is sustained by Beethoven’s avoidance of literal recapitulation in later stages of the movement. Only in the coda are aspects of the Vivace and Adagio sections combined, while Beethoven simultaneously prepares the surprising plunge into the ensuing Prestissimo in E minor. The Prestissimo is in 6/8 metre and suggests a scherzo, though it is in sonata form and lacks a trio. Its driven, agitated character relents at the end of the brief contrapuntal development, leading to a soft una corda passage that slows and then virtually suspends all sense of forward motion.
The theme of the variations that close Op 109 resembles a sarabande, a dignified Baroque dance type whose rhythm stresses the second beat of each bar of triple metre. Its reflective character results in part from a meditative dwelling on the tonic note E, which is approached at first from the third above and then from more expressive, distant intervals above and below. Beethoven’s indication Gesangvoll, mit innigster Empfindung (‘Cantabile, with the most heartfelt expression’) underscores the sublime lyricism that characterises the whole, culminating in the extraordinary sixth variation and the following closing da capo of the original theme.
After the striking contrasts of the first five variations, the sixth at first seems to bring us full circle, with a return of the original sarabande; but Beethoven now explores the theme from within. Its dominant pedal is prolonged and soon elaborated as a slow trill; after several rhythmic subdivisions, it grows into an unmeasured pulsation of fast trills sounded in both hands. Through a process of rhythmic acceleration and registral expansion, the slow cantabile theme virtually explodes from within, yielding, through a kind of radioactive break-up, a fantastically elaborate texture of shimmering, vibrating sounds.
This ecstatic moment was foreshadowed in the coda of the first movement and at the fortissimo climax of the fourth variation, among other passages. After the climax a gradual diminuendo eventually resolves to the slightly varied da capo of the sarabande, which now seems transfigured by the experience we have undergone in re-approaching it.
The variations concluding Op 109 embody two cycles of transformation: the first five variations recast the theme and develop its structures and character in a variety of expressive contexts, while the sixth variation initiates a new series of changes compressed into a single continuous process that is guided by the logical unfolding of rhythmic development. In the final variation an urgent will to overcome the inevitable passing of time and sound seems to fill up the spaces of the slow theme with an unprecedented density of material. This idea, in turn, was to be expanded by Beethoven into the controlling framework of the variations on the Arietta that conclude Op 111, the last movement of his last sonata.
In Op 109, unlike Op 111, Beethoven concludes his variation finale with a da capo repetition of the original sarabande-like theme. This procedure suggests an affinity with Bach’s celebrated ‘Goldberg’ Variations, in which the theme or ‘aria’ is also a sarabande whose concluding return frames the entire series of variations. Two of Beethoven’s variations in Op 109 show a kinship to Bach’s ‘Goldberg’ set: Var. 4 is motivically related to Bach’s Var. 3, and the fugal ‘Alla breve’ Var. 5 displays a rhythmic similarity to Var. 22 of the ‘Goldberg’. On the other hand, the return of the theme at the end of Op 109 is not a literal da capo restatement: internal repetitions in the sarabande are now removed and Beethoven also simplifies certain details, curtailing all but one of the arpeggiated chords that decorated the original theme. His most important change, however, has often been misunderstood: he added in his autograph score a marking for the pedal to be employed for the final chord, but indicated no release. In this recording, the sound has been allowed to decay slowly. Such innovative use of the sustaining pedal enhances the openness of the conclusion, as the long resonating sound prolongs the E major sonority that began and closed the sarabande. This remarkable closing gesture of Op 109 creates a rapport between sound and silence that reminds us of Beethoven’s favourite dictum, ars longa, vita brevis (‘art is long, life is short’). Even as the work ends, it protests against termination and inevitable transience, inviting us to continue within ourselves its circular design beyond this germinal sonority.
On the 6 December 1821 Beethoven wrote a moving dedication of the E major Sonata to Maximiliana Brentano, daughter of Antonia Brentano, the most likely intended recipient of his 1812 letter to the ‘Immortal Beloved’. In the dedication the composer describes his spiritual bond to the Brentano family as something that ‘can never be destroyed by time’, and he recaptures his own fond memories of shared experiences from a decade earlier. Beethoven had just rebounded from a dismal period of illness, which delayed his completion of the sonata trilogy. His recovery sparked his sense of humour and his creative forces, resulting in the genesis of the Sonata in A flat, Op 110, the composition of which overlapped with that of the final Sonata in C minor, Op 111, from 1822.
Humour is abundantly evident in the middle movement of Op 110, which serves as a scherzo in form and character, although it bears only the tempo designation Allegro molto, in 2/4 metre. Beethoven alludes to two popular songs, Unsa Kätz häd Katzln ghabt (‘Our cat has had kittens’) and Ich bin lüderlich, du bist lüderlich (‘I’m dissolute, you’re dissolute’) in the main section of this movement.
The trio compresses the important motivic intervals of a third and fourth into cascades of descending figuration in the right hand, while the left hand crosses over the right with syncopated accents, creating a radical kind of rhythmic counterpoint.
Wrapped around the comic Allegro molto are movements of reflective and even transcendental character. Jürgen Uhde and Renate Wieland have described the opening Moderato cantabile molto espressivo of Op 110 as ‘Music of expectation’ on account of the special capability of the work to foreshadow its own future. One aspect of this tendency is demonstrated by the affinity between the fugue subject of the finale, with its three ascending fourths (A flat-D flat, B flat-E flat, C-F), and the similar contour of the opening bars of the lyrical first movement; this initial phrase is set apart from the ensuing music through its polyphonic texture and sustained trill, and takes on almost the character of a motto for the entire work.
This connection between the motto and fugue subject is part of a network of thematic anticipations and reminiscences – a network no less concentrated here than in the Ninth Symphony. As in the Ninth, Beethoven incorporates a transition utilising recitative at the threshold of the finale. The counterpart here to the ‘Joy’ theme of the Ninth Symphony is the fugue subject, especially in its closing apotheosis, which acts both as an alternative to the Arioso dolente and as the goal of various foreshadowings heard since the beginning of the work.
The weighty finale contains a twofold pairing of the despairing arioso and consoling fugue. The first fugue proves unable to be sustained: the music breaks off on the dominant of A flat, which is reinterpreted as an augmented-sixth chord in G minor, and this dark sonority is treated as tonic for the return of the Arioso dolente. The tonal relationship is bold and unprecedented in Beethoven: the entire lament is restated in intensified form, in G minor; and the framing cadential gesture brings a shift to the major, which assumes the character of a miraculous discovery. Nine increasingly intense repetitions of this G major sonority follow, and a gradual arpeggiation of that sound leads upward to the inversion of the fugue subject, which enters quietly and una corda, in G major.
The concluding fugue thus begins in the key of the leading tone, to re-emerge only later into the tonic A flat major, in the triumphant final passages. This unusual tonal relationship enhances the power of the conclusion; equally striking is Beethoven’s masterful treatment of contrapuntal permutations in the transition from G major to A flat major. Not only does the subject appear against itself in diminution and augmentation but it appears in double diminution at the Meno allegro, comprising a decorating motivic cell that surrounds the sustained note values of the inverted subject.
Donald Francis Tovey claimed that in this closing fugue Beethoven eschewed an ‘organ-like climax’ with its ascetic connotations as a ‘negation of the world’: ‘Like all Beethoven’s visions this fugue absorbs and transcends the world’. It is significant in this regard that the transitional double-diminution passage recalls the earlier comic allusion in the Allegro molto. The rhythmic and registral correspondence renders the beginning of the Meno allegro transparent to Ich bin lüderlich, reinforcing the sense of an absorption of the ‘world’; a similarity is clearly audible, because Beethoven compresses the fugal subject in diminution, deleting the second of its three rising fourths. The import of Beethoven’s inscription nach und nach wieder auflebend (‘gradually returning to life’) is symbolised in this passage. The abstract contrapuntal matrix beginning with the inverted subject is infused with a new energy, which arises not naturally through traditional fugal procedures, but only through an exertion of will that strains those processes to their limits.
The rhythmic developments that point the way out of Beethoven’s fugal labyrinth thus distort the subject, compressing it almost beyond recognition, while simultaneously opening a means of connection with the earlier movements. The entry of the original subject in A flat major is accompanied by shimmering semiquavers (sixteenth-notes) continuing the texture of double diminution, giving the effect of the theme being glorified by its own substance; at the same time this rapid figuration recalls the ethereal passage from the first movement. The transition from the darkness and pessimism of the Arioso dolente to the light and ecstasy of the fugue is now fully accomplished; and in the final moments Beethoven extends the fugal subject melodically into the high register before it is emphatically resolved, once and for all, into the closing A flat major sonority. This structural downbeat represents a goal towards which the whole work seems to have aspired. Yet the true conclusion lies beyond this chord in a rapport with silence, as (in Alfred Brendel’s words) the work throws off even ‘the chains of music itself’.
Like Op 110 the design of Beethoven’s final Sonata Op 111 shows a powerful directional progression towards its finale, consisting, as in Op 109, of a weighty series of variations of a contemplative, hymn-like theme. The variations on the Arietta in C major that form the second movement of Op 111 are more tightly integrated than those that close Op 109 and unfold according to the venerable device whereby each transformation of the theme brings increasing subdivisions in rhythm. Beethoven carries this process so far in Op 111 that the series of rhythmic diminutions first transforms the original character without altering the basic tempo, and then re-approaches the sublime quality of the chorale-like theme, as the most rapid textures, culminating in sustained trills, are reached in the closing stages. Something of the same plan underlies the final variation in the finale of Op 109, but in his final sonata Beethoven developed this procedure to serve as the structural basis for the entire closing movement. The variations on the Arietta became a suitable culmination for the work, which dispenses with any further movements and leaves the tempestuous C minor idiom of the opening Allegro far behind. Moritz Schlesinger’s naive query whether a concluding third movement had been omitted from the manuscript was received disdainfully by Beethoven, who is supposed to have responded to a similar question from Anton Schindler with the ironic, and perhaps even contemptuous remark that he had ‘no time to write a finale, and so had therefore somewhat extended the second movement’. Thomas Mann (in consultation with Theodor W Adorno) devoted a chapter of his famous novel Doktor Faustus to the piece, and had the fictional character Wendell Kretzschmar describe the climactic and yet open quality of the end of the Arietta movement as an ‘end without any return’, comprising a farewell to the art form of the sonata in general.
The first movement of Op 111 represents the last example of Beethoven’s celebrated ‘C minor mood’ evidenced in a long line of works from the Sonata pathétique to the Coriolan Overture and Fifth Symphony. As in these works much stress is placed on diminished-seventh chords in a turbulent, dissonant idiom. The slow introduction, with its majestic double-dotted rhythms and trills, resembles the setting of the ‘Crucifixus’ in the Missa solemnis. The grim pathos of the ensuing Allegro con brio ed appassionato yields briefly to a contrasting lyrical second subject in A flat major, which slows the tempo to Adagio. This melodic gesture is parenthetical, suggesting ‘a soft glimpse of sunlight illuminating the dark, stormy heavens’, in the imagery of Mann’s character Kretzschmar. In the recapitulation, the lyrical material is not so easily swept aside; rather, Beethoven extends the passage to foreshadow the sublime atmosphere of the Arietta finale. A direct transition to the Arietta is built into the coda, whose threefold phrases resolving to C major seem to resolve the strife of the threefold phrases that had opened the slow introduction.
As the variations on the Arietta unfold, the rhythmic development brings transformations in character. The highly agitated character of Variation 3 leaves room, in the piano phrases at the beginning of the second half, for a subtle anticipation of the ethereal quality of later passages; the extroverted energy expressed in the jagged, accented rhythms of this variation is reshaped in Variation 4 to become an even faster yet suspended, inward pulsation. The outcome of the process of rhythmic diminution is reached in the cadenza that precedes the recapitulatory fifth variation. Time seems to stand still as the music lingers on protracted trills. For once, the movement’s constant C major is left behind; a cluster of trills glorifies the shift to E flat major and a vast registral gap opens between treble and bass (a feature that fascinated Thomas Mann’s Kretzschmar). The original theme returns in Variation 5 together with the rhythmic textures from preceding variations. Being and Becoming are merged here into a unified structure. An ascent into the ethereal high register leads, in the coda, to yet another climactic combination of rhythmic levels, as the theme is combined with the suspended pulsation in the left hand and the sustained trill, now heard on high G.
Various commentators have rightly perceived a philosophical and even religious dimension in this great work. As Brendel has pointed out, the dichotomy embodied in the two movements of Op 111 has been variously described in terms of ‘Samsara and Nirwana’ (von Bülow), the ‘Here and Beyond’ (Edwin Fischer), ‘Resistance and Submission’ (von Lenz), or the real and mystical world. A convincing assessment of Op 111 has to stress more than the remarkable power and coherence of Beethoven’s transformations of the Arietta, with their cumulative sense that the contemplative vision has become more real than the ‘external’ world symbolised in the Allegro: crucial as well is the complementary relationship of the two movements. As we have seen, Beethoven’s use of parenthetical enclosure places a foreshadowing of the Arietta into the midst of the first movement; in the recapitulation and coda this tentative foreshadowing grows into a transition to the Arietta itself. The symbolism of Op 111 has three principal moments: the acceptance and resolution of conflict embodied in the Allegro and transition; the rich, dynamic synthesis of experience projected in the ensuing variations; and the surpassing inner climax in E flat major.
Beethoven’s last piano sonata is a monument to his conviction that solutions to the problems facing humanity lie ever within our grasp if they can be recognised for what they are and be confronted by models of human transformation. Maynard Solomon has argued that ‘masterpieces of art are instilled with a surplus of constantly renewable energy – an energy that provides a motive force for changes in the relations between human beings – because they contain projections of human desires and goals which have not yet been achieved (which indeed may be unrealisable)’. Among Beethoven’s instrumental works Op 111 assumes a special position as an ‘effigy of (the) ideal’ in Schiller’s formulation; and every adequate performance must re-enact something of this process, reaching as it does beyond the merely aesthetic dimension to touch the domain of the moral and ethical.
William Kinderman © 2002