Movement 1: Andante con variazioni
Movement 1a: Andante con variazioni
Movement 1b: Variation I
Movement 1c: Variation II
Movement 1d: Variation III
Movement 1e: Variation IV
Movement 1f: Variation V
Movement 2: Scherzo: Allegro molto
Movement 3: Marcia funebre sulla morte d'un eroe
Movement 4: Allegro
The A flat major Sonata opens with a theme and five variations. A flat major is always such a warm, expressive key for Beethoven, and one in which he uses the middle register of the keyboard to great effect (think of the slow movement of the ‘Pathétique’). The warmth is reinforced by the addition of the lower octave for the first two bars and each subsequent repetition. Czerny comments on its ‘noble and almost religious character’. It certainly cannot be classified as either a fast or a slow movement (the indication Andante should not be overlooked). Beethoven was no stranger to variations, having written more than a dozen sets of them (some with violin and cello) from 1793 to 1801. But here we have more than just a show of compositional and technical virtuosity. Without straying far from the theme, Beethoven gives us a satisfying ‘introduction’ to the other movements. The first variation continues the use of the lower and middle register with a lovely swinging effect. The second lightly skips along, with the thematic notes being present more often on the weak beats than the strong ones. The third changes to the minor mode (foreshadowing what is to come in the third movement), making dramatic use of szforzandos. The discreet fourth variation leads us to the harmonious final one, where the theme at first seems submerged by triplets but then appears without disguise in the inner and top voices. A beautiful touch is the short coda at the end, introducing a tender new melody (although some musicologists see in it a derivation from the theme) over a pizzicato bass and a muted string accompaniment. Then the bass switches to legato sighs, finally drawing it to a gentle close with the last four bars marked senza sordini (meaning ‘without dampers’, thus with pedal).
Having started with such a movement, you can see why Beethoven decided to put a lively scherzo second. A slow movement at this point would not have worked. So he wrote something which Czerny described as ‘quick, gay, and smartly marked’. The humour in the scherzo is offset by the lyricism of its D flat major trio. The sighing appoggiatura which ‘gets stuck’ in the opening section re-appears in the short but inspired bridge passage leading back into the da capo.
If you didn’t know this sonata in advance, you would be very surprised by what comes next: a funeral march. Chopin loved this Beethoven sonata more than any other and played it frequently. This movement probably inspired him to write his own Funeral March, which became the central focus of the Piano Sonata Op 35. But how different these two pieces are: while Chopin’s is, though certainly not overly sentimental, at least very affecting, Beethoven’s is objective, almost impersonal, but not without great effect. The middle section of Chopin’s takes us to paradise; that of Beethoven represents, in Tovey’s words ‘salutes fired over the grave’. Beethoven gave it the title ‘Marcia funebre sulla morte d’un eroe’ (‘Funeral march on the death of a hero’), without specifying who the hero was. It probably wasn’t written for anyone in particular. In 1815 he orchestrated it for some incidental music to a play by Duncker entitled Leonora Prohaska (which ended up never being staged). He would never have heard the version of it that was played at his own funeral.
Whereas one can more or less ‘sing’ Chopin’s Funeral March, you can’t do this with Beethoven’s. The idea is simply the harmony and the insistent, dotted rhythms that bring weight to the whole thing. The sudden changes in dynamics are perfectly judged and must be followed. The coda presents a sort of melody in both hands in contrary motion, adding to its solemnity before the final piercing szforzando. A few years later, Beethoven was to write another Funeral March in his Eroica Symphony, but there the vision was much deeper.
Beethoven wisely did not continue the drama in the last movement but wrote what can be seen (and heard!) as a rather flippant, étude-like movement if not enough care is given to it. Czerny tells us that it bears a resemblance to a sonata in the same key by John Baptist Cramer, the English musician of German origin who made Beethoven’s acquaintance in Vienna and was much appreciated by him. It is in strict rondo form, but instead of having contrasting episodes it continues the perpetual movement throughout, adding skips and gunshot-like szforzandos for extra excitement. Instead of going for a brilliant finish, however, the work simply dissolves into thin air—a remarkable end to a remarkable piece.
from notes by Angela Hewitt © 2010