Movement 1: Allegretto ma non troppo (Etwas lebhaft und mit der innigsten Empfindung)
Movement 2: Vivace alla marcia (Lebhaft, Marschmäßig)
Movement 3: Adagio, ma non troppo, con affetto (Langsam und sehnsuchtsvoll)
Movement 4: Allegro (Geschwind, doch nicht zu sehr, und mit Entschlossenheit)
Baroness Ertmann told her niece that she met Beethoven in Haslinger’s music shop when she was looking over some of his recent compositions. She took them to a piano standing in the shop and began to play. A man came forward, seized her hand, and introduced himself. It was Beethoven. She and her husband later numbered among his closest friends.
By all accounts, Dorothea von Ertmann was a much-admired musician. Czerny wrote that she played Beethoven’s works with great physical strength and totally in the right spirit. Johann Reichardt, in his Vertraute Briefe, wrote: ‘I have never seen, even in the greatest virtuosi, such power allied to the most tender delicacy; there is a singing soul in each finger-tip.’
As an officer’s wife she could not perform in public, but she played frequently in the Viennese salons. A very touching anecdote has been passed down—one version of which comes from Mendelssohn, who visited her when she later lived in Milan. Her only child died at a very young age, and Beethoven, to her surprise, stayed away from her house, not showing any sympathy at all. Weeks later he returned, bowed to her, and, without a word, sat down at the piano and improvised for a long time. ‘Who would be able to describe this music? It was like hearing angelic choirs singing the welcome of my poor child into the world of light. When he had finished playing, he pressed my hand in sympathy and left me, silently as he had come. He had told me everything and in the end he brought me comfort.’
The year 1816 was not a very productive one for Beethoven. The lawsuit against his sister-in-law for custody of his nephew, Karl, must have taken huge amounts of time and energy, and the sorry saga was to continue for several more years. His hearing was becoming progressively worse, although it wasn’t until 1818 that he started to use conversation books. Other than the Sonata Op 101, the most important work completed that year was his song cycle An die ferne Geliebte. He was also working on the two sonatas for cello and piano, Op 102, and the first of these, in C major, which Beethoven himself called a ‘Freye Sonate’ (‘free Sonata’), has a form remarkably similar to Op 101.
The A major Sonata was published in February 1817 in the first volume of a series entitled ‘Museum für Klaviermusik’, brought out by the Viennese publisher Steiner. Its object was to present ‘only musical products of recognized worth—compositions which are particularly distinguished through their aesthetically pure musical design, worked out with artistry, gracefulness and clarity’. When Beethoven sent his sonata to Steiner, he wrote that it should be entitled ‘The difficult-to-play Sonata in A’ (Beethoven must have read reviews of his work, because a critic had just said that of his Seventh Symphony), adding: ‘What is difficult is also beautiful, good, great etc., so everyone will realize that this is the most lavish praise that can be given; since what is difficult makes one sweat.’
As in his previous piano sonata, the beautiful Op 90, he gives more elaborate German indications as well as Italian indications for tempo. Thus for the opening movement (Allegretto ma non troppo), he gives us a more precise clue to its interpretation in his native language: Etwas lebhaft und mit der innigsten Empfindung (‘a little lively and with deepest feeling’). I love reading Tovey’s notes to Beethoven’s sonatas (when I was a young student, his was the edition I always used, along with the one by Artur Schnabel). For this movement Tovey gives the following advice: ‘Do not be unduly depressed by the reflection that your deepest feelings are not equivalent to Beethoven’s: there is no deeper expression than that which comes of habitually playing great music faithfully in the full conviction that it is greater than you can realize. Think of it and not of yourself.’ Czerny says this music ‘renders all outward embellishment superfluous’ and must be soft and sustained. It is above all lyrical, and made all the more expressive by its swinging syncopations.
The indications for the second movement (Vivace alla marcia; Lebhaft, Marschmäßig) are more straightforward. The movement itself is not. It’s a quirky piece—awkward to play, and difficult to bring off. Too fast a tempo ruins it. The trio is mostly a piece of strict canonic writing, in which the marking dolce appears twice. The route Beethoven finds to lead us back into the march is pure genius.
The slow movement is not really a separate movement at all, but rather an introduction to the finale. It is only one page long, and the whole thing is played with the soft pedal depressed. The Italian con affetto becomes sehnsuchtsvoll in German (‘full of longing’). Beethoven instructs us in Italian not to play it too slowly (Adagio, ma non troppo), yet in German says Langsam. In any case, time must stand still. The different registers of Beethoven’s keyboard are used in the most expressive way, giving a great feeling of space. Only at is conclusion, in a brief cadenza-like passage, is the soft pedal gradually lifted. Then appears a short reminiscence of the opening of the first movement, tinged with regret. A few seconds later we are thrown into the finale, again by a masterful bridge joining the various sections.
A simple Allegro marking for this imposing finale is qualified with Geschwind, doch nicht zu sehr, und mit Entschlossenheit (‘Fast, but not too fast, and with determination’). The warning Beethoven gives is a smart one. With the exception of a few bars where he goes into jaunty folksong mood, this piece is all counterpoint, and the clearer it is, the more astounding it becomes. A lot of the opening section is marked piano, even pianissimo, and at one point dolce. The development brings us a fugue—or at least a substantial fugato. It begins as softly as possible in the lower register, and builds to a huge climax in which Beethoven, for the first time ever, uses the ‘contra E’ (as he wrote in the score). Only the latest pianos had this new note, and what a marvellous way to show it off! A treacherous passage in double fourths appears in the recapitulation (the part my fellow competitors and I were discussing over dinner, although Beethoven was at least kind enough to leave us his own fingering for it). And the coda? For a second, when he drops to the minor third, it sounds as though he might go off on another fugue. But this is only a joke. Nevertheless, the discreet laughter continues all the way to the final, crashing chords.
from notes by Angela Hewitt © 2013