Beethoven: The Last Piano Sonatas

Around 1815-16 life had become trouble­some for Beethoven, then 45 years old. His increasing deafness and failing health, compounded by his difficulty at keeping in touch with friends and the public, lead to a certain isolation. The works he produced then until he passed from the earthly scene, were the creations of an introvert who was compelled to limit his contact with the outside world, no matter how much he wanted to speak to it. This he did in his own language, in the last piano sonatas, string quartets, the Ninth Symphony and Missa solemnis. The sonatas were not his last works for the piano. The huge cycle of the so-called Diabelli Variations were still to come, but the sonatas were his last "words" in so far as piano sonatas were concerned.

Besides their emotional content, the last five sonatas demonstrate an enormous expansion of pianistic possibilities and, also characteristic of the last works of Beethoven's peers Haydn and Mozart, the amalgamation of the classical style with polyphonic elements and contrapuntal tech­niques.

Sonata in B-flat major, Op. 106--MHS 194

Composed in 1818/19 and published in 1819 in Vienna, this sonata is usually referred to as the "Hammerklavier Sonata" ignoring the fact that the first edition of the A major Sonata bears on its title page the same designation, as do the autographs and revised copies by Beethoven of Opp. 109 and 110. Beethoven always wrote for the Hammerklauier and the use of this term stems from his attempt to employ German words instead of conventional Italian expressions.

Beethoven once remarked that he wrote this Sonata under trying circumstances. The work combines symphonic spaciousness with concertante virtuosity, polyphonic magni­tude and profundity of expression. Only a few particularly significant features can be briefly pointed out here.

The symphonic spaciousness resulted ,n a total of 1167 measures, which not only exceeds those of the Piano Concertos in G major (1044). and E-flat (1074), but also those of the Fourth and Eighth Symphonies (1132 and 1034 respectively). The opening movement expresses strength and joy. There are contrapuntal involvements in the development section, but taken as a whole the movement does not mirror the "trying circumstances" of which Beethoven spoke. Traces of these circumstances are, however, present in the canonic Trio in B-flat minor of the rapidly moving Scherzo. The Adagio in F-sharp minor is unquestionably one of the most profound compositions Beethoven ever wrote.

Beethoven was determined to give the sonata an adequate conclusion in the form of a fugal finale with a three-voice texture. This fugue has hardly any counterpart in the musical literature. It is by no means a "textbook fugue. The prefatory Largo is motivically connected with the preceding Adagio and also generates a passage from which the fugal subject later evolves. The harmonic richness is extraordinary. No less than 11 tonalities are touched upon. Here speaks Beethoven the symphonist who applied the symphonic process and the harmonic freedom of the development section to fugal procedures. The vigorous conclusion reflects the conquest of adverse circumstances and the rising above the difficulties of life.

Sonata in E major, Op. 109--MHS 194

The three piano sonatas bearing the opus numbers 109. 110 and 111 form a triptych which stands out distinctly from the preceding sister works in A major and B-flat, particularly from the later. In the triptych Beethoven turns away from the greatly expanded four-movement design and. apply­ing smaller dimensions to the single movements. he even reduces their individual segments (exposition, development, recapit­ulation) in some instances to a bare minimum. Contrapuntal technique is applied to all three sonatas and their key relationship is of particular interest. Beethoven's fondness of the mediant keys is evident in the triptych. Considering the A-flat Sonata as the center-piece then, reading A-flat as ,P-sharp, E major appears as the lower and C minor as the upper mediant.

Beethoven concerned himself with the last three sonatas between 1819 and 1822. The autograph of the E major sonata bears the heading: "Sonate fur das Hammerklavier," but it appeared in 1821 as Sonata fiir das Pianoforte und dem Fraulein Maximi/iane Brentano gewidmet. .. The young lady was the daughter of Franz von Brentano, who proved a true friend of Beethoven in financial affairs. Her mother Antonia, her uncle Clemens, the romantic poet and editor of the famous anthology Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and her aunt, the famous Bettina von Arnim, who charmed Goethe, were all great friends and admirers of the composer who knew Maximiliane as a little girl.

Recalling the opening Allegro of the preceding Sonata in B-flat the first movement of the E major sonata appears as a study of incredible contrast. The former is 405 measures long, the latter only 99 measures. The exposition is, in its number of measures, not only the most concise one in .Beethoven's output but also unique in piano literature. It consists of only 15 measures, yet within this small framework we encounter sweeping melodic, rhythmic, dynamic and even emotional differences. In the development section scales are driven up to the highest regions of the piano. Heinrich Schenker, the eminent Viennese theorist, sees in this passage "The manifestation of a soul passionately striving upward and expressing itself ecstatically."

The second movement, Prestissimo, which follows the first without a break, shows the sonata pattern and also displays the features of the Scherzo in a highly original and imaginative manner. In the development section the rapid pace is slowed down and a clearly perceptible motoric contrast to both the exposition and recapitulation is manifest. Thus the development section assumes the character and function of a Trio and this novel combination gives the movement the appearance of a Scherzo.

In the last movement Beethoven reverts to the variation technique. The theme is 16 measures long and there are six variations. The basic harmonic character is constantly maintained and there are no variations in a minor tonality. The fifth variation is contrapuntal in nature, and the sixth is full of inexhaustible rhythmic diversity and comb­inations, the culmination of which is overwhelming. This variation leads to a restatement of the original theme. "Shadow­like and its soul chastened peacefully, the theme takes leave of us and flies away to that the dream-land from which it has descended for a while to let us participate in its transformations and visitations" (Heinrich Schenker).

Sonata in A-flat major, Op. 110--MHS 195

According to the autograph the sonata was completed at Christmas 1821 and published in Paris and Berlin in August 1821. The autograph shows many corrections and sketches and studies reflect Beethoven's intense struggle for the realization of his artistic aims. It was particularly the last movement which did not satisfy him and to remedy the situation he decided to rewrite it.

The Sonata does not open with the usual Allegro but with a rather lyrical movement the delivery of which should be effected con amabilita (gently). Consequently dramatic accents are lacking and expressive cantilena dominates. The piece adheres strictly to the sonata design but the second theme appears in the recapitulation in E major (lower mediant) before the tonality shifts ultimately to A-flat. The fast Scherzo in F minor is attached to the opening movement. This procedure was tested in the E major Sonata.

The last movement is constructively one of Beethoven• s greatest achievements. Seemingly consisting of four sections, it is in fact a fusion or amalgamation of an Adagio and a fugal finale. The core of the Adagio is the Aria dolente in A-flat minor the German translation of which-Kragender Gesang was written into the score by the composer. This "Mourning Song" is preceded by a short introduction and a recitative. Using elements of dramatic (operatic) music to prepare the entry of the "Mourning Song" Beethoven anticipates a procedure he applied later to the finale of the Ninth Symphony and the string quartets in A minor (Op. 132) and C-sharp minor (Op. 131). In · the eight measures preceding the Arioso dolente there are no less than 23 tempo and expression marks and three key signatures entered.

Sonata in C minor, Op. 111--MHS 195

Although the autograph is dated January 21. 1822. the sonata was published only in April 1823. Beethoven left the choice of the dedicatee to the publisher who chose Archduke Rudolph well aware of the power and influence of Beethoven's Imperial student and promoter, who had risen mightily in the catholic hierarchy as archbishop and cardinal.

The two-movement design of this sonata puzzled Beethoven's friends and the publisher Schlesinger who inquired of the master whether the third movement had not been dispatched to Berlin by mistake. The two-movement design was by no means a novelty in Beethoven's sonata output. Not counting the miniature "easy sonatas" Op. 49, Beethoven had written three two-movement sonatas before--Opp. 54, 78 and 90. Like Op. 100 the C minor sonata came into being after toilsome preliminary studies and hard work.

The first movement abounds in thematic and harmonic events stemming from the diminished seventh chord. Witness the opening measures of the Maestoso and the vehement unison chief theme of the Allegro. The first movement, too, shows contrapuntal involvements. The conclusion of the passion­ate Allegro is reminiscent of another C minor piece--the overture to Coriolan. But in contrast to the latter's crumbling away in C minor the sonata-movement closes in the major key in a spirit of hope and reconciliation which finds its fulfillment in the ensuing Arietta and variations. We know from the sketches that Beethoven worked laboriously on this movement and he found the final shape of the theme with the up-beat in 9/16 meter while working on the variations. Why he called the 16 measure theme "Arietta" is hard to fathom. There are five variations, the third being in 12/32 meter. The fifth brings about the reappear­ance of the Arietta. The extension of this variation leads to the coda, the left hand steadily moving in thirty􀁊second notes almost to the end which is gently attained with the rhythmic motif of the up-beat. Beethoven's last creation in the realm of the piano sonata ends in utmost simplicity and in the spirit of consolation, peace and hope ______ _

Joseph Braunstein is a musicologist and mountain climber and frequent contributor to MH Review.