Week 36 – Bob’s Beethoven Blog

Posted on August, 13th 2021

Piano Sonata No.28 Opus 101 in A Major

We now enter Beethoven’s last style period, perhaps his greatest. We remember how he came to Vienna in 1791 or so as a great pianist/improviser and a promising composer. He soon mastered writing symphonies, chamber music, piano and string sonatas, and other incidental pieces. We also remember his Heiligenstadt Testament of 1802 that acknowledged to the world and to himself, his growing deafness. He became very lonely, not only because of his hearing issues, but because of his unsuccessful attempts at love and relationships. In spite of this, from that man’s heart and mind came some of the most glorious music ever. The great Eroica Symphony, the Fifth Symphony, the Seventh Symphony, five piano concertos, 11 string quartets, violin and cello sonatas, and all those great piano sonatas. The list goes on. He became widely acknowledged as the greatest composer alive. But we are now at the year 1816 and our hero is almost completely deaf. He has had some pretty severe financial problems. He has had great difficulty with his nephew Carl and has been in a struggle for guardianship of him. Consequently, there has been about a four-year hiatus in his composing. This is not a total gap but relative to what his usual output was, it was very sparse. When he resumed – what masterpieces he produced! Five monumental piano sonatas and the Diabelli Variations, five incredible string quartets and the Grosse Fugue, the Missa Solemnis, and of course the ninth Symphony!

What is so important about this last style period of his life? Musicians look at this music and have different opinions about it and what it all means, but most agree that Beethoven had chartered new musical waters. He stretched musical forms, expanded instrumental possibilities, created unique textures, challenged interpreters, etc. But far more importantly, it was as if he used music to show us the universe and what he saw in it. He entered another world and allowed us to catch a glimpse of it. This other world seen through his music is not only sublime and surreal but also generous and loving. You can hear longing and despair in it, but also beauty and the gift of life.

When I was much younger, probably in my 20s, I used to cringe and recoil when I would hear some old-timer say something like, “Well Sonny, you would really need to be much older to understand late Beethoven.” I would say, to myself of course because I respected my elders, “Oh come on cut it out. I get it! I played all the notes in tune at the right time and I felt the music.” Well I’m one of those old-timers now and those geezers were absolutely right. Take my word for it please. Please. There is so much in this music. One must listen to it over and over and let it into your soul.

Our first example from this period is the Piano Sonata No.28 Opus 101 in A Major. I love how gentle and welcoming the opening movement is. Next comes a very spirited march, then a very reflective slow movement in a minor, and we finish with a very interesting movement that is fugal in nature. Beethoven was not known as a great writer of fugues but I think this movement can dispute that notion. I will include Andras Schiff’s lecture on this sonata. I will also attach two complete performances, one by Daniel Barenboim the other by the great Vladimir Ashkenazy.

Piano Sonata No. 28 Opus 101 in A Major – Lecture by Sir Andras Schiff

Piano Sonata No. 28 Opus 101 in A Major – Vladimir Ashkenazy

Piano Sonata no 28 Opus 101 in A Major – Daniel Barenboim