Beethoven considered his sonata in Bb opus 106, the “Hammerklavier” to be his finest. I love all of them but it too is my favorite. But then there are the three sonatas opus 109 in E Major, opus 110 in Ab Major, and opus 111 in c minor! With these masterpieces Beethoven leaves us with 32 brilliant piano sonatas! They have touched us with tragedy, pathos, humor, love, tenderness, and whatever the human heart can hold. Listening to them how could they not be my favorites?!
As is my custom here I will include links to Andras Schiff’s lectures on these wondrous pieces. I must say that his lectures on all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas are a must for anyone, musician or not.
They are replete with historical perspectives, interpretive suggestions, just the right amount of descriptive analysis, and beautiful piano playing. I just can’t say enough about Schiff’s genius.
Opus 109 begins in such a sunny smiling way followed shortly by a rather questioning second subject. There follows a furious scherzo in e minor, Then the most beautiful E Major theme, a sarabande which is a rather ancient Spanish dance form found in many Baroque dance suites. Six variations follow before the movement ends with a simple restatement of that wonderful theme.
Opus 110 starts in feeling much like how op 109 ended. It’s key of Ab Major is a major third away from the previous sonata, the same interval that much of 109 was based on. It is also in the same 3/4 meter. A beautiful love song appears near the beginning. Some say that it was written for Antoinie Brentano, presumably Beethoven’s great “Immortal Beloved”, the woman he loved but couldn’t have. And so it was with women, friends, and most relationships for our hero. A raucous almost sarcastic scherzo follows and then a most profound third movement Adagio. Full of great sadness and resignation there appears a recitative section, a section without rhythm, almost declaratory. It’s “melody” is a quote from the great St John Passion by J.S. Bach where Christ declares “Es Ist Vollbracht” – “It is consummated”. Of course we must ask ourselves what Beethoven was telling us. Then comes a glorious fugue, a form he used more and more in his late style period. Then the recitative returns rhythmically even more ambiguously and tragically followed by another fugue using the earlier fugue subject inverted, turned upside down. Opus 110 is the only one of the final three sonatas that concludes with a powerful, spirited, and glorious ending.
Opus 111 is only two movements long. It begins in C minor, once again a major third it away from the ending of the previous sonata. It begins very seriously and the whole adagio introduction is characterized by diminished seventh chords and dotted rhythms giving it almost the feeling of a French Overture from the baroque era. It’s followed by a very fugal movement whose theme contains a sequence of notes that Beethoven became fascinated with more and more in his life. A sequence of four notes that contained an augmented second. An augmented second is 1/2 step bigger than a major third. This difficult and rather wild movement subsides into a very peaceful conclusion. Then follows one of the great pieces of music ever conceived. He titled it Arietta, little aria or song. Variations follow, more and more intricate. Trills, rumblings in the lowest reaches of the instrument, high notes seemingly touching heaven all quietly bring to a conclusion one of the greatest contributions a single man had ever made to humankind, the 32 Piano Sonatas! Thank you Beethoven.
I do realize just how trivial these précis will seem to some. They do to me. This blog was never intended to offer in-depth analysis of these pieces. I urge you all to go to the Adam Schiff lectures and attentatively listen to them. After that listen to his performances of them which I will also attach. I must confess that I have been so moved by listening to these late sonatas and studying with score in hand and seeing what marvels are held there. They take one on a journey that’s incredibly emotional but also intellectually inspiring. As I’ve said many times Beethoven is my hero.
Schiff Lecture Opus 109
Schiff Lecture Opus 110
Schiff Lecture Opus 111
Schiff Performance Opus 109