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Ludwig van Beethoven Cycle of the 32 Piano Sonatas

Cycle of the 32 Piano Sonatas (to mark the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth) / From Friday 4th to Sunday 13th September 2020 in Perugia. Here info and programme


Backbone of this year’s Sagra Musicale Umbra is the performance of all 32 of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, a monument with few equals in the history of Western “art music”. The Sonatas can generally be divided into two groups, the first 23 written more or less in the decade between 1796 and 1806, whilst the second group of 9 stretches from 1810 to 1823, an “interruption” due in no small part to the musician’s increasing symptoms of deafness: from 1808 onwards – and to his great chagrin – Beethoven was no longer in a condition to be the interpreter of his own music in public. Not that his creative originality showed any signs of weakening. Quite the opposite: we find the same quest for innovation – both structural and expressive – from beginning to end, from youthful and overt virtuosity (op. 2, op. 10 and op. 13 “Pathétique”) to a central period of experimentation (opp. 26, 27 and 31) and a new attention to virtuosity with the op. 53 “Waldstein” and op. 57 “Appassionata”. From here, after a further pause, we approach Beethoven’s so-called “third style”, culminating in the massive “Hammerklavier” op. 106 (1818) and the transcendental final triptych (opp. 109-111) between 1821-23. After which, there was simply nothing left to say.


Friday 4th September –19:00

Sonata no. 3 in C major op. 2 no. 3. The three Sonatas op. 2 date from 1793-95, the early years passed by Beethoven in Vienna, and were published in 1796. They are virtuoso pieces, all in four movements instead of the more traditional three, with which the composer – already recognised as a consummate master of improvisation – presented himself with daring authority to a new public, much along the same lines as Franz Liszt, born over a generation later, would exclaim “Le concert, c’est moi!”.

The grandest and most brilliant of the Sonatas is no. 3, in C major, whose technically demanding outer movements can hardly have been suitable for those “domestic” amateur pianists for whom Haydn and Mozart had written. The slow movement drifts between a radiant E major and a more dramatic E minor (but also between G major and C major), followed by a humorous Scherzo (and a turbulent Trio in A minor) and the most dazzlingly radiant Finale. The Sonatas were dedicated rather grudgingly to his “teacher” Haydn, from whom Beethoven claimed provocatively that “he had learnt nothing”.

Sonata no. 9 in E major op. 14 no. 1. The two Sonatas op. 14, published in 1799, are reasonably modest works (both lack a true “slow” movement), and were dedicated by the composer to one of his aristocratic pupils, the Baroness Josephine von Braun. Nonetheless, Beethoven’s imprint is clearly recognisable, reminding us that he had only just written the dramatic “Pathétique” op. 13.

Sonata no. 17 in D minor op. 31 no. 2, “Tempest”. The three Sonatas of op. 31 take us forward by a few years to the summer of 1802, which Beethoven passed in the rural suburb of Heiligenstadt. He was in the middle of an experimental and restless period that began – amongst other works – with the two op. 27 Sonatas, the second of them known as the “Moonlight”. “Tempest” is not Beethoven’s title. It derives from the assertion of his secretary, Anton Schindler, that when he asked the composer about the “meaning” of the work, the composer replied gruffly and enigmatically: “Just read Shakespeare’s Tempest!”. True or not, the title is in fact remarkably appropriate, and the key of D minor for a major work is shared only by the 9th Symphony.

Nor should we forget that the summer of 1802 was particularly critical for Beethoven’s state of mind, afflicted as he was by ever-increasing symptoms of deafness. He even contemplated taking his own life, returning from the brink after writing the famous farewell letter to his brothers – never sent – that is now known as the “Heiligenstadt Testament”. Another letter, some nine months earlier, to his doctor friend Franz Wegeler in Bonn has prophetic overtones: “I will take fate by the throat [Ich will dem Schicksal in den Rachen greifen]; it shall not bend and crush me. Oh! it is so glorious to live one’s life a thousand times! For a quiet life, I feel it, I am no longer made”.

The first movement of the Sonata, which rarely departs from the home tonic of D minor, is a mysterious contrast between an introductory Largo – which reappears, as if from afar, during the course of the movement – and the urgent Allegro which follows. (And we cannot help but notice that when the Largo reappears, it is followed by a new phrase – Con espressione e semplice –, with an uncanny resemblance to the famous recitative “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!” of the Ninth Symphony.) The central Adagio, by contrast, remains anchored in the major, whilst the agitated final Rondo returns to the minor. An acute comment by Beethoven’s ex-pupil Carl Czerny about the Finale may well also be apocryphal, but it still deserves attention: “Beethoven extemporised the theme as he once saw a horseman gallop by his window. Many of his best works were produced under similar circumstances. With him, every sound, every motion was music and rhythm”.


Friday 4th September – 21:00

Sonata no. 19 in G minor op. 49 no. 1 & Sonata no. 20 in G major op. 49 n. 2. Belying their official numeration, the two Sonatas op. 49 were composed between 1795 and 1797, but published – without dedications – only in 1805 (hence their misleading numbering), which places them between the Sonatas op. 2 and op. 7. They are minor works, which Beethoven himself described as Leichte Sonaten (or “slight Sonatas”). Both are in two movements and in related keys, the first in G minor – relatively rare for the composer – the second in G major. “Didactic” works, in other words, not without charm, but we have no further information why – or for whom, if anybody – they were written.

Sonata no. 26 in E flat major op. 81a, “Les Adieux”. There are few Sonatas to compare with the E flat major Sonata op. 81a of 1810, a rare example in Beethoven’s output of “programme music”, and the first time in the cycle that we come across the archduke Rudolph – youngest brother of the reigning Hapsburg emperor Franz II – as a dedicatee. Rudolph had been a piano student of Beethoven – becoming also his only composition student – since around 1803, and in 1809 contributed to an annuity for the composer on condition that he resisted the temptation to leave Vienna. But 1809 was also the year that saw the second occupation of the city by Napoleonic troops, and most of the Imperial family abandoned the city for the best part of a year, circumstance that underlies the op. 81a, whose three movements are entitled Das Lebewohl (The Farewell), Abwesenheit (Absence) and Das Wiedersehen (The Reunion). Not only: the three opening notes (Largo, followed by Allegro) are accompanied in the autograph by the three syllables Le-be-wohl, a “post-horn call” motif which forms the thematic basis of much of the work. Regret, nostalgia and joy (the closing movement, Vivacissimamente) expressed in musical terms. And not for the first time, if we bear in mind the lyricism of the “Pastoral” Symphony and the bombast of his hugely popular “Wellington’s Victory”.

Sonata no. 23 in F minor op. 57, “Appassionata”. Again, a title not invented by Beethoven, but which – like the “Tempest” – is singularly appropriate. Not to mention the key of F minor, which a few years later will be that of the grand Overture “Egmont” and the op. 95 string quartet, with its annotation “Serioso”. Drama, violence, technical virtuosity and extremes of expression lie at the heart of the Sonata, particularly in the outer movements, where – in the opening Allegro assai – we note a fleeting anticipation of the “fate motif” of the 5th Symphony. The slow movement is unusual in being a theme (Andante con moto) followed by a series of decorative variations – not unlike the “Kreutzer” violin sonata op. 47 – but nothing prepares us for the pounding chords that introduce us without pause to the final Allegro non troppo, which under expert hands takes our breath away in the concluding coda (Presto). Where could Beethoven possibly venture now? Four years would pass before his next Sonata.

The “Appassionata” is dedicated to a loyal friend and accomplished ‘cellist, Count Franz von Brunsvik, whose sisters Therese and Josephine had been Beethoven’s pupils a few years earlier. The autograph MS, curiously, is conserved in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, after the Sonata was first played – at sight from the manuscript – by the accomplished French pianist Marie Bigot in a fortuitous domestic encounter. Beethoven remained astonished at her technical ability and agreed with great courtesy to her request to receive the MS as a gift. Bigot and her husband returned to Paris in 1809, and there the water-stained autograph has remained ever since.


Saturday 5th September – 21:00

Sonata no. 2 in A major op. 2 no. 2. 27 years pass between the publication of Beethoven’s first Piano Sonatas (op. 2, 1796) and that of his last Sonata, op. 111 (1823), a commission – together with op. 109 and op. 110 – from the editors Adolf and Moritz Schlesinger in Berlin and Paris. An eternity, if we consider the difference in creative expression that the composer had developed in the meantime. Technical virtuosity, still present, is less of a question: more important is the matter of “form”, a revaluation of the structure, with an attention that transferred itself from the opening movement to the closing one, either in the form of a complex fugue or in that of a theme with variations. Op. 2 no. 2 is a “conventional” Sonata in four movements, but still disconcerting in its unexpected characteristics and its technical demands, where we find frequent contrasts in the outer movements between legato e staccato. The intense slow movement (Largo appassionato) is followed by a characterful Scherzo.

Sonata no. 32 in C  minor op. 111. Whole books have been written on Beethoven’s last Sonata, first amongst them a long and heartfelt chapter in Thomas Mann’s novel Doktor Faustus. From them we can learn how much the composer’s attention had turned away from traditional forms towards a totally new conception, which in the case of the Sonata op. 111 completely eliminated a “finale”: the poor editor Schlesinger – not unreasonably – enquired if perhaps Beethoven had forgotten to transmit a third and closing movement. “I didn’t have enough time”, he is supposed to have replied to the perplexed Anton Schindler who asked the same question, when in reality, after the sublime Arietta and its variations, there was literally nothing more to say.

The violence of the opening Maestoso and the turbulence of the following Allegro con brio ed appassionato find a brief moment of consolation in a second subject in A flat – “a soft glimpse of sunlight illuminating the dark, stormy heavens”, to quote Wendell Kretzschmar in Doktor Faustus – which brings a final resolution in a candid and disarming C major, preparing the way for the famous Arietta (Adagio molto, semplice e cantabile). If the first four variations are reasonably conventional from a formal point of view, little prepares us for the expanded recapitulation of the fifth variation, when time literally seems to stand still. Beethoven explores every possible range of the keyboard, climbing towards the heights with a long series of double and triple trills that were one of the distinctive features of his “last” style. Still today, after almost two centuries, the listener remains speechless. A journey from darkness to light or, to quote Thomas Mann again, “an end without any return” (Ende auf Nimmerwiederkehr)

Beethoven’s first intention had been to dedicate the Sonata to archduke Rudolph, but he then changed his mind, instructing the editor Schlesinger to dedicate it to Antonie “Toni” Brentano, who is generally thought to be the addressee of the composer’s mysterious letter – never sent – to an “immortal beloved” in 1812. Schlesinger either ignored the request or received it too late, maintaining the dedication to Rudolph, but we cannot help observing that the London edition of the Sonata was indeed dedicated to Antonie.


Sunday 6th September – 12:15

Sonata no. 1 in F minor op. 2 no. 1. As we recalled before, a quarter of a century separates the Sonatas of op. 2 from op. 109 and op. 110, the first two of the final three Sonatas commissioned by the publishers Schlesinger, father and son. Beethoven’s very first Sonata is a virtuoso work, in a minor key – the same as that of the “Appassionata” – which was unusual for the first publication of a “debutant”. Much of the material is borrowed from an early Piano Quartet written in Bonn, but there is no denying that the spirit is already inimitable: unexpected harmonies and rhythmic irregularities that will be characteristics of the future.

 Sonata no. 30 in E major op. 109. We jump forward  to 1821 and to the unexpected commission of what would be Beethoven’s last Sonatas. The composer had been taken unawares: he was still working on large-scale works (the Missa Solemnis for archduke Rudolf, the “Diabelli” Variations and the 9th Symphony), but managed to respect Schlesinger’s urgent request for a first Sonata, for which – or so it would seem – he chose an unpublished Bagatelle for the first movement. At the same time, Beethoven had little or no interest in respecting the structural conventions of the past, such as the sonata-form or the traditional Scherzo and Trio, transferring his attention to a final movement, which would either be a theme with variations or a complex contrapuntal fugue.

The bizarre first movement, which alternates between Vivace ma non troppo and Adagio espressivo, is followed by a gruff “scherzo” (Prestissimo) – without, however, a “trio” – and by an exquisite and seraphic theme and variations which allude in more ways than one to the “Goldberg Variations” of Bach: the themes have the same sarabande-like rhythm and return da capo, in their barest form, to close the works. And for the final chord Beethoven indicates the use of the sustaining pedal, but without indicating its release. A harmonious E major is left to die away in mid-air.

The Sonata is dedicated to Maximiliane von Brentano, whose family Beethoven frequented before they left Vienna in 1812, giving lessons to Maximiliane when still a child. His accompanying letter is moving in its candour: “This is not one of those dedications which are used and abused by thousands of people – It is the spirit which unites the noble and finer people of this earth which time can never destroy”. There can be little doubt that Maximiliane’s mother Antonie was the composer’s “immortal beloved”.

 Sonata no. 31 in A flat major op. 110. Still more striking – if at all possible – is the Sonata op. 110 of the following year. The initial atmosphere would seem to be tranquil and good-humoured: an introductory Moderato cantabile, molto espressivo (to which Beethoven adds “Con amabilità”) is followed by a humorous “scherzo” (Allegro molto) and a rhythmically wild “trio”, in which are quoted – as in the Quodlibet of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” – two popular songs of the time (“Our cat has had kittens” and “I’m dissolute, you’re dissolute!”).

And then – all of a sudden – the atmosphere changes completely. The “scherzo” ends in F major, and the key shifts abruptly to B flat minor for the following Adagio ma non troppo, which in turn veers to E flat minor (six flats!) for a desolate Arioso dolente in the form of a bel canto “recitative”. This leads to an austere and “granitic” fugue, which after 80 bars collapses under its own weight, taking us back to the Arioso, now in a still more desolate G minor and marked “Perdendo le forze, dolente” (Ermattet, klagend). The struggle would seem to be lost, when a cadence resolves unexpectedly in G major and in nine repeated chords with a gradual and violent crescendo. As if from nowhere the fugue reappears – the subject is now inverted, descending instead of ascending – and reaches new and dizzying heights that leave the listener in a state of exhilarating release.


Wednesday 9th September – 21:00

Sonata no. 12 in A flat major op. 26. As already noted, the “central” works that Beethoven composed in the years 1800-1801 find him determined to explore new and unorthodox approaches to the concept of the piano sonata. This may not seem immediately obvious in the  A flat Sonata op. 26, but a closer inspection reveals that not one of its four movements is actually in sonata-form. The first movement, like Mozart’s “Alla Turca” Sonata K. 331, is an Andante with variations, followed by a whirlwind Scherzo (Allegro molto), whilst the fourth movement (Allegro) is also a rhythmically urgent Rondo. Particularly worthy of note is the third movement (A flat minor), which Beethoven entitled “Marcia funebre sulla morte d’un eroe”, complete with rolling drums and musket salvoes in the central trio, in the major. We ignore if the “hero” had a precise identity, but we cannot help noting that the Funeral March of the “Eroica” Symphony was only two years away. Chopin was especially fond of the Sonata (perhaps suggesting the Marche funèbre of his own B flat minor Sonata?) and the March was played at Beethoven’s funeral in his own transcription for small orchestra.

Sonata no. 15 in D major op. 28, “Pastoral”. The title, as so often, is not Beethoven’s own, but once again is not inappropriate. The work is one of great charm and relatively untroubled by expressive tension. Both its outer movements make prominent use of a rustic “drone” bass, and we can note a similar rustic-sounding episode (in the major) in the central part of the Andante, whose outer parts are in the minor. Beethoven also indulges in one of his favourite techniques, the contrast between a melody given out legato by the right hand, above a staccato accompaniment in the left. The first movement had had a gentle conclusion: not so the closing Rondo, to which Beethoven adds a rousing “presto” coda.

Sonata no. 14 in C sharp minor op. 27 no. 2, “Moonlight”. It was the pianist Wilhelm von Lenz, a pupil of Liszt, who first used the term “Moonlight” in 1852, recounting how it had been suggested to him by the poet Ludwig Rellstab, who described the famous opening movement of op. 27 no. 2 as evoking “a boat visiting by moonlight the primitive landscapes of Lake Lucerne”. Nor had Rellstab been the first to search for a colourful “meaning”: Carl Czerny may not have been wide of the mark when he spoke of a “night scene, in which the voice of a complaining spirit is heard at a distance”.

Be that as it may, it was certainly unprecedented to begin a Sonata with a lengthy Adagio sostenuto, played almost entirely pianissimo, in the sustained gloom of C sharp minor. The movement bears the direction, Si deve suonare tutto questo pezzo delicatissimamente e senza sordino (“The whole of this piece must be played extremely delicately and without dampers”). Not an easy direction to be followed on a modern instrument, which leaves the question to the discretion of every single interpreter.

If we have been in a nocturnal atmosphere in the Adagio, the light of day breaks briefly with the Allegretto that follows without a pause, a “flower between two abysses” (Eine Blume zwischen zwei Abgründen), to quote Franz Liszt. The relief is short-lived, as the final Presto agitato plunges us into despair. Not until the “Appassionata” of four years later would Beethoven write a creation of such violent turbulence.

The Sonata is dedicated to another of the composer’s aristocratic pupils, the 17-year old Countess Giulietta “Julie” Guicciardi, for whom he had the warmest of feelings. She may well have been the figure to whom he refers in his determined letter of November 1801 to Franz Wegeler, “a lovely and fascinating girl who loves me and whom I love”. Beethoven’s desperation at his increasing deafness would reach a crisis less than a year later.


Thursday 10th September – 21:00

Sonata no. 27 in E minor op. 90. Four years passed by between “Les Adieux” of 1810 and the op. 90 Sonata of 1814, a period strangely unproductive in Beethoven’s output, when he was troubled by health problems and by the hotly-disputed custodianship of his rebellious nephew Carl.  The movements are only two – with indications exclusively in German – and we are tempted to believe, according to Beethoven’s amanuensis Anton Schindler, that the Sonata may be a humorous reference to an extra-marital relationship of its dedicatee Moritz von Lichnowsky, whose brother Karl – recently deceased – had been one of the composer’s most strenuous early supporters. A “conflict between head and heart” (Kampf zwischen Kopf und Herz) is supposed to have been Beethoven’s description of the first movement, whilst the second represented a “conversation with the beloved“ (Eine Konversation mit der Geliebte). True or not, the Sonata is an intriguing contrast between two different emotions – the one expressed in a minor key, the other in major – which for once inclines us to give credence to the otherwise untrustworthy Schindler. We are entering into the period of Beethoven’s “late” style, where formal structures are compressed and reduced to their minimum, and it would be difficult not to describe the heartfelt melody (Sehr singbar, “molto cantabile”) of the closing Rondo as the most “Schubertian” he ever wrote.

Sonata no. 4 in E flat major op. 7. We back-track to 1797 for the op. 7 Sonata, one of Beethoven’s unjustly neglected works, which represents a “first” in more than one sense: the first of his Sonatas to be published separately (instead of forming part of a three-sonata collection) and the first to be dedicated to one of his aristocratic female pupils, Barbara “Babette” Keglevics, who lived conveniently across the street. It is a large-scale work, advertised by the editor Artaria as a “Grande Sonate”, that begins to look undeniably to the future: we should not be searching so much for attempts to astonish the listener with virtuoso gestures, but rather an attempt to “expand” the form of the Sonata, again in four movements, like those of op. 2. The key – and the atmosphere – of E flat major is “mild”, but the rhythmic vivacity of the opening Allegro molto e con brio is undeniable, balanced by a smooth second subject in the manner of a chorale. The serenity of the Largo con gran espressione in C major is followed by an apparently innocent Minuet/Scherzo (contrasted by a “trio” in minor), whilst the gentle concluding Rondo (Poco allegretto e grazioso) is one of the few moments when conflict rears its head with a central episode in C minor.

Sonata no. 8 in C minor op. 13, “Pathétique”. And so, little more than a year later, to the “Grande Sonate Pathétique”, undoubtedly the most passionate of his Sonatas to date, and already the fourth time – after the Piano Trio op. 1 no. 3, the String Trio op. 9 no.3 and the Piano Sonata op. 10 no. 1 that he chose the “tragic” key of C minor, which we know so well from the 5th Symphony.

We cannot be sure whether the title was Beethoven’s, but he evidently had little objection, referring to its sobriquet  more than once in his correspondence. He was well aware that the term had no sentimental connotations: rather, it was a throw-back to the Empfindsamkeit – an aesthetic “sensibility” – which had its roots in the late XVIII century movement of Sturm und Drang and in two authors particularly admired by the musician, Goethe (The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1774) and Friedrich Schiller, not forgetting the philosophical writings of Immanuel Kant.

For the first time, Beethoven precedes the Allegro di molto e con brio with a slow and dramatic introduction (Grave), whose rhetorical opening chord is as well-known to us as the motto of the 5th Symphony. The Allegro takes flight, but the introductory Grave returns to disturb us during the course of the movement, leaving the listener in a perpetual state of doubt and uncertainty. The atmosphere relaxes in the following Adagio cantabile, but is again restless in the Rondo Finale, which despite modulations in E flat, A flat and even C major, returns to C minor. A conflict that remains unresolved.

The Sonata is dedicated to Beethoven’s first patron in Vienna, Prince Karl von Lichnowsky, in whose palace he was a guest for two years and who offered him an annuity of 600 florins between 1800 and 1806. A great deal of fuss was made over the musician, particularly by Princess Christiane, and the atmosphere became rather oppressive: “Every day I am supposed to be at home at half past three, to get dressed up, have a shave and so on. I can’t stand it!” (Das halt ich nicht aus!). The time had come for Beethoven to find alternative accommodation.


Friday 11th September – 19:00

Sonata no. 25 in G major op. 79 – Sonata no. 24 in F sharp major op. 78, “A Thérèse”. As already recalled, four years lie between the “Appassionata” and the two short Sonatas op. 78 and op. 79, both of which owe their creation to a commission from the London-based editor Muzio Clementi when he visited Vienna in 1807. They are generally considered lightweight works (the duration of each lasts no more than ten minutes), but that is not to say they are without quality. Op. 78 is in the unusual key of F sharp major, which Beethoven otherwise avoided, and the first of its two movements is preceded by a slow introduction (Adagio cantabile) of no small poetic weight, whilst the closing Allegro vivace is a sparkling rhythmic exercise.

The op. 79 Sonata may be rather less demanding technically, but the opening Presto alla tedesca (“in German style”) looks forward to the third movement (Alla danza tedesca, and also in G major) of the String Quartet op. 130. The Sonata comes to a witty conclusion, after a melancholy “barcarolle” in G minor, another key rarely employed by the composer. The Sonatas are dedicated to the two sisters Therese and Josephine von Brunsvik, whom Beethoven had taught some years earlier (and Josephine in particular has often been proposed as a candidate for his “immortal beloved”).

 Sonata no. 16 in G major op. 31 no. 1. The three Sonatas of op. 31 take us back to the unhappy summer of 1802, when Beethoven’s state of mind could not have been more morose. But we would be hard put to find any musical correspondence – except perhaps in the “Tempest” – with the composer’s personal emotions of the time. His experimentations with structural form and irregular key relationships are soon evident in the opening Allegro vivace of the first Sonata, in G major, when the first subject is restated in an unexpected F major and a second subject appears in a totally unrelated B major. More conventional is the central Adagio grazioso, an extravagantly elaborate operatic “aria” not without a certain symphonic weight. The Sonata terminates with a Rondo (Allegretto) of considerable charm, whose transparent textures must surely have been appreciated by Schubert.

Sonata no. 21 in C major op. 53, “Waldstein”. And so we arrive to the “heavyweight” companion piece of the “Appassionata”, the brilliant C major Sonata known as the “Waldstein”. Its dedicatee, Count Ferdinand Waldstein, is known to us from the years of Bonn as the first major supporter of Beethoven, to whom he expressed in 1792 the wish that in Vienna he would “receive the spirit of Mozart from the hands of Haydn”, but it is curious to note that thirteen years later – when Beethoven finally made him a dedication – Waldstein was far away from Vienna, in England, and in impecunious circumstances, after spending his fortune to form a military regiment that fought with the English against the Napoleonic troops. Be that as it may, the Sonata stands alongside the “Appassionata” as the greatest Sonata of Beethoven’s “middle” period, a euphoric creation of yet more novelty, both formal and expressive: a truculent and “orchestral” first movement (Allegro con brio) and a brief slow movement (an “Introduzione”) that leads without pause to an extraordinary Rondo Finale, which terminates in a breathless Prestissimo Coda.

A word should be spent about the piano on which Beethoven composed the “Waldstein”, a recent gift from the Parisian maker Sébastien Erard with its increased keyboard range – five and a half octaves, instead of the previous five – and a series of sophisticated pedals. The “sustaining” pedal fascinated Beethoven in particular, and there are long passages in the Rondo Finale where he indicates that the dampers must be kept raised, creating a kind of impressionistic “gouache” effect. More problematic for the performer on a modern instrument is the moment in the Prestissimo when he indicates consecutive passages – the one ascending, the other descending – with the fingering 1 and 5 (thumb and little finger), a form of glissando that would have been far easier to reproduce on the lighter keyboards of the time. Technical experiments, not always easy for modern interpreters, were essential to Beethoven’s way of thinking.


Friday 11th September – 21:00

Sonata no. 7 in D major op. 10 no. 3. The last three concerts of the cycle introduce us to the three Sonatas op. 10 of 1798, a fundamental step in Beethoven’s career, after the earlier Sonatas op. 2 and op. 7, and preceding by a year the ground-breaking “Pathétique” op. 13. The musician was already beginning to experiment with new forms and the Sonata is undoubtedly the most brilliant of the three, with technical pyrotechnics that could hardly have been suitable for “amateur” performers. A radiant Adagio in E major follows the opening Allegro con brio, followed in turn by a conventional Scherzo and by a return to outrageous virtuosity with the concluding Rondo Allegro assai.

A curious anecdote is linked to the dedicatee of the op. 10 Sonatas, the Countess Anna Margarete von Browne, and to her half Irish, half Russian husband (himself the dedicatee of the three String Trios op. 9) who made the unusual gift of a horse to Beethoven. After riding it two or three times, the musician forgot about the animal, which his unscrupulous servant began to rent out, pocketing the proceeds together with a consentient stable hand. The shock was rude, when Beethoven received a large bill for the horse’s upkeep and forage: he immediately dismissed his servant and is presumed to have returned the animal to his benefactor …

Sonata no. 13 in E flat major op. 27 no. 1. The companion piece to the “Moonlight” Sonata op. 27 no. 2, and possibly even more radical in its definition “quasi una fantasia”. Four movements without any interruption – none of them in sonata-form – are condensed by Beethoven into a quarter of an hour, in his attempt to search for a cyclical unity. The first movement is itself divided into two parts, an Andante of childlike innocence, which then explodes into a wholly unprepared Allegro in C major, followed by an equally energetic “Scherzo“ (not marked as such) in C minor. The slow movement shares the mood and key of the A flat major Adagio from the “Pathétique” Sonata, leading to the Allegro vivace Finale, where the theme of the slow movement makes a brief reappearance before the Presto coda. No Sonata comes closer to what must have been Beethoven’s unparalleled skill as an improviser.

 Sonata no. 11 in B flat major op. 22. Written shortly before, in 1800, the Sonata op. 22 is one of Beethoven’s most neglected, and unjustly so, when we know that he regarded it highly (“the Sonata has taken a shower” – Die Sonate hat sich gewaschen – was his comment). To this should be added the key of B flat major, which to the composer represented an expressive grandeur, as we shall find in a few days’ time with the massive “Hammerklavier” of 17 years later. Indeed, the repetitive figure which begins the Sonata in laconic style is in some ways like a toy version of the fanfare which will open the “Hammerklavier”.

The song-like Adagio con molto [sic] espressione is one of Beethoven’s finest “bel canto” creations, followed unexpectedly by an antique “Minuetto” which at its centre contains a rather more modern Trio, in the minor. The Sonata ends with an elegant Rondo (Allegretto) whose theme is derived from a passage in the previous Minuet.


Saturday 12th September – 12:00

Sonata no. 10 in G major op. 14 no. 2. The two Sonatas op. 14 of 1799, as already recalled, are reasonably modest works (both lack a true “slow” movement), and were dedicated by the composer to one of his aristocratic pupils, the Baroness Josephine von Braun. Nonetheless, Beethoven’s imprint is clearly recognisable in a charming and elegant opening  Allegro, followed by an Andante with three variations of wry humour. Their chords are dying away in pianissimo, when Beethoven surprises the listener – a “joke” worthy of Haydn – with a peremptory chord (fortissimo) which opens the way to the concluding Scherzo. And humour is again present in the final bars, when the music threatens to disappear off the bottom end of the keyboard.

Sonata no. 6 in F major op. 10 no. 2. The F major Sonata of op. 10 is the most light-hearted – and also the shortest – of the three, with more than one opportunity for Beethoven to express his inimitable sense of humour. The principal theme of the opening Allegro is in two contrasting parts, and in the Recapitulation he accentuates their contrast by representing the first part in the “wrong” key of D major, maintaining the “right” key for its second part. A “slow” movement is missing, replaced by a minor-mode Allegretto which takes the form of a Minuet and Trio, whilst the closing Presto is even more compressed, with more than one allusion to the dry academic counterpoint of Beethoven’s former teacher Albrechtsberger. An abruptness that is little short of comical.

Sonata no. 18 in E flat major op. 31 no. 3, “The Hunt”. The three Sonatas op. 31, completed in the summer of 1802, close with one of Beethoven’s most unorthodox piano works, a piece which looks forwards and backwards at one and the same time. The two central movements give the impression of being an incongruity, a “tripping” Scherzo followed by a gracious Menuetto, whilst the opening Allegro poses a number of harmonic anomalies, unlike the whirlwind tarantella finale (Presto con fuoco), which has given the Sonata its nickname. A sighing phrase opens the work, but it is set above an ambiguous discord – in jazz circles it would be known as an “added sixth” – leaving the listener uncertain as to the Sonata’s home key of E flat, which will become only gradually apparent. Also unusual, in the development section, is the reappearance of the principal theme in the home key, as though the piece were starting all over again. The final “tarantella”, good-humoured and breathless, is a close relative of the original finale to the A major Violin Sonata op. 30 no. 1, which was written – and put aside – around the same time (subsequently finding its way into the “Kreutzer” Sonata op. 47). The influence of its galloping rhythm on Schubert can hardly be ignored, when we think of the finale to his “Death and the Maiden” string quartet, amongst other pieces.

We have already mentioned the fact, but we will repeat it again: it seems astonishing that, only a few months after completing the op. 31 Sonatas – and “The hunt”, in particular – Beethoven was contemplating taking his own life.

Sonata no. 28 in A major op. 101. The op. 101 Sonata dates from 1816 and is one of Beethoven’s piano works that is hardest to “classify”, falling as It does in that transitional period that would lead to his so-called “late” style.

Other works of the same year were the song cycle An die ferne Geliebte op. 98 and the two ‘Cello Sonatas op. 102, and it is noticeable how his attention was being drawn to an ever-increasing complexity of counterpoint, at a time when the “fugue” was generally regarded as an archaic and academic hang-over from the previous century. Not so for Beethoven, who returns to a four-movement Sonata in an unusually “open” format, where the thematic material overlaps more than once between one movement and the next.

His expressive indications, again in German as in the op. 90 Sonata, are extremely detailed, and key signatures are particularly fluid, as in the opening Allegretto ma non troppo (or “Etwas lebhaft”) – an example of “unending melody” [Unendlicher Melodie] for Richard Wagner – where the tonic chord of A major is not sounded at all until more than two-thirds of the way. Schumann was much impressed by the following Vivace alla Marcia (in an unrelated F major), which is not hard to interpret as a prototype for Schumann’s own Fantasy op. 17.

Then comes a brief Adagio ma non troppo, con affetto (or “Langsam und sehnsuchtsvoll”), an ornate and deeply felt “aria”, which veers at its close from A minor to E major for an unexpected reappearance of the Sonata’s first theme. Not only: Beethoven repeats over and again its final falling phrase, which forms the material for the exultant finale, Rapido ma non troppo (“Geschwinde, doch nicht zu sehr”). Other elements are readily discernible: intricate fugal writing; a second subject in the style of a march (recalling the second movement), complete with the sound of distant horns; and in the coda a momentary and startling plunge into F major, which had been the second movement’s home key.

The op. 101 Sonata may not figure with great regularity in recital programmes, but it is undoubtedly one of Beethoven’s most original creations. It is dedicated to yet another of the composer’s female pupils, the Baroness Dorothea von Ertmann, of whom he was particularly fond. “My dear, treasured Dorothea-Cäcilia” (Meine liebe, werte Dorothea-Cäcilia), may you now receive what has often been promised to you and what you may take as a token of my admiration for both your artistic talent and your own person”.


Sunday 13th September – 12:15

Sonata no. 5 in C minor op. 10 no. 1. Not inappropriately, the final concert of the cycle sets alongside each other one of Beethoven’s early Sonatas, in his “signature” key of C minor, and the massive “Hammerklavier” op. 106, published twenty years later, in 1819. The three op. 10 Sonatas were published together in 1798, and we know from his sketches that Beethoven had originally intended for the first of the three to be structured in four movements (like the previous op. 2 Sonatas), but that he discarded the idea of including a Presto with Trio. The Sonata owes much to Mozart’s great Sonata in the same key of C minor, K. 457, and Beethoven’s outer movements have the same atmosphere of conflict and gravitas, to which, nonetheless, he brings frequent humoristic touches by means of unexpected modulations to unrelated keys.

The “pearl” of the Sonata is its expansive slow movement, Adagio molto in A flat major, with the delicacy of its “vocal” ornamentations and more unexpected modulations, before the stillness, gently throbbing, of its conclusion. The expressive tension of the Finale (Prestissimo) is relatively subdued, with an occasional use of “orchestral” tremolandi and a mild-mannered second subject in the major. Contrary to expectations, the movement ends in piano, but not before a moment of dynamic explosion, just before the recapitulation, where we catch an unmistakable anticipation of the “fate” motif from the 5th Symphony. Beethoven surely had his mind already on his next Sonata, the op. 13 “Pathétique” (also in C minor), where a Mozartian melancholy is transformed into fist-shaking defiance.

Sonata no. 29 in si bemolle maggiore op. 106, “Hammerklavier”. What remains to say of the “Große Sonate für das Hammerklavier” that has not already been said? We might start with one of Beethoven’s most ironic understatements, when he commented to his editor Artaria: “Here is a sonata that will challenge pianists, when someone will be able to play it in 50 years”. Words that are still valid today, but over 200 years later.

It seems safe to say that Beethoven worked on the Sonata in two stages, on the first two movements in 1817, on the third and fourth in 1818. We know from one of his sketchbooks that the main theme of the opening movement, setting the words “Vivat vivat Rudolphus!”, had been intended to form a choral homage to the archduke Rudolph (who became the Sonata’s dedicatee), but that the project came to nothing, as the composer wrote to him in 1819:

Two more pieces have added themselves to the two I wrote for Your Imperial Highness’s name-day, of which the last is a grand fugato. The whole thing thus makes a grand sonata, which will soon appear, and which has been intended from my heart for a long time for Y.I.H. For this, Y.I.H.’s latest event has been to a not inconsiderable degree responsible.

The “event” referred to was Rudolph’s elevation to the position of archbishop of Olmütz, occasion for which Beethoven would compose his Missa solemnis (but not in time, alas, for the consecration of 1820).

This may partly explain a certain imbalance to the Sonata, which maintains a traditional four-movement structure, but with its “weight” projected unremittingly towards its second part, where the final two movements generally last for not less than half an hour. Nor is the key of B flat major insignificant: it was a key that Beethoven associated with an expression of luminous grandeur, as opposed to that of B minor, a “black key” (H-moll schwarzer Tonart), as we find scribbled in a sketchbook of 1815. More than once, particularly in the first two movements, he opposes the note of B flat to that of B natural, underlining their opposition with belligerence. And the interval of a third, generally in a descending motion, is omnipresent, characterising  much of the Sonata’s thematic material, along with its harmonic progressions.

The exuberant opening Allegro, in sonata-form, is introduced by a fearful jump for the right hand and is followed by an energetic Scherzo – and a chaotic central Presto – which, in its parodic coda, renders explicit the opposition between B flat and B natural.

The transition to the transcendence of the following Adagio sostenuto, in a rocking 6/8 rhythm and a totally unexpected F sharp minor, could not be more abrupt.  We are transported into a completely different world, where the ornate second theme is worthy of Bellini’s most intense “bel canto”, transformed in the final episode by reassuring modulations to F sharp major and D major.

But again Beethoven takes us by complete surprise. Without a break, an extraordinary “recitative” passage – a foreshadowing of the 9th Symphony – leads us into the final Allegro risoluto, a violent Fugue introduced by a trill after the wild leap of a tenth, a foreshadowing in its turn of the Grosse Fuge of the op. 130 string quartet. Fuga a tre voci, con alcune licenze, as Beethoven noted with a certain euphemism, when in fact the theme is the object of counterpoint’s most complex and academic forms, amongst them augmentation, inversion, retrograde and stretto. The movement could only end with another characteristic of his late style, a liberating storm of double and triple trills.

As in the case of the “Waldstein” Sonata, a last word should be said about the instrument with which, despite his almost total deafness, Beethoven prepared to assault an unsuspecting listener. The instrument was a generous gift from the London-based builder Thomas Broadwood, that gave great satisfaction to the composer with its more robust and reinforced frame; its larger keyboard register, which now extended over 6 octaves (CC-c4), a fourth lower than its Viennese counterpart); and last but not least, a pair of sophisticated pedals, of which the “soft” pedal (una corda) could be applied independently either to the upper half or to the lower half of the keyboard.

Beethoven had yet to receive the instrument when he thanked Broadwood profusely: “I shall look upon it as an altar upon which I shall place the most beautiful offerings of my spirit [les plus belles offrandes de mon Esprit] to the divine Apollo”. A promise that he maintained, but at the expense of giving a battering to the instrument (today conserved, thanks to Franz Liszt, in Budapest’s National Museum). The London-based harp maker Johann Stumpf, visiting Beethoven in 1824, remained aghast: “As I opened it, what a spectacle offered itself  to my view! There was no sound left in the treble and broken strings were mixed up like a thorn bush in a gale”. Creation comes into being only at a great cost, and after the Arietta of the Sonata op. 111 there could only be silence.

Andrew Starling

Beethoven’s studio three days after his death in March 1827, watercolour by Johann Nepomuk Hoechle

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