The last decade of Beethoven’s life is universally regarded as one of the most intensely creative periods of any artist. Musicologists cannot resist the allure of the tortured genius, conscious of his approaching death choosing to sacrifice his life to art or the resulting compositions that still sound modern nearly 200 years later.
Although he was enormously popular and financially secure, this period was incredibly stressful for Beethoven personally. By his early forties, he had finally admitted that his marriage project had been a dismal failure. Despite yearning to be a husband and father, Beethoven renounced the idea of domestic happiness and isolated himself more and more from the outside world. The legal battle he started for guardianship of his nephew Karl was a misguided attempt at creating a family of his own and ended disastrously.
During this turmoil, Beethoven became acutely aware of his own mortality and was certain that he would not be given enough time to complete his creative endeavours. In 1818, he wrote in his diary, “before my departure for the Elysian fields I must leave behind me what the Eternal Spirit has infused into my soul and bids me complete. Why, I feel as if I had hardly composed more than a few notes.” In light of this, Beethoven had to decide between enjoying his remaining years and continuing to work on his art. It seems that in the end, the decision was not so difficult. He wrote again in his diary, “Only in my divine art do I find the support which enables me to sacrifice the best part of my life to the heavenly Muses.”
In light of the limited time he had remaining, Beethoven felt it necessary to perform a sort of “compositional triage” on his remaining ideas. He prioritised to ensure that the most important compositions were completed before his death. There is a very definite sense of finishing up in his late works with the results being four piano sonatas, the Diabelli Variations, the Ninth Symphony, Missa Solemnis and five string quartets.
Stylistically, Beethoven’s late sonatas exhibit an enormous tension between radical and retrospective that is bewitching to musicologists, theorists, performers and listeners alike. These three works show Beethoven’s love of rich harmonies, his fascination with intricate counterpoint and strict adherence to some Baroque and Classical forms, all the while ignoring others. Despite the strictures of fugue, these sonatas contain some of his most expressive music. Movements are marked Arietta, Cantabile and Gesganvoll, all markings related to singing. Indeed, sketches for Missa Solemnis were found in the same sketchbook as these sonatas.
Piano Sonata No. 30 in E major, Op. 109 Vivace ma non troppo – Adagio espressivo
Gesangvoll, mit innigster Empfindung
In these last three sonatas Beethoven discards traditional sonata form wholesale. He alternates between improvisatory sections and strictly worked out fugue, adagio and vivace, cheeky and soul-destroyingly tragic whenever it suits him. In Op 109, he even mixes German and Italian tempo markings. At his stage in his life, Beethoven has no contemporary influences and is creating completely original music.
Although marked Vivace, the opening of the first movement is essentially an improvisatory mediation on what will turn out to be the Adagio theme. As the movement progresses, the music picks up pace but remains largely hymn-like despite the extremes in register in both hands. A seventh chord announces the beginning of the Adagio section, where the theme is heard in full after a reprise of the improvisatory opening.
The second movement gets off to a strong start with a fortissimo statement of a thematic motive. It is not fugal but contains imitative, canonical elements and usage of the circle of fifths typical of counterpoint. Beethoven alternates between the strict, learned style of counterpoint and his more idiomatic sonata style as if he is toying with the idea of fugue but unsure if he really wants to use it.
Beethoven prescribes the third movement to be songlike, with the most intimate of feelings and indeed the opening theme of this variation set is one of his most singable. Traditionally variation sets increase the decoration and number of notes as the set progresses. Here, the tempo changes with each of the six variations and their styles vary widely.
The third variation uses the baseline of the theme as its subject, while the fifth is sturdy canon, an idea completely unheard of in classical variation sets. The final variation reverts to the opening tempo and slowly becomes more and more dense as accompaniment duples give way to triples, quadruples and finally a full out trill that eventually fades in to an unadorned restatement of the opening theme.