Beethoven Piano Sonata Op 110

Piano Sonata No. 31 in A flat major, Op. 110
Moderato cantabile molto espressivo
Allegro molto
Adagio ma non troppo
Fuga: Allegro ma non troppo

On paper, Op 110 is a traditional four-movement sonata. In reality however the work is a further example of the dissolution of sonata form within the outer movements as well as any sense of the usual order of the movements themselves. The cantabile theme of the first movement is more reminiscent of a Haydn string quartet adagio than a Beethoven sonata opening. The melody is unadorned in the right hand and accompanied by repeated chords in the bass. With the expected sonata form abandoned, the next six minutes are taken up with a sort of meandering through the movement with periodic restatement of the opening theme. Secondary themes are short and mostly motivic and the development section is practically non-existent. After a decorated version of opening theme appears, the movement ends with a quiet cadence.

Although less than three minutes long, the third movement is a fully formed scherzo and trio. The extreme dynamics and uneasy accents are almost comical. Especially amusing is the ending, where a string of fortissimo chords end with a pianissimo resolution of the final cadence.

A contemplative recitative beings the final movement of Op 110, further illustrating Beethoven’s preoccupation with song during this period. The basic structure is arioso, fugue, arioso, fugue with the opening recit soon transformed into the single line melody of the first arioso. Simple, repeated chords in the bass create a transparent texture. The fugue theme is stated quietly at first and increases in volume and intensity as the other two voices make their entrances. Its sturdy, no-nonsense feel is in stark contrast to the delicate beauty of the arioso. This time, beauty wins and the fugue fades back to arioso before reaching any sort of climax. Insistent G major chords begin the second fugue, the subject of which is the first fugue theme upside down. Beethoven really goes to town here and uses diminution—cutting the note values in half and half again—to increase intensity and bring the movement to an unexpectedly joyful close.

1 comment

  1. Jim MacKay

    Fascinating and insightful discussion. However, I have never quite seen the humor in the middle movement, despite the obvious nod to the scherzo form. Rosen’s (partial) description of the movement as “sardonic and brutal” captures the mood more accurately for me. The coda, especially, seems more angry than humorous, and any relief provided by the final F major chord is immediately repudiated by the opening chord of the finale.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *