Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111
Maestoso – Allegro con brio e appassionato
Arietta: Adagio molto semplice e cantabile
Beethoven still had five years left to live when he wrote this sonata but in many ways it feels like a definite end. The thirty two piano sonatas has spanned nearly thirty years of his life and transformed the genre from an at home entertainment to a vehicle of intimate, personal expression. Pianist Robin Taub describes Op 111 as , “a work of unmatched drama and transcendence … the triumph of order over chaos, of optimism over anguish.”
The work is only two movements, something he did in four previous sonatas but still unusual enough for Beethoven’s publisher to assume that the final sonata-rondo has been lost in the post. A sketch was made for the last movement but, with every second counting, it was put aside in favour of the Missa Solemnis.
Beethoven had managed to solve the problem of unity between movements by resolving the conflicts of one in the other. The two-movement format also results in an interesting binary comparison representing the opposing forces of major/minor, allegro/adagio, appassionato/semplice, sonata form/variation form, turmoil/ecstatic serenity, earthly/spiritual prevalent in much of his work.
In the first movement, a trill fading to pianissimo, which eventually leads to successive suspensions, repeatedly tempers the aggressiveness of the fortissimo dotted rhythm. A tremolo in the left hand introduces a fugue theme that is never fully realised, instead being treated as a free-form sort of canon. The two main thematic motives are tossed about between registers without ever getting completely off the ground. Beethoven manages to make it sound impressive without formally doing anything. The classic Beethoven dichotomy between c minor and C major is very much present here as final fortissimo statement of the theme in the home key in c minor mysteriously leads to a C major cadence.
The final movement in Beethoven’s piano oeuvre is a mammoth variation set, nearly twenty minutes in length. In contrast to the staggeringly intense Grosse Fugue, Beethoven’s last string quartet movement, this is simplistically cheerful. In C major, the key he used most often to indicate triumph and happiness, Beethoven finally lets go of tension and instead concentrates on writing joyful, exuberant music.
It is significant that he chooses a variation set. A master improviser, Beethoven could vary any theme almost indefinitely even if he had only heard it once. He had no shortage of skill or imagination and would gleefully accept the challenge given by his friends or members of the nobility. Although it is impossible to say with any certainty, it is certainly plausible that it was in these situations that Beethoven felt the least tormented by his personal afflictions and frustrations and was able to truly be content.
Like Op 109, there are six variations in this set. The theme is so simple that it is fit for a child’s piano lesson. Making something out of nothing is one of Beethoven’s trademarks and here it serves as a reminder of his incredible skill. With what seems like no effort at all, the contentedness of the opening theme is built up into a wild euphoria by the third variation. Complex subdivisions of metre in the first two variations slowly increase the excitement until all of the sudden it seems as if Beethoven has discovered jazz. The dotted rhythms of the third variation have resulted in it being nicknamed the boogie-woogie variation.
Things calm down a little in the fourth variation with the theme remaining relatively intact accompanied by a murmuring left hand. For the fifth variation, Beethoven chooses to present the original opening theme with the variation occurring in the accompaniment. Trills indicate the beginning of the final variation, which moves the theme to the upper register. A G major pedal is heard throughout in the form of a constant trill. The mood becomes more otherworldly and reflective as the trill is moved to the upper register and the piece ends quietly and contentedly, without fanfare.