[I had a lot of fun writing this one, for Columbia M 33890, Gary Graffman’s recording of the last two Beethoven Piano Sonatas. At the time, I was taking piano lessons from Piero Weiss, who is a friend of Graffman’s from their student days at Curtis Institute. When Graffman saw this essay, he called Weiss immediately and said, “Who the hell is Leslie Gerber?” Weiss replied, “You just missed him.” Obviously it was too great a coincidence for Weiss to be mentioned in program notes for a Graffman record to be accidental.

[Graffman got his revenge, though. A year later I met him backstage at a concert. Weiss, who was also there, introduced me to Graffman, and I said, “I’m pleased to meet you, Mr. Graffman. I’ve written program notes for several of your records.” Graffman gave me a wicked grin and replied, “I’d always wondered why Horowitz insisted on jacket approval,” cracking me up.

[That was on a Saturday night. The following Monday, my editor at CBS called me with an assignment to write program notes for a Horowitz LP. What a pity! It would have been such fun to shoot back at Graffman, “Yeah, I write for him too.”]

Beethoven’s last piano sonatas, like all the best of his later compositions, have long been as much a source of puzzlement as of joy. There is no doubt–for it is documented in biographies and critical studies–that Beethoven’s creative powers continued to increase throughout his lifetime and that however great the works of his middle period may be they are surpassed by those of his late period. Yet the middle works, and some of the early ones, remain far more popular, and one certainly hears in the concert hall five performances of Op. 13 (the “Pathetique” Sonata) to every one of Op. 111. The plain fact is that many listeners find the late music difficult and even remote.

What makes these late works less readily accessible than earlier ones is not the composer’s lack of communicative ability but, rather, Beethoven’s making use of his improved abilities to communicate new visions. Musicologist Pierro Weiss has written, “Beethoven’s late style is perfectly congruous in its own terms; it is the distillation of a lifetime’s experience in music.” Even if one hesitates to use religious or spiritual analogies in the description of music, in the last works of Beethoven such descriptions are inescapable. His prolonged suffering and isolation had led to an eventual transcendence, producing music that must be described as spiritual, even mystical.

The Sonata No. 31, in A Flat, Op. 110, was composed in 1821. It was the only work that Beethoven completed during that year, although at the time he was also working on the Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony, and Op. 111 was to follow shortly. It was originally to have been dedicated to Beethoven’s pupil Ferdinand Ries. But Beethoven saw the score of a concerto by Ries and became angry because of what he considered plagiarism. Through confusions in correspondence, Beethoven’s intended dedication to his friend Antonia Brentano did not reach the publisher, and the sonata was published without one.

The tempo marking of the first movement is Moderato cantabile, molto espressivo (moderate tempo, singing, very expressive), with the description con amabilite¬† (amiably) in the opening bar. Beethoven’s indications become more detailed as his career progresses, evidence of his increasingly subtle and varied expression. This is peaceful, almost placid music, as lyrical and beautiful as anything from the Romantic era to come. The movement is in the standard sonata-allegro form, but it is handled with such subtlety that the distinctions between sections are impossible to perceive clearly, and the typical harmonic progressions are prolonged and altered for the sake of greater continuity.

The scherzo, Allegro molto, is a study in syncopated rhythms, full of good-humored surprises. Again the harmony is unusual. The opening theme, for example, consists of a statement in F Minor, gruffly answered in C Major; the trio is in D Flat Major.

The third movement is one of Beethoven’s most complex and original structures. It opens with a deeply felt, sorrowful recitative, Adagio, ma non troppo, leading to an Arioso dolente in which the poignant singing quality is outstandingly evident. Without pause this leads to a fugue, Allegro, ma non troppo, music of cautious optimism and beautifully worked counterpoint. As the fugue appears to be nearing its climax, we are surprised to hear the return of the Arioso, now further embellished, with the effect of increasing its great expressivity. This, in turn, leads to a return of the fugue (heralded by a long crescendo on a single repeated chord), which now appears with its original theme turned upside down. The progression of the fugue is now unhampered by interruptions and rushes triumphantly to one of the most joyous conclusions in all music.

Vincent d’Indy, in a most perceptive commentary on this sonata, refers to the Arioso as “one of the most poignant expressions of grief conceivable to man,” and describes the fugue as “an effort of will to shake off suffering. But the latter is the stronger,” leading to the return of the Arioso. The return of the fugue is “Will asserting itself against the forces of annihilation…the resurrection!”

Beethoven’s last sonata, Op. 111, was completed in January 1822 and was published in the following year. It was dedicated to Beethoven’s pupil Archduke Rudolph of Austria, who was a fine musician.

This sonata has long been one of Beethoven’s most controversial works. Even before it saw print, the publisher, Schlesinger, wrote to Beethoven to inquire what had happened to the missing third movement. A much-quoted review in the London periodical The Harmonicon in 1823 referred to the first movement as “a violent effort to produce something in the shape of novelty,” and dismissed the second with nothing more than complaints about its unusual time signatures and notation. Taking note of the copyright notice, Harmonicon concluded, “We do not think the publishers are in much danger of having their property invaded.” Much discussion of the music has appeared in print, often in unlikely places. For example, a lengthy analysis is incorporated into Thomas Mann’s philosophical novel Doctor Faustus.

The first movement opens with a suspenseful introduction, Maestoso. This leads through tremolos to the main body of the movement, Allegro con brio ed appassionato. Beethoven had originally sketched the main theme as a fugue, and, although the movement is in sonata form, the theme retains some of its original character and is frequently subjected to counterpoint. There is much violence in this movement, but it ends peacefully, in major.

The second movement is a theme with variations. However, since it does not follow the traditional form to its conclusion, Beethoven does not mark it as such; it is labeled merely Arietta: Adagio molto semplice e cantabile, the term Arietta referring only to the theme itself. There are four variations, of growing complexity, making much use of embellishment and syncopation. Imperceptibly, the last variations merge into an indescribable coda, in which the theme seems to evaporate into its bare harmonies and then further into chains of trills.

Wilhelm von Lenz has described the two movements of Op. 111 as signifying “Resistance” (or “Samsara,” the Buddhist term for the world of striving) and “Resignation” (or “Nirvana,” the world beyond conflict). Without question, Beethoven is contrasting his own experiences of involvement in the material world and removal to another state of experience altogether. In this manner he too leave of the sonata, the form in which he had written the largest number of his works and to which he had often devoted his most serious efforts. It is one of the most profound works in all music, a piece that must forever elude verbal description, but one that will always provide the listener with spiritual nourishment.

–Leslie Gerber

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