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The KPAC Blog features classical music news, reviews, and analysis from South Texas and around the world. To listen to KPAC 88.3 FM, simply open the player in the gray ribbon at the top of this page and choose KPAC: Classical Music.

Beethoven And The Painful Farewell - Art In Uncertain Times

Beethoven portrait by joseph karl stieler-composing missa solemnis.jpg

Context is everything. Ludwig van Beethoven dedicated his 26th piano sonata to Archduke Rudolph of Austria. The nickname of the sonata is "Les Adieux" or "Farewell," and I've heard speculation on the supposed relationship between the composer and his patron and friend.

Just knowing the title page on the first edition helps clarify some facts: "On the departure of his imperial highness, for the Archduke Rudolph, in admiration."

Why was his highness leaving? War.

Napoleon and his army were at the gates, and when many of Beethoven's aristocratic friends fled Vienna there was no guarantee that the composer would ever see them again.

Remember that the composer was so deaf that normal relationships were difficult without his "conversation book," where friends would have to write down their statements and questions to which the composer would speak his answers back.

Beethoven didn't have many friends, and between his haughty nature and the shame over his affliction, most of his friends were either students or the nobility.

With the French cannonade beginning and the composer trapped in the city, he spent hours in a basement with pillows over his ears to protect what little hearing he had left. It was this time of sadness, fear and uncertainty that helped produce one of Beethoven's best loved sonatas.

The work is in three movements and starts with the leave-taking, which the composer spells out for the pianist - something he rarely did - making a connection between the abstract and concrete worlds.

The first three chords have syllables over them so the player sounds out the word, Le-be-wohl. The best translation is "Fare thee well," as if a blessing is being conferred. The notes are harmonized as if they were a horn call giving the sound a sad heroism. The movement is marked adagio (softly).

After the introduction is over the tempo speeds up to allegro (fast) and the composer paints his inner conflict by contrasting agitated and lyrical subjects - giving the listener a sense of Beethoven's mood.

The second movement is Abwesenheit, or the absence. Marked Andante expressivo, Beethoven, like most of us, fears the worst, and here are his emotions of pain at the separation, fear and remembrance all woven into music that anticipates the sublimity of the coming late sonatas.

This movement is essentially an intermezzo, or act, that naturally comes between the leave taking and the joyous return. This music is a severe test of any pianist to display emotion, rubato and not take the interpretation to extremes.

Finally, and that is why parting is such sweet sorrow, the return, or as Beethoven put it, Das Wiedersehen.

How to start a movement that by its very nature has to be joyous? Yes the theme is light and happy, but the composer does not recreate the reunion, and instead objectifies it by turning it into a dance movement, a gigue.

The key returns to the opening movement of E-flat but instead of gloom, the music sparkles and requires a great technique - another way of determining Beethoven's mood. He must be happy because after the introductory passage he returns to his beloved sonata-form!

Hear Beethoven's further expansion of the art of the piano sonata with" Les Adieux No. 26" in E-flat in the 6 o'clock hour on KPAC Friday morning.

Randy was Texas Public Radio's Classical Music Director until 2013 and the longest-serving employee in Texas Public Radio's history. He hosted the very first airshift on KPAC when the station went on the air at 90.9 FM in San Antonio back in November, 1982.