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The Last Sonatas, Beethoven And Composing For The Ages


It is scary to realize that some of our planet's great art is there for what at the time was an accidental circumstance.

In 1819 Moritz Schlesinger, a music publisher, met with Beethoven and bargained for 60 songs and 3 piano sonatas. These were his last three piano sonatas - the pinnacle of his Late period - and took longer because of illness and other work.

Because of these circumstances there was talk of dropping the sonatas from the contract. The Piano Sonata No. 31 was finished Christmas Day 1821.

Beethoven was a lover of contrast and this sonata has some of the largest changes of mood of any of his sonatas.

Pianist Alfred Brendel perceives the main themes as being based on the hexachord (the first 6 notes of the diatonic scale) and the third and fourth intervals that divide it.

There is plenty of contrary motion here - where the pianists hands play passages that separate or come together, much more difficult than when the hands go in the same direction.

The first movement is marked Moderato cantabile molto espressivo - at a moderate speed, in a singing style, very expressively. The movement starts quietly and must be performed with a sense of longing, Beethoven doesn't use the word espressivo lightly.

Again the trill isn't an ornament, but a structure that links the different sections together. In sonata form the movement ends in its home key of A-flat major.

Again Beethoven feels free to look upon all music as grist for his mill. Taking the form of an ancient Gavotte, the composer fashions this into a Scherzo movement marked Allegro molto - very fast.

Where the first movement was amiable, in the second Beethoven pushes this scherzo further than he did in his heroic middle period with larger range of dynamics, tempo changes, silences and syncopations.

The trio of the work is "spectacular and spectacularly difficult to play" (Robert Greenberg), making the pianist jump through hoops that test any pianist's technique.

The third movement's structure alternates two slow arioso sections with two faster fugues. In Alfred Brendel's analysis there are six sections - recitative, arioso, first fugue, arioso, fugue inversion, homophonic conclusion.

Beethoven usually worked on several compositions at once, and while he was composing the last movement he was also working on the Crucifixus from his "Missa Solemnis."

Again Professor Greenberg:

"It is impossible to believe that this movement, with its gorgeous and pathetic recitative, the song of lamentation that alternates with the blistering and dramatic fugue… is not a reference to Christ's suffering and death on the cross, which Beethoven had just depicted in the Crucifixus section of the "Missa Solemnis."

In articles read over the years, I've noticed questions as to why Beethoven is so great and what is it in him that brings us back again and again.

In the late sonatas - with all the other advancements jammed in - the composer is moving steadily to fashioning a one-movement sonata, which gets this so very formal piece of sonic architecture into a much more relaxed and life like presentation, thereby beating romantics and post-romantics to the punch.

Hear Beethoven's penultimate "Sonata No. 31 in A-flat major"  in the six o'clock hour Friday morning on your Classical Oasis, KPAC 88.3 FM.

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.