Ultimate, a word that originally meant last in Latin has become a description of finest or best in English
or ne plus ultra in French. It can be argued that Beethoven's last or ultimate sonata fits both definitions.
Coming near the end of a life of breaking barriers and exercising his considerable will, the composer's last
sonatas are artistic works that have earned their immortality.
Even the Opus number (or work number) has its share of fame. There are other Opus 111's around, but when a music lover sees that - they immediately think of Beethoven's last sonata.
Another reason that his work is so famous is that it is SO Beethoven. He uses his favorite key, c minor - one that denotes power and the man who, on his deathbed, shook his fist at the heavens during a thunderstorm his last day of life - certainly understood power, struggle and spirit.
The work is in only two movements and while he composed two movement sonatas before they were not like this. It has been said that the sonata doesn't have a third movement where the mood of the beginning of a piece comes around again - because this work is a one way journey, much like Beethoven's mind set when it was composed. He was old and ill and fought the good fight - this is his last piano sonata.
The opening movement is marked Maestoso - Allegro con brio ed appassionato (masterly - fast with life & passionately) The first notes are declamatory, like Shakespeare's King Lear on stage, but almost immediately the questioning aspect of the music is there making the point moot. This "actor" isn't going to have a smooth and sure soliloquy. There seems to be no structure (very unusual for Beethoven) but this vagueness is broken by a loud trill/ arpeggio that grabs all of one's attention. It is an opening to his fugue but not just any fugue, but one where the composer fully integrates sonata-form to Johann Sebastian Bach's use of the fugue. The accomplishment of a lifetime.
The second movement is in C major and starts with a melodic fragment, an Arietta. Simple and direct this tune inspires four variations each faster than the last. One of the most striking aspects of the finale is Beethoven anticipating Ragtime! A big believer in syncopation, the composer works up to music so original that it still stands out from the music around it nearly two hundred years later.
The Opus 111 has been revered since its first printing. Musicians consider it a true test of any pianist's worth and as such it appears in just about all piano competitions where young artists hope to demonstrate their prowess and ability to "interpret" Beethoven's "ultimate" work.
Hear Beethoven's last word on the Piano Sonata in the six o'clock hour, Monday morning April 29th on your Classical Oasis, KPAC.