Work: Sonata for Piano no 31 in A flat major, Op. 110
About This Work
Beethoven's piano sonatas grew in complexity and depth as the cycle of 32 progressed. The last dozen or so could be called absolute masterpieces of piano music, with the latter half of that group rising to a level that often inspires awe and
wonderment. This work, though sometimes overshadowed by the mighty "Hammerklavier" Sonata, and the last, the C minor, Op. 111, seems quite as impressive as these better-known works. This unusual work, thematically threadbare at the outset, is a great and deeply profound composition, whose fugal finale achieves the highest keyboard art. This composition opens with a gentle, slow idea of strong spiritual character, the music sounding mesmeric, tranquil, chorale-like, intimate. Its fabric consists of many threads, but on the surface there is little of actual substance, at least from the standpoint of musical analysis. Yet this lovely but seemingly unpromising opening contains the seeds of this movement's rich thematic and harmonic material. The latter half of the first subject is borrowed from the Largo second movement of Haydn's Symphony No. 88, in G major. At the time Beethoven was writing this sonata, he was suffering the first bouts of the illness that would take his life six years later. The serene, rather valedictory mood of the first movement (Moderato cantabile, molto espressivo) may reflect his sense of mortality, of an impending doom. The second subject is lively, but in all its elements seems to be on the descent, expressing, perhaps the end of a journey. The development introduces some tension and subtly disrupts the serenity, without, however, essentially altering the general mood of tranquility.
The second movement (Allegro molto) is short and jovial. Or is it? It certainly starts off with a happy demeanor, but that temperament is periodically interrupted by a ponderous ritardando, which finally overtakes the direction and character of the piece. The third movement, marked Adagio ma non troppo, is somber, bordering on the funereal. This ponderous, dark music may reflect the composer's deepest doubts and disappointments. The finale begins without pause after the Adagio. Its theme, almost Bach-like in its contentedness and fugal character, sounds serene, expressing, perhaps, the composer's acceptance of his fate. This is a movement of great subtlety and beauty, and its structure is masterful and original. The middle section is quiet and dark, its mood looking back to the darkness of the Adagio. Suddenly the piano unleashes ten fateful chords in a slow crescendo. The main theme then reappears and struggles for a time with the dominant mood of darkness. Eventually it gains strength, transforming the movement into a triumphant, ecstatic, radiant utterance.
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