Skip to page content

After completing his 32nd piano sonata, at almost a three-decade span following the first sonata, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) made the startling and literally unbelievable comment that the piano is “after all an unsatisfactory instrument.” He surely wasn’t to be taken seriously, particularly since he went on to write the incredibly expansive Diabelli Variations as well as the last set of Bagatelles. Clearly the piano continued to serve him well, unsatisfactory as it may have been.

But wait. The piano as Beethoven wrote for it was indeed able to contain the musical and formal thoughts he had for specific pieces. But just barely. The orchestral intimations of Op. 31, No. 2’s slow movement are only one example of the composer wanting to break through the keyboard’s character and its tonal limitations. In fact Beethoven wrote music that was not always piano music, the kind of music born for the keyboard that Chopin invented. The final movement of Op. 111 is a supreme strain, on the resources of the piano as well as on the technical abilities and spiritual perceptiveness of a performer. In this very last of his sonata movements Beethoven was viewing other worlds and utilizing the heights and depths of the keyboard to reveal his vision.

One thing to be expected of Beethoven, particularly in his last creative period, is the unexpected. In 1822, in crowning his body of piano sonatas with the great Op. 111 work in C minor, the composer at first alludes strongly to the taut, muscular imagery with which he had imbued so many of his earlier piano scores, and only then does he return to the transcendentalism which had become his mature form of expression. Juxtaposing the appassionato extroversion of his middle period with the visionary profundities of his last, he makes a supremely personal statement about himself as a consummately versatile and spiritual creative artist.

The first movement’s defiance and steely-eyed anger begin with the urgent dramatics of a brief introduction that rumbles its way into the movement proper. Here, the performing directive Allegro con brio ed appassionato tells everything about the kind of bravura Beethoven has in mind. (The composer had by now abandoned the German musical directives and reverted to the prevailing Italian.) And he doesn’t make accomplishing the bravura an easy matter, for the textures are very lean, often constructed in polyphonic, two- or three-part invention style, and in general looking back to the manner of the last movement of the Appassionata Sonata of 1805. Unlike that movement, this one breathes an air of calm in its final measures, a benign C-major calm that prepares for the serene nobility of the opening of the Sonata’s finale.

Having wrestled with tempests, Beethoven turns to an otherworldly sphere for his very last sonata movement. Titling it Arietta, he presents an adagio theme of exalted (though not, as the name implies, diminutive) simplicity, on which he constructs – no, divines – four variations and a fantasy-like coda. A description can be given of the un-folding of the variations as a progressive doubling of the number of notes in each beat. And of the chains of double trills that seem to emerge, not from the keyboard but from some mysterious and enchanted source. But no commentary is sufficient to describe the effect of music that goes far beyond aural perception, that reaches to rarefied heights of sublimity.

-- Orrin Howard, who annotated Los Angeles Philharmonic programs for more than 20 years while serving as Director of Publications and Archives, continues to contribute regularly to the Philharmonic program book.