Skip to page content

Publication was seldom hard to achieve for Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), although he never managed the business end of it with much finesse or fine scruples. By his generation, Bach’s music-loving amateurs were a booming market for printed music, and in May 1820 Beethoven agreed to compose three piano sonatas for the Berlin publisher Adolf Martin Schlesinger. He completed the first, Op. 109, in the fall and apparently began the other two, but illness and work on the Missa Solemnis intervened. Op. 111 was finished in 1822 and published by Schlesinger the following year, with a dedication to Beethoven’s devoted patron, the Archduke Rudolph. (The English edition was dedicated to Antonie Brentano.)

Each of what would be Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas is a world apart, a unique distillation and synthesis of formal and expressive devices. For the Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111, he returned to a two-movement structure that allowed him to embody contrasting yet complementary dichotomies – sonata and variation forms, fast and slow, heroic and reflective, major and minor.

The first movement has some points of contact with the Bach Partita besides its key. The opening is dotted, although the effect here is more savagely anguished than ceremonial, and the fierce main Allegro has polyphonic passages that sound like a Bach invention, as well as a fugal development.

The storm abates in the coda, a calm, quiet C-major ending that prepares us for the serenity of the following Arietta, an Adagio theme marked “molto semplice e cantabile.” Through the first three variations, Beethoven increases the surface energy, from a state of lulling quiet to almost rambunctious joy. From there the ascending ecstasy almost spills off the top end of the keyboard as the music reaches the key of E-flat major – remote from the C major of this movement but quite close to the preceding C minor. It finds a shimmering, trilling way back to C major and the simplicity of the opening is restored – simple in notes, that is, but infinitely complex in experience.

John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.