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Beethoven Sonata Op. 110Kenneth Drake
00:00 / 19:10

Kenneth Drake plays Beethoven Piano Sonata in A-Flat Major, Op. 110 on the 1816 Broadwood Grand

The A-flat Sonata, Op. 110, was composed in the years 1821 – 1822 in the same time period as work on the Sonatas, Op. 109 and 111 and the Missa Solemnis. The cover page of the autograph is dated December 25, 1821; an extensive revision of the third movement (the Adagio and Fugue) was begun in the spring of 1822, and the Sonata was published in July of that year.

The Beethoven Sonata in A-Flat Major, Op. 110

In Music in the Romantic Era Alfred Einstein compares the brilliance of an earlier Beethoven sonata, such as the Waldstein – a piece meant to be heard – with the inwardness of the late sonatas. In Einstein’s words, the latter are like “confessions of a solitary,” a soliloquy that “we are permitted to overhear… written for himself and his God…” (p. 15) In this sense the A-flat Sonata Op. 110 was conceived less as a work to be publicly declaimed than as a private journal in sound created in a mind that could no longer receive sounds from the outside world.

The original purpose stretches one’s concept of this music regardless of the venue of its playing. On the stage or in the privacy of the home, the Sonata Op. 110 recounts a disturbance of the state of the soul that had to be resolved and explained to itself. One may or not agree with Claudio Arrau that 17 is an appropriate age to learn a late Beethoven sonata in order that with time the music might “seep into the soul,” where, one might add, events of one’s innermost life are engraved in musical stimuli: thematic kinships, dynamic indications, articulation slurs, tempo with and against the beat, or the implications of the treatment of form.

The articulation slur in the opening measure lifts the eighth-note out of the dotted-quarter and on to the third beat, as though beckoning the listener to the piano and the source of the sound. The words “molto espressivo” indicate “very held back” – and not just espressivo but molto espressivo. For confirmation of this definition of espressivo, consider Beethoven’s use of the marking in the Prestissimo of Op. 109, where it is followed four measures later by a tempo, as also in the recapitulation of the movement. If one translates espressivo merely as “expressively,” how does one play a little espressively, as at the marking un poco espressivo in the last movement of Op. 101?

Which is the main theme of the first movement of Op. 110 – the opening chordal phrase or the melodic segment that follows? The melodic line in m. 5 – 11 is analogous to the first 4 measures in harmonic progression and important pitches, including a verbatim repetition in m. 10 – 11. The passage of tonic and dominant broken chords with their dot-accents in m. 12 – 19 and the melodic progression c – b-flat in m. 20 - 21 are variations also, each more distant from the opening phrase of the movement, like a mystical ascent into an always-higher region of thought. Without understanding this use of continuous variation the passage of broken chords becomes a meaningless finger exercise.

Following the state of flux in the exposition, the straightforward two-measure descending sequence throughout an octave, c3 to c2, in the development is a period of calm before the expansion of development in the recapitulation, shifting formal weight to that section and culminating in the slow tetrachord descent in m. 100 - 104 that arrests a sense of the passing of time.

The hexachord span of the opening phrase that reappears in the expanding lines in m. 28 - 30, the opening phrase of the second movement (which does begin on a downbeat) and of the arioso dolente, and the subject of the fugue should alert the player to implications of a monothematic treatment in which direction, note values, and tempo are the imagery of the musical language. Depending on the meaning one finds in this reshaping of the same pattern of pitches one collaborates with the working of Beethoven’s mind.

The amabile quality of the first movement is swept away by the boisterous dynamics of the Allegro molto, the long lines that cross throughout the bizarre middle section, and the quotation of Viennese street songs. There is “no hint of sophistication” in this movement, as Martin Cooper remarks in Beethoven, the Last Decade, 1817-1827 (pp. 190-191), where we read the words to the pop song fragment beginning in m. 17: Ich bin lüderlich, du bist lüderlich, wir sind alle lüderlich, translated, I’m loose, you’re loose, we’re all loose. Should tempo and dynamics not be pressed to extremes to communicate the wildness and the allusion to wanton behavior? Too schooled and restrained and the recitative and Klagender Gesang that follow will scarcely sound like an expression of remorse – or the fugue as re-found dignity.

Could the Sonata not have ended with the fugue? The return of the Arioso dolente – “wearied, complaining” – implies that a yet more fundamental psychic transformation is needed. How meaningful then that the fugue at its return begins with the subject in inversion – in resignation – gradually increasing the tempo and shifting gears rhythmically wih diminution, augmentation and double diminution. Only by leaving behind the smoothness of the fugue can the music find the freedom to sweep upward to the overwhelming effect of the end – significantly to c4, the pitch, two octaves lower, on which the Sonata began. Of the last five sonatas, Op. 110 may be the most intimate telling of a personal journey from loving-ness to excess to remorse to restoration and ecstasy.

The limitations of the early piano oblige the interpreter to press dynamically above the available sonority – Beethoven reaching beyond his grasp. Within the magical lower sonority of the early piano clarity of articulation slurs can be heard as the subtle inflections of human speech and, with brightness of sound, the distant effect of the most inward una corda passages as nearness of unspoken thought. In contending with the tonal resources of the early piano the philosophical dimension of the music – that crises of the inner life were unburdened on a level of art – becomes palpable, as Beethoven was quoted in a letter of Bettina von Brentano to Goethe: “The one to whom my music makes itself understandable [italics added] will be freed from all the misery that the others drag around with them.” With respect to the possibility that this was a fabrication Alexander Ringer observed, “Whether or not Bettina quoted Beethoven accurately, she got it right.”

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