Jon Lee


Beethoven Piano Sonata no. 31 in A major, op. 110

Program notes

The most frequently played of Beethoven’s last five piano sonatas, the op. 110 sonata was commissioned (along with opp. 109 and 111) by publisher A. M. Schlesinger in 1820. At this point in his life Beethoven had left behind troublesome lawsuits over custody of his nephew Karl, which had occupied his time from 1815–1820. With the stress of the lawsuit, Beethoven’s productivity diminished. Few prominent works appeared during those years.

The public, however, had another explanation about what was really happening. As his friend Anton Schindler recalled, “Since no one could say positively whether Beethoven was working on a major composition… an easy reason for this silence was soon discovered: ‘Beethoven has exhausted his talent; he has nothing more to write.’” A Viennese newspaper went so far as to claim, “[Beethoven] is quite incapable of greater accomplishments.”

The rumors amused Beethoven and actually inspired him to renewed activity. Beethoven spent the summer of 1820 gathering and storing ideas and composed the opp. 109–111 sonatas “at a single stroke” as he expressed it in a letter written to his friend Count Von Brunsvik. The op. 110 sonata was finished Christmas Day 1821.

Hallmarks of Beethoven’s late style can easily be seen in the op. 110. Structures are tailored to Beethoven’s expressive needs, movements are juxtaposed together without interruption, fugues and contrapuntal devices are used more, and the slow movements have a placid, calm ambience.

Based on a short rhythmic motive, the opening movement is intense and lyrical. The later arpeggios and chords serve as embellishments to very simple ideas. Even the development itself merely descends sequentially with the first few notes of the piece. The second movement, which typically stands for the scherzo, actually has a minuet and trio form written in 2/4 time, different from the usual 3/4 meter used in both scherzos and minuets. Within this movement Beethoven quotes German folk songs that contribute to its dance-like feeling.

From this point on, the organization of the work becomes less traditional. A rare feature for Beethoven’s sonatas, programmatically titled sections are found throughout the last half of the sonata. It begins with a recitative and an Arioso dolente (melancholy arioso) entitled klagender Gesang (wailing song). After the aria, a fugue follows. Although the fugue seems to have no relation with the rest of the piece, Beethoven skillfully binds it ot the sonata by having the fugue’s subject actually outline the opening phrase of the first movement.

Beethoven then proceeds to repeat the third and fourth movements. The Arioso, this time marked Ermattet klagend—Perdendo le forze, dolente (growing weaker, lamenting) is heard again, but with expression heightened by the use of sobbing appoggiaturas marked ermattet (exhausted). A succession of repeated G major chords ushers in a repetition of the fugue, this time with the subject inverted. Beethoven marks the inverted fugue Nach und nach wieder auflebend—”coming to life again”. After a sequence of modulations the sonata concludes in the tonic key towards a glorious apotheosis.

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