Sublime Farewell: Beethoven’s Op. 111

Beth Levin

[October 2011.]

Mad Lear’s entrance
that unsettling diminished chord
an introduction
seeming, if sparser, like other openings
an ominous trill in the bass
leads to C minor and a clear path
I know the Fool is in the wings
fugal writing usurps sonata form
directions poi e poi Venetian blackbirds
landing on steeples
heart-teasing forte/pianos, tender A flat melodies
in the beginning is the end

Opening to the first page of the Henle edition of Sonata Op. 111. I realize how eager I am to get started, to crack the code and get inside.

I. Maestoso, 3 flats, C (4/4)

Everything looks and feels like an introduction: the unsettled key, the jagged octaves that outline a diminished chord, the dotted eighths and 32nds that take hesitant breaths as they lead us to a low-trill g, to a flat not unlike a timpani roll. Then a signpost: Allegro con brio ed appassionato! The trill grows, arriving curtly at c, a way station before a full-blown theme at measure 21 that I wager forms the basis of the movement.

The thematic material unfolds in 16th notes and is brought back to a landing at measure 29. I sense a theme and variations and fugal writing more than strict sonata form. I’m struck by the juxtaposition of powerful, physical writing with the tenderest of bars that sing and sigh.

Bar 50 for example follows a vigorous section unwinding in a soft palette, ritardando to Adagio, only to erupt at Tempo I. Rhythmic ferocity is a mark of Beethoven and…. But hold! I must stop and play through the first movement again merely to see if I’m making sense.

Some time later …

I wish that experience for every pianist, the thrill of those opening octaves and chords, Beethoven’s brilliant dotted rhythms! His spacing of gestures is always hair-raising, making any arrival, at bar 20, say, an ecstatic event!

The material seems as if from any early sonata — chords, scales, trills — but knowing that Op. 111 is his final sonata for piano illuminates every measure with poignancy. One is stunned by the simplicity and sparseness of the writing which, at the same time, reaches beyond in a kind of mad logic.

Now I’m picking up at the second ending. The first ending would take us to the beginning and give the pianist a second chance at perfection.

The theme is in octaves at bar 72 where Beethoven begins a tidy little fugue. By measure 85 he’s back in a thicket of chords and arpeggios. The soprano voice of each chord speaks the noble theme that turns up in the bass line at measure 100. The double counterpoint here is impressive!

Beethoven chooses the delicate turn from measure 53 to further embellish at measure 118 and momentously intensifies it at 126. In the midst of the recapitulation Arietta.

II. Arietta

That the ensuing theme and variations exist on paper is astonishing. So sublime an offering should have flown off to the heavens with barely an earthly trace. But here it sits with variations following the pattern of the theme, for a while at least. The theme must be heard to be understood: two eight-bar phrases of simple chords in 9/16 time, an angelic melody gracing each step. The first variation at measure 17 breaks away in a lilting 8th/16th-note pattern which by measure 33 is outright dancing. The tempo inside of the eccentric 9/16 remains true to the theme.

“L’Istesso tempo” at measure 49 is a romp in arpeggios that lets down its hair — again the visceral quality of the writing exudes vitality, youth and joy.

The miracle occurs at measure 65 as Beethoven drops to pianissimo. Chords in the form of two-note slurs speak their soulful sighs. He knows when to break away to embrace the spirit. We are in another realm. This is the turning point from earthly, exuberant expression to a soft, indefinable, evaporating expression.

The piano is secondary to the music now, which has always been the case with Beethoven’s 32 sonatas. The leggiermente triplets at bar 72 are barely audible, so delicate, so fleeting, almost more than the pianoforte can deliver.

Thence to a robust airing of the theme at measure 130, so utterly straightforward with respect to the opening. Beethoven might easily have ended in grandiose forte gestures, and yet the coda is played out in the softest of trills, seemingly to immerse the music in a cloud. The final measures reflect a poet’s wisdom.

 

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