Late-Night Musings on a Late Sonata

Beth Levin

[October 2004.]

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 30 in E major, Op. 109

I. Vivace

A sequence of falling two-note slurs in 2/4 forms the opening phrase: simple, pure. The markings: dolce, sempre legato. Beethoven further suggests the correct fingering and pedaling. By the second phrase the slurred pairs climb in a crescendo to a mighty diminished, rolled chord that signals a free form section marked adagio espressivo, 3/4. The swift mood change from a pearly introduction to the dramatic adagio is the first of many. Only in dreams do we encounter the unexplained allure of such free-floating ideas. As we enter the realm of Op. 109 we dispense with propriety, with the rules of conventional compositional behavior.

Beethoven’s markings in the following seven measures are copious: slurs, portamento slurs (a poignant pulling quality at the keyboard), subito piano, piano crescendo to forte, diminuendo, espressivo and finally ritardando back to tempo I. I list these directions merely to demonstrate the challenge to the performer. She must make sense of the dark, dark page and create a musical outcome that is true to the original conception’s power.

Inside Beethoven’s sonata one manages a multifaceted, far-ranging and profound beauty of sound, emotion and idea. Some people suggest waiting years before taking on his late sonatas — waiting until the soul has ripened. I say, Don’t wait! A musician of any age whose ear and heart have merged is up to the task.

At measure 15, Beethoven returns us to the original material now in the dominant of the key of E. The two-note groupings wander through keys, always outlining clear melodic line by virtue of voice leading, then sharply intensify with the addition of the dynamic marking sfp. This is a pressure point, an accent, a leaning into certain chords which imbues them with force as we approach a second expansive moment at measure 56, the adagio espressivo.

The rolled chord again serves as an arrival point and the start of ad libitum to follow. One is beset by arpeggios in every direction, 64th notes, two sudden measures in C major, all sharps erased, and falling groups of six amid more cues from the master. The gradual slowing from 32nd notes to 16th to 8th eases the music inevitably, organically back to Tempo I, the push-pull of which to Adagio and back again is a physical experience: Beethoven sculpting musical clay. We see and feel its shape as well as hear it.

The sweetness of the first phrases comes home to us in the final Tempo I. Beethoven reinforces the simplicity of his naïve doublets, inverting them now as they triple to an even simpler conclusion of a single E-major chord.

II. Prestissimo

If the first movement plays with the ambiguity of a double nature, the second has no doubts. It is a forceful, outgoing ride with all engines stoked. The combination of speed, E minor, 6/8 and ff ben marcato leaves no room for fussing about. One must jump in fearlessly.

The clarity of the melodic material is its great strength. The stark voicing throughout is laid out, not unlike Bach, with four always-delineated lines. Running 8ths in 6/8 propel the music forward with crescendi and decrescendi mimicking the lines’ rise and fall. A rinforzando at measure 41, where the melody is in octaves, further emphasizes the top of the phrase. It is as if Beethoven must search for ever more descriptive markings to highlight events. A subito piano at measure 42 begins the process again. That such precision and simplicity of writing lead to electricity astonishes me.

At measure 70, Beethoven allows the music to float, broken octaves in the bass filling up the vacancies, relieving melodic responsibility. We float on harmonic waters with a sense of release.

The more fierce the musical aspect, the more physically we sense it. For example, at measures 56 and 158, the palpably driving scale writing has the performer and listener as if on the final stretch of a horse race. With that same ebullience, without apology, without looking back, Beethoven rushes to a close at measure 170.

III. Theme: Gesangvoll, mit innigster Empfindung (singing, with the most profound feeling), Andante molto cantabile ed espressivo

As I read Beethoven’s words, especially innigster, I hear them meaning, “Dear Performer, Go deep. Search for a sound that so perfectly reflects my theme that every listener will understand the music’s heart.”

The third movement’s theme and variations form is sublime, music for the ages. But dwelling overlong on such weighty thoughts may not be of help to the performer. A hymn-like quality pervades the 16-measure theme and 3/4 time saves it from becoming square. Its simple structure is staggering, the bass line as interesting as the melodic material. The always expressive embellishments add to the songlike feeling. Again, finding a sound at the keyboard to express the melody’s purity is the key to illuminating.

Variation I. Molto espressivo

The first variation doesn’t stray far from home. It carries out the harmonic rules of the theme, maintains a similar mood, expanding only in small but precise melodic detail. The newest aspect is the bass line in the form of a waltz that begins to transform an aria into something closer to a dance.

Variation II. Leggiermente

Variation II is a clear departure from the theme. Light, dancing 16ths leap from bass to soprano between the hands, disguising the melody and setting the music on a new stylistic path. The tenderest melody sings above 8th-note chords at measure 8, and while the harmonic framework of the theme is still present, the writing veers away from the original statement. The variation elongates as Beethoven alternates between his legato melody and the staggered 16ths. Both suggest the theme but foretell a changing terrain.

Variation III. Allegro vivace

Energy and drive characterize Variation III. Here is another example of Beethoven’s ability to infuse the writing with power, motion and exuberance. While the theme is as spiritual as a Quaker Sunday, the material here requires an athletic technique to match the physicality. Sprinting 16ths play against octaves in the opposite hand, unleashing a life-force. The pace and momentum never ease until the final measure, where the music unfolds to Variation IV.

Variation IV. Etwas langsamer, als das Thema (somewhat slower, like the theme), un poco meno andante ciò è un poco più adagio come il tema. Piacevole (charming, agreeable, pleasant)

“B” in the final measure of Variation III reaches across the bar line and begins a melody of its own. The notes unfurl in a spiral of 16ths, handed from soprano to tenor to bass and back again. The result is like spun silver in a lilting rhythm of 9/8. If you don’t believe music can create a cloudless sky or a winsome maiden’s sigh, here is an effective demonstration. The transition from Variation III to IV is both magical and another demonstration of Beethoven’s command. His ability to reach us on many levels — simultaneously physical, emotional and spiritual — is a lavish experience.

Three well-placed sforzandi heighten the variation’s second half. As in the theme, Variation IV consists of two parts, both repeated. Therefore the pianist’s decision as to tempo is crucial. A flowing 9/8 will allow motion to succeed.

Allegro ma non Troppo

It isn’t surprising that Beethoven should follow an ethereal variation with a forthright fugue. His cleverness at adapting bits of thematic material to each new variation has been evident throughout. Now, in fugal writing, he outdoes himself in departing as far as he can from the actual theme while keeping it integral to the variation. The original theme is dissected, cut and synthesized into a complex montage within a tight structure. Forte, cut time and a driving scalar bass line urge events to exultant heights. But just as the music soars to its greatest intensity, the fugue fades to piano, beginning its transition to the finale.

Tempo primo del tema, cantabile

The thematic aspects are first heard in the alto voice, traveling to the soprano by measure 5. Quarter notes accelerate to 8ths, and again to 16ths by measure 9. When 32nds appear, they are pure embellishment, where one can now see that the proceedings are built on trills. Often in the middle voices, sometimes in the bass, the trills are wild, always rumbling, creating momentum and a wealth of sound. They never let up. It’s quite a challenge. At measure 25, for example, the left hand is in 16th flight and the right hand both trills and negotiates a bell-like tone on each off beat of the measure. A romp! And then, a diminuendo in measures 33, 34 and 35 signals an ebb. The trills ease, and we find ourselves at a banquet of the luminescent theme. The precious transition from the trills’ ashes to thematic riches should be handled with exquisite timing and care.


The theme is resung. The memory of it transforms. So much has occurred since its first statement! One experiences a sadness now, feelings of resignation. The theme is the same, yet wearier and a bit relieved. One sees an image of Beethoven, resigned to the music’s fate.

It is late and I have offered merely a sip of the wine. Experience Op. 109 in an old recording of Artur Schnabel’s or a more recent performance by Richard Goode. I perform it in June and of course you have a standing invitation. Let it speak to you, and you will understand it on your own terms.

[For Op. 109, ArkivMusic lists 104 entries. Schnabel (one of his best), Solomon, Kempff II, Rudolf Serkin, Gilels, Pollini and Rosen are clearly self-recommending. Hungerford adopts Schnabel’s layout and tempo relationships within his own voice, on a Vanguard Classics double worth many times its low price. Hélène Grimaud and François-Frédéric Guy are notably attentive to the markings Beth cites from the score, on two of the finest Beethoven discs of recent years. I wouldn’t call many fortepiano CDs addictive, but Paul Komen’s Globe disc of Nos. 30, 31 and 32 is just that. The rapid decay of his 1830 Graf (the perspective is beautifully judged) allows options on trills — and other matters — not available on the modern instrument. W.M.]


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