Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.
WORKS FOR PIANO ALONE
SETTING aside the doubtful Cressener Cantata, we know on Beethoven’s own authority that his first compositions were a set of Variations on a March by Dressler and three Sonatas for clavier dedicated to the Elector Maximilian Friedrich. Thus the boy attacked at once two musical forms he was to make especially his own.
It is also significant that these Dressler Variations and the Sonatas were for clavier. Paul Bekker, one of the most Beethoven-minded of critics, says: ‘Beethoven’s work is based on the piano: therein lie its roots and there it first bore perfect fruit.’ Without quite supporting Bekker (for Beethoven’s work certainly rested on a broader basis), one must still reckon the piano as among the most important influences of his first period. What could be more natural? Beethoven, though no iconoclast, was always on the side of modernity and progress. The piano was par excellence the modern instrument of that day. It came to the fore in Bonn during the seventeen-eighties and it actually got its sixth octave of compass during Beethoven’s first decade in Vienna. The powerful tone qualities offered him an adequate vehicle for his boldest harmonic and melodic designs, and, being himself a magnificent pianist, he expanded the scope of piano music till it is hard to apportion the debt between instrument and player. Later his deafness divorced in him the executant from the composer, a disaster which proved, as Bekker says, ‘the historic origin of the present-day distinction between productive and reproductive musical activity.’ By the time Beethoven was fifty-three he had explored and exhausted practically every possibility of the piano.
There is one further matter of general application to be considered before surveying the music itself: Beethoven’s faculty of prevision. What Mr. Newman said of single movements is, I believe, equally true of Beethoven’s life-work: his ‘vague general sense of the totality of the movement gradually condensed this into a vital structural material, and finally re-wrought this into a whole that was the first indefinite conception made perfectly definite.’
Even as a child Beethoven saw far off the things that were to be later.
From the hid battlements of Eternity,
Those shaken mists a space unsettle, then
Round the half-glimpsed turrets slowly wash again.
Prevision is a faculty quite distinct from that of revision by which a composer either rewrites a work out of his mature experience, or else brings forward old material to serve new purposes. Beethoven had both capacities in an extraordinary degree, and held them in amazing equipoise. They are recognizable even in his first work.
The nine Variations on Dressler’s March in C minor were composed in 1783 - or perhaps earlier, as that was the year of publication. On their own merits they are neat, discreet music, superior to the theme on which they are spun. But for us (who from the distance of more than a century can see Beethoven’s career in the map-like manner enjoyed by the Intelligences in Hardy’s ‘Dynasts’) the real excitement is that the Dressler Variations are a kind of child’s sketch for the mighty thirty-two Variations on an original theme composed by Beethoven in 1806. Original theme? Yes, in that it is wholly Beethoven’s; but all the same it is like the ghost of Dressler’s March, transformed into a chaconne and translated to an Olympian grandeur.
Note how magnificently the bass marches with Beethoven; with Dressler it simply goose-steps. Beethoven’s basses are worth a study in themselves. Continuing the comparison between the two works one sees they run a not dissimilar course, allowing for the infinitely grander scale and richer decoration of the later work. At the end they diverge. In the short early Variations Beethoven modulates to C major for the last variation, thus making it an apotheosis of the old Tierce de Picardie (the major chord which by ancient custom closed all works in a minor key), while in the thirty-two Variations he places a group of C major variations in the middle, flanking them by minor sections before and after in an organized design that approximated to aria form.
The three Max Friedrich Sonatas for clavier belong to nearly the same date (1783) as the Dressler Variations and are much more interesting. The first, in E flat major, cautiously follows the old type of binary (not triune) sonata form for its first movement; but already Beethoven showed his instinct for the psychologically sensitive spot in sonata form, viz., the return to the principal key after the development. In later works his imagination and inspiration often rose to their highest at this point. In this boyish movement he was not content to slide back by the routine reversal of the outward journey, so preceded the return by some arpeggios that nearly forecast his figure for the finale of his ‘Moonlight’ Sonata. The second Sonata, in F minor, is a still more remarkable presentiment of a later work-his Sonate Pathetique of 1797. One opens with a short, pathetic larghetto, the other with a grave, preparing an allegro in which the slow section recurs with strong emotional effect. There is even kinship of phrase between the two allegros. The other movements of the F minor, well contrasted as to material, are wonderfully ‘in the picture.’ ‘A knowledge of suffering, appalling in a twelve year old boy, trembles through the quiet andante, and rages through the excited, urgent, unisono passages of the presto’ says Bekker.
The third Sonata, in D major, is rather Haydn-like in its tunefulness.
Compared with these sonatas Beethoven’s other keyboard compositions for the next few years are unexciting, though several have some significance for students. For example, the two Preludes modulating through all keys show Beethoven as an elementary experimenter in the science of key relationship and contrast, where later his power was amazing. The Prelude in F minor is simply a handy little piece for clavier or organ with which to fill a gap.
The Rondo in A major is clean, neat and tuneful, with just one modulation which - simple as it seems - is, I think, Beethoven’s earliest example of a pivot modulation, i.e. a note or notes approached as belonging to one key and quitted as in another, the music being swung over on a pivot. The device may mean nothing with a commonplace composer, but in the hands of Beethoven and Schubert it can be magical. Therefore one looks with reverence at the little change here from A minor to C major, catching in it the first glimpse of things to be - for example, the superb passage in the Kyrie of the Missa Solemnis where (as Professor Tovey says) the ‘Christe eleison dies away on an incomplete minor chord which, by a method of modulation typical in Beethoven’s works, becomes part of the original major tonic chord of the Kyrie.’
The remaining works for piano during Beethoven’s Bonn period were a Rondo, a Concerto in E flat major, another Concerto in D major, of which only one movement now exists, a Minuet (not published till 1805), a Sonatina written for Wegeler, and twenty-four Variations on Righini’s Arietta Venni Amore (1790). These Variations show many authentic Beethovenisms and, besides being valuable as a portrait of Beethoven the pianist in his last year or two at Bonn, they figured in his famous contest with Sterkel, and later at Vienna. Dr. Ernest Walker, in his admirable study of Beethoven, describes these Variations as of unusual technical difficulty and mentions their ‘great variety and wealth of light and shade, and a few strange forecasts of much later music.’
Beethoven’s first years in Vienna were not productive of much piano music. For one thing, he was seriously exploring chamber music, and for another, he was doggedly studying counterpoint. From 1792 till 1795 he apparently composed only two sets of variations on themes by Dittersdorf and Waldstein, a fragment of a sonata for Eleonore von Breuning and a couple of sonatinas. But in reality he had three works of first-class value on the stocks - his Sonatas for piano, Op. 2, dedicated to Haydn. Whether they dated from Bonn, or whether he began them in Vienna and incorporated with them some old material from his piano quartets of 1785, is unknown. The three sonatas made their appearance in 1795, the earliest peaks in that magnificent series of thirty-two sonatas which runs parallel to Beethoven’s symphonies like a mountain chain in music and is not less glorious, though on a different scale.
Haydn and Mozart had been masterly in their treatment of sonata form. They had also coloured their music with feeling, sometimes even with emotion, and Haydn often composed to some little story in his mind. But where they were masterly, Beethoven was the master. His nature was charged with that excessiveness which Masefield remarks in Shakespeare. When Masefield says: ‘The mind of the man was in the kingdom of vision, hearing a new speech and seeing what worldly beings do not see, the rush of the powers and the fury of elemental passions,’ it might be of Beethoven, not of Lear or his creator, that he speaks. Beethoven’s sonatas and symphonies, with their boundless variety, force, life, character and emotion, inevitably suggest a comparison with Shakespeare. Time and circumstance combined to give Shakespeare and England to each other at the period when the English language and drama were at their greatest. Beethoven came to music at the moment when its world language and the superb medium of cyclic form were for the first time complete in essentials. ‘His early works,’ said Parry, ‘were in conformity with the style and structural principles of his predecessors; but he began, at least in piano works, to build at once upon the topmost stone of their edifice. His earliest sonatas (Op. 2) are on the scale of their symphonies.’ Quite true. Beethoven took over cyclic form [Note: Here, and throughout this book, the term ‘cyclic form’ is used in the same sense as in the volume on The Viennese Period by Sir Henry Hadow in the Oxford History of Music, namely, to denote the entities of symphony, sonata, concerto, quartet, etc., formed by their characteristic and organized group of movements.] fresh from Haydn and Mozart, and from Clementi the new piano style, broad and almost orchestral; but the emotional content, the ‘poetic idea’ as Beethoven himself called it, was his own. ‘I generally have some picture in my mind when composing,’ he said.
But his ‘pictures’ were very different things from the placidly held images that served Haydn. Beethoven saw his pictures with the terrific clearness of a spectator at a drama, and experienced them with the intensity of all the participants put together.
This intense reality was apparent from the first. Structurally there is little in the Sonata No. 1, in F minor, that might not have been done by Haydn or Mozart, but in feeling the difference is immense. The phrases of the first movement are clinched, the relentless rat-tatting chords of the finale ring through the dark F minor mood like military commands on the rush of a gale at night. The adagio, the most Mozart-like and least original, was taken over from one of Beethoven’s Bonn piano quartets. The minuet and trio, though Haydn-like, are Beethovenish too at the point where the return of the tonic key in the trio is prefaced by a delicious passage in sixths that swells to fortissimo and sinks almost to nothing.
The Sonata in A major, No. 2, is generally considered the finest of the group in Op. z. Its special features are the ‘new aspect’ Beethoven puts upon the limits of the first sections, the noble D major largo appassionato - which Dr. Walker describes as ‘perhaps the earliest example of a slow movement charged with really deep, earnest feeling’ - and the unmistakable Beethoven touch in the scherzo. Haydn and Mozart were perfectly acquainted with the scherzo as a form - Haydn, in fact, had established its presence in the cyclic scheme. But until Beethoven no one divined its real nature and functions.
The C major Sonata, Op. 2, No. 3, is extremely brilliant as piano writing. There is a cadenza just before the coda of the first movement and the finale is quite formidably difficult, with strings of rapid staccato chords of the sixth in the right hand. The second subject of the first movement, by the way, is said to come from the Bonn quartets.
The Sonata in E flat major, Op. 7, is yet more considerable. Composed about 1796, it is dedicated to Beethoven’s pupil, the Countess Babette von Keglevics, a young 1aty not generally considered handsome, with whom Beethoven is believed to have been in love. The energy and grace of the first movement, the emotional eloquence of the largo con gran espressione, the trio with its mysterious ‘moonlight’-like triplets, and the caressing theme of the rondo - soft as the arms of the loved one - all corroborate the name Die Verliebte (The Maiden in Love) by which the Sonata was known in Beethoven’s lifetime.
The next piano sonatas were begun in 1796, according to Nottebohm, and finished in 1798. There were three under the one number, Op. 10, of which those in C minor and F major are distinguished by melodic charm and stylistic resource, but are otherwise not very significant. The D major Sonata, last in the group, is a superb work. ‘The individuality of style is absolute and unchallenged, the structure of all the movements is mature and flawless,’ is Dr. Walker’s summing-up. The slow movement is the famous largo e mesto in D minor, a magnificent poem of melancholy which makes one understand how Beethoven could move a whole audience to tears when he extemporized. He said of it himself that it ‘expressed a melancholic state of mind, that it portrayed every subtle shade, every phase of melancholy.’ The cluster of crushed seconds grinding upon each other in the final chords of bars 84 and 85 are perhaps the most famous example in Beethoven’s piano music of his instinct for intensifying a harmonic situation. Crushed seconds have grown so ordinary in modern music that when a clever composer wants to produce an exceptional effect he does it by a common chord! But these legions of seconds are meaningless compared to those which Beethoven calculated and placed so perfectly with regard to their context and to psychological truth.
The Sonate Pathetique in C minor, Op. 13, composed about 1798, has already been mentioned as the fulfilment of Beethoven’s own prophetic little sonata of 1783. Dussek too anticipated the Pathetique. It has been pointed out that his Sonata in C minor ‘contains some startling likenesses to that work.’ Dussek’s Sonata dates from about 1793. Question: (1) Did the famous Dussek get his structural plan from the work of the young and obscure composer Beethoven? (2) Were both men indebted to some now forgotten original? (3) Were they independently inspired?
In poetic content Beethoven’s Pathetique is tragedy as the young feel it, with the glamour, urgency, even exaltation, of a Romeo and Juliet. And few southern love-scenes could be more softly glowing than Beethoven’s slow movement with its almost unbelievable melodic loveliness and velvety tone.
The next two Sonatas, in E major and G major, Op. 14, are happy things, that may be contemporaneous with the Pathetique, though published only in 1799. Speaking of them many years later, Beethoven said to Schindler: ‘When I wrote my sonatas people were more poetic and such indications [of the music’s meaning] were superfluous. At that time ... every one saw that the two Sonatas, Op. 14, represented a struggle between two opposing principles, an argument between two persons.’
Just as Beethoven’s pathetic phase in piano music had closed with Op. 13, so his ‘first period’ works for piano ended with the Sonata in B flat major, Op. 22, composed in 1800. It was on a grand scale throughout - as often happened when he was in the mood of his initial key - and the four movements displayed cyclic form at its ‘full moon.’ Beethoven was really pleased with it himself. ‘Hat sich gewaschen,’ was his phrase - an idiom that Professor Tovey translates by analogy as ‘takes the cake.’ ‘In England we do not talk of sonatas that ‘wash themselves,’ though - come to think of it - to say that a sonata could stand London laundering would be a remarkable testimonial of immortality.
After achieving the fulfilment of everything the eighteenth century believed a sonata should be, most men would have rested on their laurels. Not so Beethoven. There was more than a dash of Bonaparte and Alexander about him. He felt the desire for fresh worlds to conquer. Besides, the Romantic Movement in German literature had just been born. Whether Beethoven was concretely acquainted with its ideals and output, or whether he felt them through that curious telepathy of genius by which artists become aware of ideas elsewhere, I do not know, but his next Sonata, A flat major, Op. 26, was a marked departure towards romanticism. From then onwards, through most of the sixteen sonatas of his middle period, it seems as if he were intent on enriching classic sonata form with the romantic elements in music - those same elements which in literature found their expression through lyric and ballad poetry. ‘The imagination and the reason must both be satisfied, but above all things the imagination,’ as Parry said. To unify two apparently opposite principles without the loss of any essential good in either was a task after Beethoven’s own heart
The A flat Sonata, the first of his new period, composed in 1801, shows signs of being a hybrid. An andante con variazioni takes the place of the customary allegro of cyclic form; then follows a scherzo, molto allegro, going like the wind, instead of the usual adagio; then an intensely sombre slow movement, the Marcia funebre sulla morte d’un Eroe, and then a rushing finale. Thus the order and character of the movements is new and thoroughly romantic. The material, on the other hand, casts back towards the past. Czerny rather implies that this sonata was written to score off Cramer (then in Vienna), who had made a sensation with his Sonata in A flat 3/4 time, dedicated to Haydn, and Beethoven purposely put a reminiscence of the Clementi-Cramer passage work into the finale. A desire to eclipse Paer is also said to account for the inclusion of the Funeral March. These anecdotes may explain the presence of the older stylistic elements, but they do not explain the romantic plan of the Sonata as a whole. By placing the scherzo second in his group of movements, Beethoven showed that even at this early date he had no hesitation in sacrificing convention to aesthetic demands. He clearly thought the scherzo would upset his poetic plan if it followed the Funeral March.
The two Sonatas of Op. 27, in E flat major and C sharp minor, and the Sonata in D major, Op. 28, all belong to the year 1801. They are wonderful successes. Each of those in Op. 27 is designated as Sonata quasi una Fantasia, and designed to be played without a break between the movements. The order of the movements is dictated by their poetic content; they have the glamour that hangs over a magnificent extemporization, yet their aesthetic structure is masterly. The name ‘Moonlight,’ by which the C sharp minor is known, was not of Beethoven’s bestowing, but it is at least a token of the enchantment cast by the music. The first movement, adagio, with its mist of slow, moving triplets and its melody slowly rising from ‘monotone on a prevalent rhythmic figure,’ is as impressionistic as anything in Debussy. The figure as used by Beethoven is full of mystery.
There is nothing mysterious about the D major Sonata, Op. 28, to which the Hamburg publisher Cranz gave the name Pastoral. It is a felicitous work, more or less of a reversion to classic order, and the andante is said by Czerny to have been long a favourite with Beethoven.
The period between Op. 28 and the Sonatas of Op. 31 is the place assigned by Czerny to Beethoven’s remark to Krumpholz: ‘I am by no means satisfied with my works hitherto, and I intend to make a fresh start from today.’
If so, then the year was 1802, exactly the crisis of the conflict in Beethoven’s own nature. I cannot honestly say I find anything new in the G major Sonata, Op. 31, No. 1, though Beethoven seems extremely preoccupied in it by experiments with odd syncopations, embellishments and dynamics. But the D minor Sonata, Op. 31, No. 2, is altogether magnificent from start to finish.
Beethoven’s introduction of instrumental recitative into the first movement is a masterstroke; the adagio is as beautiful as profound; the finale is so wistful, sensitive and pliant that one only discovers afterwards with sheer amazement that with the exception of one quaver quite near the beginning Beethoven has maintained an unbroken rhythm of semiquavers right through a movement of 399 bars. It was just such a bit of wizardry as Beethoven liked to perform for his own satisfaction. It is also an example of his power to lift an idea out of the region of material phenomena into another world, for the suggestion of the regular rhythm of the first phrase came to him, according to Czerny, from seeing a horse gallop past his windows at Heiligenstadt.
The third Sonata in the group, the E flat major, is always a great favourite - perhaps because it so gracefully gives something of the best of two worlds - the new and the old - of music. For example the opening chords are a wonderful soft call to attention - as if the Evening Star tapped on the casement. The Scherzo is finely spirited and pure Beethoven. But the third movement, Menuetto, is a clean throw-back to a very early type of harmonic organization. The finale is another, and more varied, experiment in persistent rhythms.
The two Sonatas in G minor and G major, Op. 49, are sonatinas in all but name; Dr. Walker considers they were written much earlier than 1802, their year of publication. There is evidence that the sonata version of the tempo di menuetto in No. 2 is the original of the theme used for the minuet of the Septet (1800).
With the Sonata in C major, Op. 53, composed in 1804, dedicated to Count Waldstein, Bekka is right in saying that ‘a hitherto unknown world of sound was revealed.’ It is a glorious work, demanding an interpreter whose head and heart are as great as his technique is perfect. The splendour of the first movement, the depth of wisdom and feeling packed into the short molto adagio, and the final rondo which seems poised in the sunny realms of air - these things are unforgettable. Originally the Sonata had another slow movement which Beethoven withdrew on account of its length, but I think perhaps he turned against it also on account of a joke which Prince Lichnowsky played upon him with this andante, before the Sonata was ready. Whatever his reasons, Beethoven was right. The andante survives as the Andante favori in F, and its substitute in the Sonata is a fine example of Beethoven’s power of retrospect and prospect, of seeing a thing from both sides. Here he approached it from the allegro as the slow movement and quitted it as the introduction to the rondo - a pivot movement in fact, yet complete with its own noble character.
The short Sonata in F major, Op. 54, also composed in 1804, is a pleasant valley between two heights, but none the less interesting because, to push my metaphor further, its materials seem to belong to the same geological formation as the peaks of the Waldstein and Appassionata. Beethoven reverts here to an early two-movement type of sonata. The first movement, named by him in tempo d’un Menuetto, has an opening subject that smacks strongly of Scotch folksong, and its melody has obvious links with the famous second subject of the appassionata; a similarity which gives one to think. The second movement, an allegretto, is described by Professor Tovey as a ‘perpetuum mobile in two-part polyphony on a single theme, with short archaic (melodic) exposition, but extensive development and coda; running at a uniform pace which nothing can stop.’ He also points out that this movement is the only instance (except the early two Preludes in all the major keys) where Beethoven works round the ‘whole circle of fifths.’ In watching the graceful running semiquaver passages I find great pleasure in seeing how much they have in common with the finale of the Waldstein. Indeed I sometimes think that Op. 54 is made out of the excess of material for which Beethoven had no room in Opp. 53 and 57.
Following it in the same year came the Sonata in F minor, Op. 57, which Cranz called the Appassionata. This magnificent work touches the depths and heights. Beethoven’s imaginative and constructive power are seen functioning at their highest. ‘Here the human soul asked mighty questions of its God and had its reply,’ as Parry said. Precisely what Beethoven himself meant is easier to feel from the music than to understand from his own reference to it. He had been asked to explain the meaning of the Sonata in D minor and the Appassionata. His reply was: ‘Read Shakespeare’s Tempest.’
At first sight the connection is not very evident, though here and there one can glimpse something. But after thinking things over I have come to wonder whether the meaning may not be more philosophical than dramatic. The Tempest is the play where certain commentators believe Shakespeare made concealed allusions to esoteric wisdom, of which they think he had become an initiate. Beethoven was attracted by esoteric thought; witness his later study of Egyptian and Indian religious writings. Nor in this was he singular. Schiller had laid aside poetry for ten years to study philosophy. Haydn and Mozart were earnest Freemasons. The Magic Flute, Beethoven’s favourite Mozart opera, was one long exposition of esoteric truths through a muddled symbolism. Therefore it would not be strange if Beethoven had been attracted by the symbolic vein in The Tempest. His reference to Shakespeare may even be taken as a faint shadow of evidence for the first subject of the Appassionata having been deliberately adapted from the tune On the Banks of Allan Water. Scotch, Welsh and Irish folk-tunes were well known in Vienna at that time. Haydn and others had arranged them by the dozen for British publishers. Beethoven took a turn at the game himself a few years later. So there is reason to believe he knew the tune of Allan Water, and I should not find it hard to believe that he linked it with Shakespeare in his mind because it too was British. One must not push these speculations far, however, because composition works along lines in a man’s mind that can never be quite explained in words, since it is an act that transcends words. Whatever Beethoven’s precise meaning in the Appassionata, the intention is unmistakable: it is an overwhelming tragedy.
From 1804 to 1809 there was an almost complete gap in Beethoven’s output for piano alone. Then in 1809 came another period of sonata writing - the Sonata in F sharp major, Op. 78, the Sonata in G major, Op. 79, and the Sonata in E flat major, Op. 81A, named by Beethoven Das Lebewohl. With these it is convenient to bracket the Fantasia, Op. 77, composed in the same year, my reasons being that Czerny considered it a typical example of a Beethoven extemporization, and that Beethoven seems to have regarded it as a companion piece to the Sonata, Op. 78. He dedicated the one to Count von Brunswick and the other to Countess Therese von Brunswick, the brother and sister who were so devotedly attached to him. The Fantasia is curious, but interesting: the Sonata is one of the most subtly lovely things Beethoven ever wrote. The four opening bars of adagio cantabile are like a curtain drawn back to reveal the tender grace and playfulness smiling out from the allegro. No wonder Beethoven prized this Sonata. He thought it infinitely superior to the ‘Moonlight.’ His choice of key - F sharp major - is unusual. In two movements he conveyed the essentials of a much larger work. That first movement gives the feeling of both a quick and slow movement; the second, as Bekker has pointed out, is a combination of rondo and scherzo - a form which Beethoven employed occasionally when at the height of his powers.
The Sonata in G major, alla tedesca, following it, is straightforward, bright and intentionally easy. ‘Sonate facile ou sonatina’ was Beethoven’s own label.
The Lebewohl Sonata is a return to Beethoven’s grand manner. It is also the sole example of declared programme music in his sonatas, and was composed for his friend and pupil, the Archduke Rudolph, when the latter was compelled to leave Vienna before the advance of Napoleon’s army. It is a work on a noble scale; the ideas of departure, absence and return are woven poetically into a powerful musical structure qua music, and the treatment of the piano is broad and brilliant. Can Beethoven have got his ‘original suggestion for the programme from J. S. Bach’s Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother?
The Sonata in E minor, Op. 90, dedicated to Count Moritz von Lichnowsky, is the last of Beethoven’s second-period works for piano. Its two movements glow with the lyricism and colour of romance. Indeed Beethoven intended to depict a romance. ‘Amidst peals of laughter said Schindler, ‘ he told the Count [Lichnowsky] that he had tried to set his courtship of his wife to music, observing also that if the count wanted a superscription he might write over the first movement "Struggle between head and heart" and over the second "Conversation with the loved one."’ The point was that Count Lichnowsky had married a plebeian - a singer as good as she was charming. Beethoven evidently followed the romance with amused interest; he always had a soft spot in his heart for a love affair.
Again came a gap in the chain of sonatas - two years this time - and then in 1816 the Sonata in A major, Op. 101, earliest in the great five of the third period. By now Beethoven had completed his coloration of cyclic form with lyric hues and grace: his mind turned towards a harder task - nothing less than the conquest of the highly specialized province of contrapuntal music for harmonic form and expression. The two most intellectual forms in music - the fugue and the sonata - were to be brought into unity, for his new ethical message exceeded the capacities of lyric form. Furthermore he had been advancing in chamber music and in symphonic knowledge, and he had a new sort of thematic development which consisted of extensive evolution from compact material. His last five sonatas possess the breadth and majesty of symphonic thought and the intimacy and unworldliness of chamber music. He felt them intensely himself. For the first time in Op. 101 he gave his directions for expression in German. Also without relinquishing the lyric elements he here began to introduce contrapuntalism in the form of canon and fugato. The whole Sonata is wonderfully unified.
The Sonata in B flat major, Op. 106 (1818), generally known as the Hammerklavier, is even more closely unified. Beethoven brought his whole equipment to bear on the task and even reverted to a device known to composers of the early eighteenth century, which he had employed himself in his string Quartet in G major, Op. 18, and was to employ again in his Sonata, Op. 110 - the device of thematic kinship (or thematic metamorphosis) between the movements.
Op. 106 is a terrifying Sonata - technically of immense difficulty, exhaustingly long, and mentally the toughest thing he ever wrote, except perhaps the Quartet in B flat major, Op. 130, The contrapuntal devices and the intellectual power Beethoven put forth overwhelm one like the statements of an astronomer about the universe. Bekker considers the work a symphonic concert sonata on the old four-movement scheme. Maybe, but its gigantic form is also a Brocken shadow thrown by the distant, smaller being of modern music. After more than a century Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata and his Quartet, Op. 130, are just becoming fully intelligible.
Following the terrific Hammerklavier, the Sonata in E major, Op. 109 (1820), and the Sonata in A flat major, Op, 110 (1821), seem like havens of the islands of the blest. Not that Beethoven had abandoned his purpose of conquering fugue for the sonata - rather he had achieved it. The marvellous intellectual texture of these sonatas, the heavenly relevance of all their details, are there for everyone who cares to study them, but it is their surpassing beauty which always shines out in our memories when their names are mentioned.
The Sonata in C minor, Op. 111, came a year later - in 1822. It was as if Beethoven had felt with Browning:
I was ever a fighter, so - one fight more,
The best and the last!
Yet the fight had long been foreseen. The theme of the first movement had been sketched twenty years before. When the conflict came, it was fought out with the very demons as protagonists; no human terms give an idea of its magnitude. Nor can words describe the serenity and light of the arietta that follows - a set of variations upon what one may call a theme of light and peace everlasting.
Beethoven lived four years more, to complete the Missa Solemnis, the ninth Symphony and the last quartets, but he never wrote another sonata. Like Ulysses, it had been his
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Turning from the sonatas to survey Beethoven’s miscellaneous pieces, one becomes aware of another chain of specialized works, running parallel with the sonatas - the twenty-one sets of variations for solo and the two sets for piano duet. Variation form interested Beethoven only less than sonata form. Though he usually reached his highest powers when the variations made part of a sonata or symphony, a few of the twenty-one separate sets are of significance in relation to his general development. Such things as the Variations on God Save The King and Rule Brittania mean little more now than that Beethoven was scoring off Abt Vogler, or that sentiment was pro-British in Vienna during the Napoleonic wars. But the Dressler and Righini Variations meant something in Beethoven’s early life, and the two sets of Variations composed during his summer at Heiligenstadt in 1802 are documents of real value. Beethoven’s own verdict was:
I have made two sets of variations of which the first may be said to number eight, the second thirty; both are written in a really entirely new style ... Each theme in them is treated independently and in a wholly different manner. As a rule I only hear of it through other people when I have new ideas, since I never know it myself; but this time I can assure myself that the style in both works is new to me.
In view of what Beethoven did a year later in his Eroica Symphony these variations are of great importance, and deserve an attention they have not received. Op. 34 is usually remembered - when people remember it at all - as the set where Beethoven modulated to a different key for each variation. Which is very interesting, and seems a link with his early modulating Preludes. But speaking personally my imagination is more fired by the forecast of the Funeral March in the Eroica which I think I see in the C minor Variation V. So too with the fifteen Variations with Fugue in E flat major, Op. 35. which enter the Eroica sphere. Their theme is the very one from Beethoven’s own ballet Prometheus which he employed later for the finale of the Eroica, and the canonic and fugal devices, the treatment of the piano and the powerful intellectual progress of the music are a presage of his third-period style.
The thirty-two Variations in C minor (1806) are far better known today, and are a sort of landmark, though Beethoven’s own exclamation on hearing them was: ‘That nonsense by me? O Beethoven, what an ass you were!’
Compared with the sonatas and variations Beethoven’s other works for piano - the Rondos, short dances, Polonaise for the Empress of Russia, etc. - are not more than little asteroids in a solar system of music - yes, even the rondo, Rage over a Lost Penny.
An exception must be made in favour of the three collections of bagatelles, small pieces which, even if they are without the genuine lyrical quality that came into piano music with the next generation (Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Mendelssohn), are nevertheless miniatures in which motifs of the lighter symphonic kind were set by Beethoven into logical, self-contained little frames of form. The seven Bagatelles, Op. 33, are of early date and least value. Perhaps written for Beethoven’s pupils, they require nevertheless players well grounded in technique and interpretation. Of the far later eleven Bagatelles, Op. 119, Nos. 7 to 11 inclusive are known to have been composed for Friedrich Starcke’s Wiener Pianoforteschule (piano method). The technique is deliberately simple. Beethoven apparently regarded these pieces as ‘pot boilers but grâce à Dieu they turned out lovely little things, showing their filiation among the great works - the Mass in D major and the Sonata in E major, Op. 109, which were then occupying Beethoven’s mind. The six Bagatelles, Op. 126, sketched practically complete. Nottebohm thinks they were designed as a homogeneous series. Beethoven certainly called them Kleinigkeiten, but considered they were probably the best things of the kind he had ever written.
The year after he completed his last sonata, he produced a work which was his last word in the series of solo variations - an outer and greater planet!
One may regard these thirty-three Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli as a sort of companion piece to Bach’s Kunst der Fuge, in that Beethoven here put forth his full power and learning to demonstrate a form and his mastership. The monumental work originated in a not very noble request from Diabelli the publisher for a variation apiece from thirty-three composers of the day on a waltz which he had composed. Beethoven was among the invitees. He declined, called Diabelli’s tune a Schusterfleck (cobbler’s patch) and in a sort of savage pride - one Beethoven outweighing thirty-two other composers - wrote thirty-three Variations himself. It was - and is - an amazing display of virtuosity. There are moods when one almost wishes it had been an impossibility, but it was a marvellous last word!