Beethoven – Piano Sonata 32 in c, Op. 111 (1822)

Beethoven never repeats himself, insists András Schiff. And adds that this sonata is “one of the wonders of mankind.” It moves, and moves one, in a kind of exaltation, to borrow the word from Anton Kuerti.

American musicologist Richard Taruskin, in his massive and marvellous Music in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (2010), gives an extensive discussion of Op. 111. He focuses on Beethoven’s fugal preoccupation in his later works, and, like Rosen in his The Classical Style (1971, 1997), the particularity of his harmonic treatment. Rosen’s analysis of these two aspects of the composition is simply brilliant.

What is especially interesting in Taruskin is his view that the first movement of Op. 111 represents a process of deliberate frustration, the “whole movement [being] one unconsummated gesture after another.” Contrarily, the second movement, which is twice as long as the first, “reaches a point of status or suspended motion…,” that is, to the point of being immeasurable, the increasing smaller note values at last dissolving into the “unmeasured trill — a kind of aural vanishing point, in which all sense of countable time is lost … [; moreover, its most arresting effect comes in mm. 112 – 114, a triple trill (almost impossible — that is, infinitely hard — to perform) that lasts for seven beats, during which time seems to come literally to a halt despite the repeated notes in the bass.” Again, Rosen has an inspired discussion of Beethoven’s mastery of musical time.

The meditative qualities of the arietta, apparent from the first bars, are highly interesting, and are supported by the metrical scheme. I quote from the Raptus Association’s website: “In its metrical scheme … the movement is highly innovative.  The rhythm of the opening figure, quaver-semiquaver, is developed obsessively in variation 1, and reappears twice as fast (with the note values halved) in Variation 2, then twice as fast again (note values quartered in Variation 3.  To accommodate these subdivisions within the underlying three-beat pulse, Beethoven resorts to peculiar time signatures of 6/16 and 12/32.  These are not strictly correct by modern rules, since the former implies two groups of three semiquavers and the latter four groups of three demisemiquavers, but these conventions were not established in Beethoven’s day.  His notation is anyway perfectly comprehensible, and no modern time signature is capable of indicating a bar consisting of three beats each of which divides into four sub-beats which in turn divide into three.  More confusing is his omission of triplet signs and dots, so that in Variation 2 some semiquavers are longer than others (depending on whether or not they are followed by a demisemiquaver–an unintentional revival of a medieval convention formerly applied to breves and semibreves).  A similar situation arises in Variation 3.  From Variation 4 onwards each beta divides into nine, and so the correct time signature would be 27/32, but Beethoven uses 9/16 with implied triplet signs.  Thus the Theme and Variation 1 contain bars of 3 x 3; in Variation 2 it is 3 x 2 x 3; in Variation 3 it is 3 x 2 x 2 x 3; and from Variation 4 it is 3 x 3 x 3.” The Association’s complete commentary can be read here.

Beethoven, manuscript of the Arietta, Op. 111

Beethoven, manuscript of the Arietta, Op. 111

Schiff concludes his 32nd lecture with the observation that this sonata exemplifies ‘gratitude to God to be able to write such music.’ That is, being alive allows one to reach beauty and interpret wonder.

Thomas Mann, in his great novel Doctor Faustus (1943-47), in its chapter eight, introduces several of his concepts of the nature of music, using as one specific example, the sonata, Op. 111. In Beethoven’s later work, “the subjective and the conventional assumed a new relationship, conditioned by death.” Mann places great emphasis on the introduction of the C sharp in the transitional interlude between the fourth and fifth variations, as the interlude moves into E flat major until the start of the fifth variation. Mann states that “this added C sharp is the most moving, consolatory, pathetically reconciling thing in the world.” The C sharp occurs just after the conclusion of the triple trill, and Taruskin (and with different emphasis, Rosen), more analytically than Mann, notes that the triple trill introduces the “only modulation ever to intrude, in this movement, upon the limpid C-major tonality of the whole.” Anton Kuerti, in his extensive notes (1996) to his recordings of the Beethoven sonatas, further notes, that as the trilling ceases, on the very C sharp, the “bass and treble both play single notes separated by five octaves, as though the composer were telling his theme, ‘There, I leave you to stand on your own.’” Or, to use Rosen’s description, by the “power to suspend motion, seeming to stop the movement of time….”

10 February 2016

The day strikes me differently after hearing András Schiff, in concert yesterday evening, playing Beethoven’s Op. 111 in a way, a revelation, that I had never heard, and Schubert’s D. 960, with such conviction of coherence and awareness that it turns sadness of mind into its brilliance.


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