Beethoven – Piano Sonata 31 in A♭, Op. 110 (1821)

The second of the the last three piano sonatas, with, according to András Schiff and other pianists, references in the final movement, and also to be found in Op. 109, to Es ist vollbracht from Bach’s Johannes-Passion. 

There is exceptional, reflective beauty in the opening cantabile movement. This beauty is mirrored in the final movement’s juxtaposition of sadness in the 12/16 Klagender Gesang (arioso dolente) and the reflective interplay in the triple presentation of the fugue, the second presentation in inversion, and after a reiteration of the quiet sorrow of the arioso, the third in concurrent augmentation and diminution of the theme, and culmination in a striving for unity. The final movement is twice the length of the first, and the middle movement brief.

Beethoven, Op. 110 autograph, 3rd movement, conclusion of the second iteration of the Klagender Gesang (Courtesy:

Beethoven, Op. 110 autograph, 3rd movement, conclusion of the second iteration of the Klagender Gesang (Courtesy:

The pianist Robert Silverman describes the arioso as stricken with grief, to which observation Charles Rosen also inclines in his Music and Sentiment. Rosen also points out that the simplest method of inducing tonal pathos occurs here, that is, of using a leading, harmonically dissonant note essentially as an appoggiatura. This device goes back even as far as Bach.

Stieler_465 Ferdinand Schimon 1819

Joseph Karl Stieler : Beethoven (1819)

The ear finds a relationship between the opening bars of the sonata and the subject of the fugue in the final movement. It strikes me of the power of engagement that an artist is able to forge with his listener, viewer, or reader. Examples of this in music include the beginnings of Beethoven’s symphonies 3, 5, and 7, Mozart’s last symphony in C, K. 551, and Haydn’s symphony 63; in film, the opening of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal; in literature, the opening of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, the opening of Shakespeare’s Richard III, and the first lines of the second of Rilke’s Duino Elegies.

The dramatic tension that is introduced by such engagement, and when exploited further by the artist by the use of other material that contrasts or adumbrates, produces a work of great impact. In the instance of Op. 110, one finds the reflective understanding in the opening theme, resistance to this resignation in middle movement, and then in the finale, the deepening of the sorrow ultimately contrasted with the opening theme remembered in the fugue, which despite its manifest mutations, cannot dismiss the inevitability of the outcome of the sorrowful that lingers in the background.

I think the reference to the death of Christ, with its implication that salvation will arise, is important; particularly when one notes the correlation to Op. 109, with its Baroque compression and its concluding sarabande with variations that are reminiscent of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, as well as to similarities, especially in the fugal construction of the concluding dona nobis pacem section in the Agnus Dei of the Missa Solemnis, which movement was being sketched contemporaneously with Op. 110.

Thayer reminds that Beethoven’s former and probably deepest love, Josephine Brunsvik, to whom he wrote love letters that were discovered only after the Second World War, died in March of that year, that Beethoven continued to suffer from rheumatic fever and also developed jaundice, and points out that Beethoven notated on the score that the sonata was completed on December 25, 1821.

This is the text from Bach’s Johannes-Passion:

29. Recitative
Und von Stund an nahm sie der Jünger zu sich.
And from that hour the disciple took her to himself
Darnach, als Jesus wusste, dass schon alles vollbracht war,
Then as Jesus knew that all had been accomplished
dass die Schrift erfüllet würde, spricht er:
so the scripture might be fulfilled, he said
Mich dürstet!
I thirst!
Da stund ein Gefäße voll Essigs.
There was a jar of vinegar.
Sie fülleten aber einen Schwamm mit Essig
They filled a sponge with vinegar
und legten ihn um einen Isopen,
and put it on an hyssop
und hielten es ihm dar zum Munde.
and held it up to his mouth.
Da nun Jesus den Essig genommen hatte, sprach er:
When Jesus had taken the vinegar, he said
Es ist vollbracht!
It is accomplished.

30. Aria Alto

Bach, Johannes-Passion, Es ist vollbracht

Bach, Johannes-Passion, Es ist vollbracht

Violino I/II, Viola, Viola da gamba sola, Continuo

Es ist vollbracht!
It is accomplished !
O Trost vor die gekränkten Seelen!
What comfort for all suffering souls!
Die Trauernacht
The night of sorrow
Läßt nun die letzte Stunde zählen.
now reaches its final hours.
Der Held aus Juda siegt mit Macht
The hero from Judah triumphs in his might
Und schließt den Kampf.
and brings the strife to an end.
Es ist vollbracht!
It is accomplished!

31. Recitative
Und neiget das Haupt und verschied.
And he bowed his head and passed away.

And this is how it sounds (the ‘cello substituting, in some renditions, for the violas da gamba):


8 February 2016

The András Schiff recital, at the Vancouver Playhouse, was exceptional. The sadness that languishes in Beethoven’s Op. 110 and the sadness that is resigned and angry in Schubert’s D. 959 were evinced with great artistry. The house was sold out and the audience enthralled. What a great privilege it is to be in the presence of such artistry, and to learn.

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