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Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Opp. 109, 110 & 111
Having worked the four-movement plan on the grandest scale in the immediately preceding 'Hammcrklavier' Sonata op. 106, Beethoven achieved a new conciseness and flexibility in his last three sonatas of all. They bow to no conventional order of events, and the weight and distribution of movements is unique in each case. Op. 109 and op. 111, for instance, end with slow movements in variation form and fulfil themselves in moods of tranquility that would have been shattered by the return-to-earth of an orthodox finale. But even these two comparable movements are very different in approach, op. 109 relying on the contrast of variations, op. 111 on their gradual accumulation. The former carries its allegiance through to the re-emergence of the original theme, the latter takes wings in a long transfigured coda. Op. 110 has the most unusual finale of all: a combination of recitative, aria and fugue. Yet these three works have been called a trilogy, and efforts have been made to interrelate their themes, a pastime that pays better dividends in the late quartets, where Beethoven himself pointed the way by foreshadowing the Grosse Fuge subject at the opening of op. 132. Spiritual unity may manifest itself in common turns of phrase, and the arioso of op. 110 achieves its dolente character with a downward minor scale strikingly similar to that used by Bach in 'Es ist vollbracht' from the St. John Passion, a work Beethoven probably never knew. On the other hand, the aspiring fugue subject in the same movement seems to derive from the opening of the whole sonata. Any further links between the different sonatas can be attributed to the fact that they were composed in quick succession, by Beethoven's standards, and completed in 1820, 1821 and 1822 respectively: the only important products of those years, unless we include the 'Consecration of the House" Overture, an 'occasional' piece full of jubilant Handelian counterpoint. Work on the Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony still continued, however, and the Diabelli Variations, already begun, were to form a colossal postscript to the piano sonatas.
Op. 109 prefaces its spacious variation-finale with two short movements, both in sonata form. The first, in barely four minutes, establishes a dual character by the direct opposition of vivace and adagio themes, the latter interrupting the former almost at once. In the coda, the first idea abandons its Bach-like figuration for an inspired phrase of pure harmony. As with the Fourth Concerto, Beethoven shows the strength of tenderness. Then without a break the second movement shatters the contemplative mood in a defiantly resolute E minor prestissimo in 6/8 time. The steps in the bass should be noted: they are developed as an independent theme later, thus giving a new meaning to the return of the opening. As for the variation theme, it is one of Beethoven's most intimate and touching melodies, followed with Classical precision but a wide range of textures in the variations. The final one builds up a great climax of trills, out of which the original theme emerges, ineffably enhanced in the light of all these adventures.
Over the opening bars of op. 110 are inscribed the words 'con amabilita'. sufficient guide to the warmth of heart inherent in all the first-movement themes, around which flutters a transition figure in delicate arpeggios. It is in the closing bars that the rising fourths of the fugue subject appear in an inner part. The 2/4 scherzo is notable for the snatch of folksong that appears in its second half and for its trio, marked by ascending leaps and perilous descents. The form of the finale may be briefly outlined as follows: recitative, arioso dolente, fugue, second arioso, second fugue (with the subject inverted). There are strongly subjective overtones in the alternation of grief and resolution in the ariosos and fugues, and especially in the second arioso with its fragmented phrases.
In op. 111, the last sonata of all, it might be said that the 'argument' is equally apportioned, for there arc only two movements and they make their contrast on all possible levels: Allegro con brio ed appassionato and Adagio molto semplice e cantabile, sonata form and variation form, extreme turbulence and profound serenity, the material and the spiritual worlds, the minor and the major key. There is however a page of introduction, ranging through distant keys before settling into C minor, where the resolute subject derives from a sketch made 20 years previously during Beethoven's work on the op. 30 violin sonatas. The sketches also show the pains he took over the shaping of the sublime Arietta theme, and its falling intervals may have been influenced by his continuing work on the Diabelli Variations.