"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

August 6, 2011

Listening to the complete Beethoven (7)

Opus 106: Piano Sonata No. 29 in B-flat major ("Hammerklavier") (1818). This colossal sonata has been called a "sonata-symphony." Through bitter struggle, a victory is won over solitude. At the same time it is a struggle of the composer with an instrument that was inadequate for his musical ideas, but exactly from that circumstance comes the superhuman tension of the sonata. The sonata is so difficult that except Liszt, no pianist dared tackle it until the end of the 19th century. The work is in four parts, with the emphasis on the long adagio ("appasionata") and the final allegro risoluto.

Opus 107: Ten sets of variations for Piano and Flute (1820). These ten variations on folksongs are like op. 105, except that they range even further over Europe, also containing Russian and Ukrainian songs.

Opus 108: Twenty-Five Scottish Songs (1818). Twenty-five Scottish songs for voice, mixed chorus, violin, violoncello and piano. A work first published in the U.K.

Opus 109: Piano Sonata No. 30 in E major (1820). Beethoven's last three piano sonatas are spare and enigmatic and formally open. Opus 109 is lyrical and sunny. It starts with a vivace with arabesque-like figuration, alternating with adagio moments, followed immediately by a prestissimo scherzo and then concludes by the longest movement, a set of cantabile variations. No movement is in the place where you would expect it.

Opus 110: Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat major (1821). Possibly the most personal (Beethoven's only sonata without a dedication) and moving among all Beethoven's sonatas. It starts with a brief and lyrical moderato, which is followed by a harsh and dark scherzo, and it concludes with a spacious and complex finale. This last movement unusually combines recitative, arioso and fugue. It is pervaded by an ineffable melancholy, plumbing the depths of human despair, until will and energy win the victory in a vast crescendo.

Opus 111: Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor (1822). In two movements, a sonata-form maestoso and variation-form arietta that is twice as long, and a good example of Beethoven's open form of this period. (Contemporaries thought the third movement was missing!). The two movements circle around each other like a double star. It is the attraction of contrasts, minor and major, dark and light, black and white. The conflicts of the one movement are resolved in the other and vice versa. This is the most perfect form for a sonata... In his sonatas, Beethoven has managed to turn a form of home entertainment into a deep personal statement.

Opus 112: Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage), for chorus and orchestra (1815). A short cantata on a text by Goethe. The first poem is a lament about a ship becalmed (no wind = no movement before the advent of steam!), the second sings about success in resuming the voyage.

Opus 113: Die Ruinen von Athen (The ruins of Athens), overture and incidental music (1811). Overture and incidental music for a play by August von Kotzebue, in fact already written in 1813. In the Turkish March we hear again a rather banal Beethoven. A March and Chorus were added later and are therefore Opus 114. 

Opus 115: Zur Namensfeier (Feastday), overture (1815). Another middle period work with a high opus number. Overture written to celebrate the Name-day of the Austrian Emperor as well as the end of the Napoleonic wars.

Opus 116: "Tremate, empi tremate", vocal trio with orchestra (1802). Another early work. Beethoven thought highly of its popular appeal for he often included it in the concerts of his later years.

Opus 117: König Stephan (King Stephen), overture and incidental music (1811). Again an early work written for a play by Kotzebue, about the legendary Hungarian king.

Opus 118: "Elegischer Gesang" for four voices and string quartet (1814). The last of the popular works that Beethoven unearthed from his earlier compositions in the 1820s.

Opus 119: Eleven new Bagatelles for piano (1822). In fact, this opus also hides several pieces written earlier (bagatelles 1-5, probably somewhere around 1803). The others were added in the 1820s. Beethoven may have intended to write to sets of six, as was a usual number, but his English publisher brought these bagatelles out as one set of eleven works.

Opus 120: Thirty-three variations on a waltz by Diabelli for piano in C major ("Diabelli Variations") (1823). These 33 variations on a simple waltz theme by Diabelli have been called "the greatest set of variations ever written," comparable to Bach's Goldberg Variations. It certainly provides a microcosm of Beethoven's art of writing for the piano. Beethoven's approach is to take some of the smallest elements of the theme – the opening turn, the descending fourth and fifth, the repeated notes – and build upon them pieces of great imagination, power and subtlety.

Opus 121: Kakadu Variations, Piano Trio No. 11 (Variations on "Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu") (1803). Another older  work, interesting for the contrast between the solemn introduction and the lightweight variations that follow.

Opus 121b: "Opferlied" for soprano, chorus and orchestra (1822). Throughout his life, Beethoven was obsessed with Friedrich von Matthisson's "Opferlied" (Song of Sacrifice). He set the text four times. This is the final version. The text depicts a young man in a oak grove offering a sacrifice to Zeus and beseeching the deity to be the protector of liberty.

Opus 122: "Bundeslied" for voices, chorus and wind instruments (1824). A good humored piece on a text by Goethe.