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Piano Sonata No.32 in C Minor Op.111

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Piano Sonata No.32 in C Minor, Op.111

Maestoso – Allegro con brio ed appassionato

Arietta: Adagio molto, semplice e cantabile

This last of all Beethoven’s piano sonatas was composed alongside its predecessor, Opus 110, while he was also wrestling with the Missa Solemnis and Ninth Symphony. It was finished in January 1822 and dedicated to the Archduke Rudolf, the composer’s friend, patron and former pupil, who had received the dedications of the Emperor Piano Concerto, Archduke Trio and other works.

There are only two movements. When the publisher enquired where the third was, Beethoven replied (according to Schindler) that he hadn’t time to write one because he had to get on with the Ninth Symphony. This has often been taken as a sardonic answer to a silly question, but it could just have been the truth. On the other hand great music makes its own rules and, since one cannot imagine how Beethoven could have continued beyond the second movement of this sublime work, he himself probably concluded that these two movements were all that was needed.

The first movement has a slow prelude which begins with a falling diminished seventh and a pain-filled phrase uttered three times at rising pitches. Quietly the core of this thought is turned over and over, settling eventually on a pedal G, which leads into the turmoil of the C minor Allegro. The resolute main theme and the counter-subject that soon appears beneath it are reiterated in fugal fashion. A key change to A flat and a leap from bottom to top of the keyboard herald a lyrical new theme, but this is allowed only six bars’ repose before the struggle resumes with another theme almost twin to the main one. A repeat of the Allegro up to this point is indicated in conformance with sonata-form practice. Then a brief fugal development merges into a much varied contrapuntal reprise, the lyrical theme now permitted more space. Eight clipped offbeat chords resolve the argument, the music quietens and in the last moments a rising diminished seventh lifts it into clear C major.

In this hard-won key the second movement begins with the Arietta, an ineffably calm melody marked ‘simple and song-like’. Four variations follow, the tempo remaining unchanged but progressively smaller sub-divisions of the notes giving a sense of increasing speed so that the third variation becomes an outburst of joy. The fourth returns to the mood of the Arietta and alternates between a sustained dark bass and a delicate high treble. Then the melody’s opening notes are recalled against the background of a long double trill, and in the long following coda the full melody is given a transfigured reprise in the context of the rippling demi-semiquavers generated by the variations. We hear it for the last time winging high above a long-held G trill, far gone from the first movement’s earthly strife. The ending is simple and brief. There was no more to be said.

© Eric Mason

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