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Piano Sonata No.30 in E Major Op.109

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Piano Sonata No.30 in E Major Op.109

Vivace ma non troppo – Adagio espressivo


Andante molto cantabile ed espressivo

Beethoven composed this sonata in 1820 when he was wrestling with the problems of the Missa Solemnis and also starting on the last two piano sonatas. Opus 109 was finished that September and published in November the following year with a dedication to Maximiliane von Brentano, the 19-year-old daughter of a noble family he greatly admired.

The sonata is most unusual in form. It begins with a combination of fast and slow movements in one. A simple melody is contained in the initial sequence of broken Vivace figures, then the tempo slows to Adagio for a new theme. Although this starts expressively, it turns to elaborate embroidery with unexpected harmonies; the composer is saving the work’s main emotional weight for the last movement. A brief development of the Vivace material leads to the reappearance of its theme high on the keyboard, followed by the Adagio music at a higher pitch than before and with more daring modulations of key. The coda, based on the first theme, incorporates a series of smoothly singing chords.

There follows a restless whirlwind of a movement in E minor and B minor. Cast in 6/8 time, it performs the function of a short scherzo. Beethoven asks for the left-hand chords at the beginning to be well marked, because this bass line is itself a theme and will be treated in canon in the development. For all its speed and brevity this music is an example of closely-argued contrapuntal thought.

The third movement returns to the key of E major and takes the form of six free variations on a beautiful slow melody. ‘Songful, with the most inward feeling’, the composer indicates in German alongside the Italian marking on the score. The first variation, which introduces a new melody but retains the harmonic pattern of the previous one, has been likened to a solemn anticipation of Chopin’s mazurkas. Next comes a light double variation in triple time, each half of the theme being treated in two different ways. The third variation, a contrapuntal Allegro vivace in 2/4 time, leads straight into a calmly flowing 9/8 one with beautifully interlinked phrases. Variation No.5 is a march-like fugal Allegro based on the theme’s opening. The last and most intricate variation, following without a break, returns to the original tempo and reintroduces the theme. Beethoven treats this in ingenious ways, most notably with a persistent trill, until fragments of the theme are heard high aloft, the music quietens and the heartfelt, hymn-like melody returns in its initial form.

© Eric Mason

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