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Piano Sonata No.31 in A Flat Major Op.110

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Piano Sonata No.31 in A Flat Op.110

Moderato cantabile, molto espressivo

Allegro molto

Adagio ma non troppo – Fuga (Allegro ma non troppo)

Christmas Day 1821 is the completion date on the autograph score of this penultimate sonata. It is, at least in the first movement, the most amiable of Beethoven’s late piano works, and indeed the direction con amabilità appears over the opening. The rising fourths in the first phrase are germinal, for they anticipate the theme of the fugue in the last movement and even hide inverted in the trio section of the second. The first movement is in regular sonata form, its thematic ideas flowing as it seems effortlessly. The rapid figuration has a charming lightness. After a short development section, which concentrates on the first subject, the main ideas are recapitulated, and the movement ends with a contrapuntal coda, those initial rising fourths reappearing as an inner line just before the close.

The second movement is an extraordinarily terse scherzo and trio. It is in 2/4 time and is based on sharp dynamic contrasts; the opening four bars of soft F minor, for example, are brusquely answered by four of loud C major. After the two strains of the scherzo there comes a syncopated trio section with fantastic figuration involving cross-hand work.. A repeat of the scherzo follows. Beethoven’s last movement, a combination of slow movement and finale, bears the sonata’s main weight. It is one of his most original movements, abandoning sonata form for an air-and-fugue scheme which may be taken – both on internal evidence and from knowledge of the composer’s circumstances – as a musical representation of a personal crisis. While composing the sonata Beethoven had suffered severely from jaundice.

Beginning in the rarely used, extremely flat key of A flat minor, a recitative feels its way uncertainly, moves into F flat, clinging to a bare high A repeated nearly 30 times, then drops into A flat minor again for the first theme of the movement, an Arioso dolente (Beethoven otherwise called it ‘Song of Lamentation’) given out above an insistently throbbing bass. Out of its final cadence arises the fugue in A flat major that was foreshadowed at the start of the sonata. The initial rising fourths and the rolling counter-subject suggest calm optimism. But at the climactic point the key drops a semitone into remote G minor and the Arioso is resumed, its intimations of sorrow now broken and faltering. Beethoven wrote ‘ermattet’ (exhausted) over the score.

At the point of despair, however, the music cadences softly on a G major chord, which is grasped and struck ten times in a crescendo. Now the fugue returns, starting with the main subject in inversion. The patient is ‘little by little reviving’, though there is weakness yet to be cured. When the principal subject returns to its first form, the fugue goes into a G minor stretto (by augmentation and diminution of note-values) and this disturbs the flow. But at length the sonata’s original key of A flat major is regained, and with an increase in tempo the fugue climbs to a triumphant climax.

© Eric Mason

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