The Sonatas; Opus 109 in E
1) Vivace, ma non troppo
3) Andante molto cantabile ed espressivo
Variations: Molto espressivo
Un poco meno andante ciò e un poco adagio come il tema
Allegro ma non troppo
Tempo I del tema, cantabile
“For surely wood, trees and rocks produce the echo that man desires to hear” (Beethoven)
This sonata was written at a time when a dreadful conflict over custody of his nephew had at last been resolved in Beethoven’s favour. There is overall, a sense of spaciousness and immense gratitude…. also, perhaps, a reference to the stormy nature of the conflict.
Vivace ma non troppo
The lively, happy opening is abruptly arrested (adagio espressivo) by a dramatic diminished chord and a grand scene of sheer fantasy takes place, with sweeping arpeggios which ripple downwards and upwards over the keys; likewise a beautiful scale passage which returns us to the first figure which now develops and expands forcefully until we are again treated to another dramatic landscape. The first figure is echoed in a higher octave and warm chords signal the end before closing gently in the home key.
The furies fling everything they have got at us from all directions for the first 8 bars and then we alternate between nervy skittering and thunderous storming. This appears to calm down and an ominous bass tremolo precedes a whispered passage fearfully seeking shelter from the elements.
But the storm brews relentless again and Beethoven stamps his way to the end.
Theme and Variations.
Andante cantabile e molto espressivo( singingly with utmost expression)
Heartfelt and prayerful, the opening theme is hymn-like and seems to speak of dedication and benediction. A flood of warmth, gratitude and peace.
a slow waltz of romantic, gentlemanly invitation and tenderness with just a hint of mischief!
when I describe this movement to children, I say that this is where the jolly frogs go hippety hop! The theme of course is most beautifully woven in, and in addition to the jocular good humour there is also a suggestion of a surge of expansion and longing.
Extrovert, spikey and gesticulating this is a short-lived Beethoven-blast showing off his formidable technique, imagination and force of character. The single notes of the theme switch between the hands while the other hand is engaged in energetic, spinning runs. It is full of daring!
Then in the space of one short bar it must evapourate and seamlessly glide into
The Sublime. Fluid. Loose woven. Perfectly balanced. The pendulum swings imperceptibly as this variation breathes thankful rapture. Nothing in excess. Nothing missing.
More of Beethoven’s genius with subtle counterpoint in this warm-hearted, sturdy and tricky little fugue. As with Var. III, he uses the element of surprise by fading unexpectedly away so that entry into
Returns us sedately to the theme, stated at first by the right hand thumb in the alto register. Over an increasing whirl of successive subdivisions the melody rings out as the tension, texture and volume become more dense. For Beethoven’s competitors, this passage would have been impossible to analyse quickly enough to take down (‘plants’ in the audience would be busy with quill and manuscript paper) thereby confounding the efforts of the pesky Viennese to steal his ideas.
Technically innovative, it requires the fingers to trill with the upper or lower part of the hand while at the same time placing precisely weighted melody notes with the remaining fingers…. usually the little finger or thumb, which also has to negotiate wide leaps and stretches!
An intense bass trill forms the pedal note for a series of angular and rapid right hand broken diminished chords, which build tension and although the theme is hidden, it can be ‘imagined’ within. Finally it rings out like bright stars high above the left hand scale passages (and the trilling right thumb and second finger) in the LITTLE finger of the right hand!!
The clamour ebbs away and the exquisite return of the theme, transformed by all it has been through, leads us movingly to profound stillness and completion. Alpha and Omega.
I began to learn this sonata in 2006, just before a trip to Spain where I was walking for a few days in the Alpuharras. The landscape was so beautiful, with the sound of a nearby river and the first few bars of the first movement ran through my head. As I rounded a corner the next thing I saw was a dramatic cliff with a horrifying drop to a deep gorge below….. It seemed to match perfectly the abrupt arrest of the music in the first movement and the expression of nature, landscape and the elements. Beethoven loved to be outside in nature and the elements, and for me, this sonata is especially attuned to an outer landscape.
It also has a valedictory flavour. I had the privilege of taking it to a very dear friend who was dying with a brain tumour and playing this to her as she lay quietly, in some way garlanding her path onwards. As I have known of dear ones who are preparing to leave it is the last movement of this piece that I turn to.
On a lighter note, I played this sonata to a wonderful family group in Budapest. There were 8 children ranging from under 2 to about 14. I had given a little explanation of the whole piece ( frogs hopping, giants racing, swans gliding etc! memories of Joyce Grenfell?) and had no expectation of stillness or quiet while I played. They ran around and enjoyed themselves together just as they felt. (Little Sofi, not yet 2, danced throughout the variations as did a little girl of 5 several months ago in a youth hostel in Denmark!) Happily, nobody tried to prevent them.
Have you ever seen a group of under 4’s come to a Steiner kindergarten table to light the candle… that enchanted moment when all are quiet and we want to know where the kindergarten teacher keeps her magic wand?
Well, as the final clamour of the last variation melted away and the exquisite theme returned, all movement ceased and to the last dying chord, you could have heard a pin drop.