Claudio Arrau plays Beethoven's opus 111.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Opus 111 is the publication number given to Beethoven’s last piano sonata (no. 32 in C minor).  Outwardly, the sonata is unique in that it’s in two-movements: Beethoven had begun sketches for a third, concluding movement, but eventually scratched convention and left us with a searching sonata in two parts.  A music professor in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus suggests that this signals the end of the sonata form itself.  And my impression is that Debussy said something similar some thirty-plus years before Mann’s novel.

The sonata’s first movement is a restless pronouncement; it urges forward in darkness.  The gorgeous second movement, the Arietta, changes course: a set of variations that take us per aspera ad astra, from darkness to the stars, from struggle into light.

Now I don’t want to romanticize the sonata.  Musicians and critics of the nineteenth century did enough of that: Slaves as they sometimes were to a general state of aesthetic heat, it didn’t take much to set them reeling in fits of poetic adulation.  But it would be a mistake to see the sonata as incomplete, or to take away from its mysterious quality.  If it lacks a third movement, if the feeling is sometimes one of open-endedness, it is only because the sonata searches, probes mysterious regions often left uncharted in music.  I’m reminded of Wittgenstein’s comment that mysteries, unlike puzzles, are deepened, not solved.

There’s a moment towards the end of Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting where the author speaks about Beethoven’s late music.  He suggests that while Beethoven’s symphonies represent an epic journey outward, the variation movements of the late sonatas draw us inward.  They mark a progressive unfolding of the inner life, the search after the elusive goal of the creative process.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to stress the searching quality of Opus 111’s variations.  The Arietta is an instance of music that is meditative rather than heroic, reflective rather than epic.  As the variations unfold, they give way to increasingly unexpected and inventive music.  It is a case of Beethoven, within the apparent confines of a traditional classical time signature, pushing the rhythmic pulse of this music to something that hints at jazz of the next century.   (You can hear for yourselves here.)

Even Stravinsky heard in this music the emergence of the “boogie woogie.”  And though the Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff might protest such a view in this insightful clip (which I highly recommend checking out) there is something compelling in the idea – again recalling Mann’s Doctor Faustus – that “there are already movements of a rhythmic freedom foreshadowing things to come.”

In the second half of the variations movement, where radiance ultimately counters the darkness of the first movement, we have one of the many meditative moments of Beethoven’s late period.  This is music that can capture the imagination.

Opus 111 is by no means a work of jazz, but it does manage to create the illusion of jazz.

Its journey hints at the shape of music to come.  And I will sometimes catch myself thinking of it as the first birth of the cool.

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Recommended Recordings:

  • Claudio Arrau – Beethoven: The Late Piano Sonatas (recorded in the 60s, Phillips; reissued in 2001)
  • Anton Kuerti – Beethoven: The Complete Piano Sonatas (I am in love with this 1974-75 set, reissued on Analekta in 2006.  It has since been discontinued, though Kuerti has recently rerecorded the last five piano sonatas for the same label.)
  • Maurizio Pollini – Beethoven: The Late Piano Sonatas (recorded in the late 70s, Deutsche Grammophon; reissued in 1997)
  • Mitsuko Uchida – Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Op. 109, 110 & 111 (Phillips, 2006)

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