Composed between 1801 and 1802.
Beethoven's last Opus 31 sonata is one of the warmest, big-hearted lyrical things he ever wrote. It is the penultimate sonata in 4 movements (the last one is the Hammerklavier) and does not contain slow movements. It's also worth noting that 3 of them are in full-blown sonata form!
The first movement is a total delight to listen to, from the surprising harmony that opens the piece, to the richly textured chord response and thematic group that emerges from it, the repeated memories of the kind of motivic introduction that begins, makes us think in the Pathetique!, and the wonderful thing that rises that is the second theme, all air and light.
The second move is one of my all-time favorites - it's hilarious and addictive to the ear. Everything fits very well; the bassoon-type bass, the off-beat accents, the absurd little F sustained in bars 2 and 3, the violent contrasts and the textures of sixteenth note against sixteenth note in the second theme, those repeated C that sound as if the player had had a disastrous memory slip.
The third movement is the last minuet movement Beethoven ever wrote. After this sonata it looked like the form didn’t quite have enough dramatic potential for him, although what we have here is a real nice example of Beethoven’s ability to write a beautiful piece when he really wanted to.
The last movement is full of rhythmic arrogance; from the first tarantella-like idea, to the vigorously funny second, to the insistent third, and the suddenly coruscating textures, almost like Waldstein, that suddenly emerge, it all comes together perfectly in a natural expression of pure joy.
This is the only Beethoven four-movement piano sonata in which all three movements are in sonata-allegro form with full development sections. Four years later, the Symphony no. 4, Op. 60, uses that structure for all four movements. There is no slow movement, the third movement, a minuet and trio, being the only movement that is not tempo animato.
This sonata is nicknamed The hunt in some sectors. Its origin is uncertain. The name may have been suggested by the opening motif, which might sound like a call to the hunt to some listeners, or by the energy of the final movement, which might suggest the chase.
Both the first and fourth movements open with motifs marking the tonic six/four as their targets, bars 6 and 4 respectively, and then move on to a tonic in root position, bars 8 and 6.
The first theme builds from its opening pitch, the first inversion of a supertonic seventh chord, II6-5. His hesitant progression to the tonic six/four of the opening tone appears here, in the opening of the development section, in the recapitulation, and in the coda. Other Beethoven piano sonatas that open with non-tonic keys are the sonatas 15, 17 , 28 and 32.
The second theme stays close to the dominant and features a metered cadence, bars 53 to 56, and a series of trill-decorated cadences, bars 64 to 72, a motif possibly taken from the first theme, bars 22 and 23.
The closing theme is more of a cadence, but its falling sixth is vaguely reminiscent of the opening theme's falling fifth.
The entire development is based on material from the first theme, opening with the same figure but modulating to C minor, bars 89 to 94, then incorporating other material from the first theme, including the trill figure, and moving to C major, bars 101 to 104, F major, bar 116, B♭ minor, bar 124, E♭ major, bar 126 and F minor, bar 128, last tone used as a transition to the recapitulation opening key.
All the exhibition material is recapitulated in a normal format, with the expected tonic serving the second thematic area.
The coda brings back the opening gesture, ostensibly to open on A♭, but progressing through a series of chromatic seventh chords to reach the tonic of the opening tone again 6/4, this entry being reiterated. The right hand of the final cadence of the movement is flat in Nägeli first edition but strong in Simrock.
The composer uses the term scherzo to describe the spirit of this movement. It is, however, in sonata form, rather than minuet and trio. Applying the term to this movement is appropriate, its playfulness generated by the breathy notes used in all sections. The only other time in the sonatas that this term is divorced is in the minuet and trio structure in the final movement of the sonata no. 10.
The second theme announces itself in the surprising key of F major, then moves on to B♭ major, and finally the expected dominant, E♭ major. Choppy notes abound in both hands.
A closing theme features staccato double notes as an accompaniment to staccato phrase fragments in the right hand.
The first theme opens in F major, followed by a portion of the second theme that moves to B♭ minor and C minor.
The first theme returns in C major and is supplemented by an ornamental figure on sixtieth notes in bars 90-95 before setting the dominant key in preparation for the recapitulation.
The second theme surprisingly enters the key of G♭ major, moves to E♭ major, which serves as the dominant to bring the movement to the starting key, A♭.
The form is regular except that the da capo is written and the two sections are marked to repeat.
The trio remains in the key of E♭ major. Saint-Saëns used it as the theme for a set of variations for two pianos, Opus 35.
The diminished sixth is prominent in the opening of the B section in bars 9-11 and 47-49 is now joined by a second, bringing surprising color to the final cadenzas.
This movement develops with a triplet impulse of eighth notes, figures that sometimes appear full-blown, often as accompaniment patterns, and sometimes elided. This underlying rhythmic drive is nonstop except at breathing points near the ends of the exposition and development and in the coda. His energy has earned him the label tarantella in some quarters.
The left-hand triplet pattern supports a melodic fragment that transitions from dominant to tonic.
A second idea opens in E♭, the right hand occupying the rhythmic unit with elided triplets, and moves into the second thematic area.
The second theme prolongs its dominant tone and delays the resolution to its tonic until the end of the section. This resource increases the tension.
A closing theme in the dominant recalls the elided triplet, figured in the right hand with full triplets in the left. The first ending stops the forward movement on a dominant seventh in E♭ major. The second ending opens, in the same way, but then the idea is expressed in the dominant seventh in G♭ major.
The elided triplet pattern is enlisted along with triplets in the left hand to move kaleidoscopically towards G♭ major, D♭ major, B minor, C minor, A♭ major, D♭ major, and C major.
A series of dominant and diminished seventh keys move to stop points in A♭ major at bar 148 and F minor at 156. A third arrival, the dominant seventh at the opening key, returns the energy of the triplet at bar 164 .
The elided triplet segment of the first theme suddenly moves to parallel minor, E♭ minor, paving the way for the second theme area in G♭ major. The closing section returns to E♭ minor.
The coda opens by indicating the opening fragment of the first theme in the opening key and marking the beginning of a progression that ends on VII7 of the dominant with a prolonged sonority reminiscent of the stop points in the development, bar 307 to 308. This is repeated before the final fragments of the first theme with scales and diminished sixths in bars 324 and 326 before the final cadence on the opening key.