Composed between 1815 and 1816. Four movements.
This sonata is a bit overshadowed by the Hammerklavier, which it precedes, but it shouldn't be. It is the first of Beethoven's last sonatas and is revolutionary in more ways than one. It could be the case that your wit is overlooked because it is used too lightly; this is the most tender and kind of all late sonatas.
The first movement in this sonata is ultra-compressed, as is also the case with the Hammerklavier. The movement's most extraordinary characteristic is its quality of infinity: it is constructed in such a way that the melody unfolds forever as a "continuous" Wagner progression, and the method by which this is accomplished is It becomes clear when you observe that in this A major movement, the root chord never occurs until the end of the piece. Thus, a movement that opens to the dominant (in much the same way as a Bach prelude), turns out to be a single, interrupted and extended dominant tonic progression.
The second movement is a march where a scherzo would be, and it has a rather unexpected musical and dramatic weight. The movement is in F major, far removed from A major, and the movement also features prominent episodes in A major and D flat major, even further away from A major. The three tones are related by the one-third interval, in clear anticipation of the even more extensive large-scale display of the Hammerklavier interval. The passage that leads from D flat to F major is one of Beethoven's magical passages, where it is stated that the pedal should be held down despite changes in harmony.
Note also the strongly canonical writing in the middle section of the second movement, similar to a trio, and the extensive canonical writing in the last movement. This is the most canonical of Beethoven's sonatas, but a lot of these things happen almost without warning because canonical writing is so unobtrusive and lighthearted.
The third movement is essentially an intermezzo or introduction, which would be expected to lead directly to the final movement. Instead, extraordinarily, after a long pause in the dominant, he returns to a repetition of the main theme of the first movement; one of the most moving moments of all Beethoven music.
The final movement is strongly contrapuntal: even before we meet the fugue that is development, we are given a main theme that is highly contrapuntal in a rather Bachian and imitative way. The fugue in the development section is the kindest Beethoven has ever written (all the fugue episodes in the later Beethoven sonatas have very different characters, and this is definitely the nice guy from the family). It begins with a minimalist quote from the opening of the sonata and features a smooth and consistent humor. Formally, it is also worth noting that the fugue employs an inventive harmonic scheme where the first entry is in A Minor, the second in C Major (E Minor would be the "correct" key), and the third in D Minor.
The movement also features a low E so prominently because Beethoven had just acquired a new Broadwood piano with a low E that Viennese pianos didn't have and he was eager to show it off. The coda of the sonata also features the E bass that is repeated on the bass; as Schiff observes, Beethoven used the low E whenever he could, like a child with a new toy.
The political turbulence surrounding Beethoven and all of Vienna began to calm down. Napoleon suffered defeats at Leipzig (1813) and Waterloo (1815), and the Congress of Vienna (1814) brought a political settlement to Napoleon's aggression. Beethoven's brother, Casper Carl (b. 1774), died on November 15, 1815, after a prolonged period of illness, Ludwig contributing to medical costs and family support. In a last declaration Carl named Ludwig the custodian of his only son, Karl, but Johanna, the mother (1786–1868), contested Ludwig's right to assume this responsibility. The composer had opposed the union from the beginning, believing that Johanna is an unfit wife and mother. The legal battle that followed was costly for Beethoven financially and emotionally, but he eventually won custody of Charles in 1816.
The autograph for this work is dated November 1816 and is currently in the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn. It was originally published by Sigmund Anton Steiner in early 1817. This is the first work that the composer insisted on being designated for Hammerklavier, that is, for piano. The work is dedicated to Baroness Dorothea von Ertmann (née Graumann, 1781–1849), an excellent pianist who studied with the composer beginning in 1803. In 1824 she and her husband moved to Milan, Italy. Early claims that she was the recipient of the "Immortal Beloved" love letter found in Beethoven's belongings have been discounted.
This is the first of five final sonatas designated late. It features a short lyrical opening movement in sonata form, a march, and a transcendental slow interlude with a cadence that leads into a large movement in sonata form in which the developing section is a fugue with a theme. extracted from the first theme of the movement. The cyclical return of a fragment of the first movement paves the way for a technique that was often used later by composers such as Brahms, Scriabin, and Prokofiev.
The first theme of the first movement and the main theme of the fourth movement both open with phrases ending on the note B.
The first theme of the first movement jumps an octave to introduce its second phrase, then moves down the scale tone by tone. The second part of the fugue, theme of the fourth movement, presents a similar pattern, although in a different range.
The figure presented as the second idea in the first movement foretells the form of the opening theme of the fourth movement.
The exposition is very compact, with a practically continuous path in progression from section to section and an unusual persistence in avoiding resolutions to the initial tone or its dominant.
The opening sentence begins and ends in the dominant. The second sentence opens in the submediant and moves into the third sentence which resolves with a deceptive cadence.
A repeatition of the opening phrase ushers in a new harmony that stretches out, hovering over a secondary dominant in E major, but once again deceptively resolving to the submediant.
The fragment that serves as the second theme is repeated to resolve in the first inversion of the dominant in E major, finally reaching the root position in measure 25. The rest of the exposition clearly rests in E major, closing with soft syncopated cadences.
The twenty-two bar development is based on the opening phrase of the exposition and its length.
The opening sentence of the exposition is repeated. A fragment is built up and shortened once more, the process going through F♯ minor and B minor, stopping with a fermata in a key that functions as a half cadence in C♯ minor.
A fragment of the opening phrase in C♯ minor leads to its full statement in A minor before moving on to the recapitulation.
The opening theme as it appeared in bars 5 to 16, is now slightly compressed and transposed to relate to the tonic.
The second thematic area is reaffirmed with cadential resolutions in the tonic.
A diminished seventh gives way to a coda based on the second theme fragment, its length, and syncopated punctuation.
This march can be cited as a good example of a disjoint texture incorporating large jumps, often cited in features of Beethoven's later piano style. The vibrancy of the dotted rhythmic pattern is enhanced by the composer often substituting dots for 1/16th rests.
The frequent use of flats two and six of the scale lends a sardonic flavor to this section.
The second section is developmental, presenting a fragment of the opening theme in imitation between the right hand and left hand parts, opening in A major and moving rapidly through many keys including D minor, C major, E major and minor, G minor, F minor, and D♭ major. The composer's pedal markings extend from measures 31 to 35, mixing tonic and super tonic harmonies in D♭ major.
The return of the dominant of the starting pitch, introduced as a tremolo pedal point, and its persistence establishes F major as the target of the final cadence.
In B♭ major, the first 10 bars feature a canon, the left hand following the right hand. The autograph shows that this section should be repeated. The first edition omits the second repeat sign in the bar, thus raising questions as to the authenticity of repeating this segment. At bar 65 is a second section of the canon, introduced without signs of repetition, now the right hand following the left hand at bar 84 a new transition suggests the rhythmic energy of the march, and at bar 91 it introduces a segment of the march that leads to the da capo.
The German indication does not appear in the autograph, but it is in the first edition. The first edition also says the use of "a string", i.e. the soft pedal, indicated twice, once in German and once in Italian. The release of the pedal is shown at the end of the cadence, bar 20, as gradually adding strings, an effect possible on vintage pianos but not on today's piano. These indications suggest the sensitivity of this brief but deep slow movement.
Four bars in A minor are followed by four bars leading to and resolving in C major.
An ornamental figure introduced in measure 1 is used as the basis for free imitation between the right and left hands, opening in C major, passing through E minor, and evolving into a series of diminished sevenths.
Opening on the dominant of the opening key, never reaching a resolution but returning to a dominant chord, marked with a fermata followed by a cadence written with eighth and sixteenth notes of small notes and marked non presto.
The opening two phrases of the first movement are presented, a cyclical return that is recognized by the composer as Zeitmass des ersten Stükes ie in the tempo of the first movement. A fragment at the end of the second phrase is repeated and leads to a marked presto. A fast descending right hand scale and trills mark the beginning of the tempo of the final movement, and dominant chords, accompanied by a trill in the dominant, create tension for the start of the final movement.
The first section has two parts. He first introduces a theme with imitative phrases between the hands, opening with the right hand, then, at bar 41, with the left hand in front. A second section, still in A major, uses a fragment of the opening theme imitatively as accompaniment under a more lyrical line. It ends with six eighth note chords, possibly announcing a fugue element.
A transition develops with another imitative motif and modulates to E major, the dominant.
The second theme is a twist on the opening theme, first using four sixteenth notes imitatively, then expanding the motif with syncopated chords, each hand taking the material in turn. A cadential figure is derived from the first phrase of the opening theme, the four sixteenth notes followed by a downbeat of quarter notes which is now becoming four eighth notes followed by a quarter note, reminiscent of the eighth note chords that appeared at the end of the transition.
The second ending is prolonged with an ascending line. It ends with a change from A major to minor, assisted by a fermata, an abrupt dynamic change from pianissimo to fortissimo, and a key signature change.
As noted above, the development is a fugue for four voices.
The theme of the fugue is derived from the combination of a fragment of the exposition's opening theme with the eighth note figure that appears at the end of the transition, the closing section, and the final second extension. The countersubject is free retrograde inversion of the subject.
The input pitches of the four voices are A minor, C major, F major and A minor, a non-traditional sequence.
The series of eighth notes appears in stretto, a device that becomes increasingly important as the fugue develops. For example, in bars 209 to 213, the subject's head appears in stretto.
A dominant pedal point is entered in the lowest register of the keyboard. The indicated lowest note did not exist on some keyboards of the time, but the composer wrote against E on the score as an indication of his desire. The ascending dominant arpeggio that marks the beginning of the recapitulation can surely be considered one of the most effective dominant tonics in all of piano literature.
All the events of the exhibition are present.
A sixteenth note transition between the two A sections expands here into a challenging passage of double notes.
The coda opens with the second ending of the exposition as a model, but this time the surprise modulation is in D minor. The composer mocks the listener, since a new fugue seems imminent, but the announcement of the theme moves away from imitation and goes to F major. Transition material unfolds. The tempo slows, but a burst of ascending eighth-note chords marked on fort[issimo ends the movement brilliantly.