Top 5 Sonatas from the Classical Period: #2

#2: Beethoven – Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111

Beethoven’s last sonata is a legendary summary of his journey exploring sonata form. A C minor Allegro first movement. A C Major slow movement. Opposite poles, both carried to the extremes of Beethoven’s artistic development. The first movement seems at first to be a sequel to the Pathétique, with the same declamatory statements and slow dotted rhythms. But the movement proper is an energetic, involved stream of counterpoint, still following basic sonata-allegro form. The textures are more traditional than in the Grosse Fuge or in the fugue of the Hammerklavier sonata, but it’s still really exciting to hear it churn along, sweeping through moods both dark and heroic.

Then comes the Arietta (my pick for best variation-form slow movement ever). The sonata’s yin-yang of major and minor is compressed into the AB form of the theme. The variations that Beethoven spins from this simple, angelic theme are extraordinary, gradually subdividing the beats into greater and greater complexity so that we peer into the mysteries and secrets contained behind the simple frame. The first two variations, built around lilting triplets, give way to a joyful transformation that many listeners would describe as boogie-woogie. It only gets more advanced from there. The music throws off the shackles of repeat signs, and the “repeats” of the next variation feature totally different textures: a series of chordal cadences over rumbling pedal bass and then chromatic figurations way up high. The major section starts out feeling like a quiet prayer, and then we’re up above the clouds, with the theme barely recognizable under shimmering chromatic decorations. After this heavenly moment, the pull back to low register for the minor section is devastating. Fate seems close at hand. The high-register material swirls over almost four full measures of E’s in the left hand, achieving an effect of stasis, purgatory, numbness. But the existential dread is soon dispelled. The music regains confidence, leading up to a signature move of late Beethoven: trills. The trills ascend back up to the stratosphere, and then what follows is a slow build from reflective sadness to absolute joy, transcendence, and hope. A really spiritual musical journey. By the end, it doesn’t seem odd at all that the sonata only has two movements, or that it ends with a “slow” movement. The Arietta contains such a complete and satisfactory path to resolution that it feels like a finale.

Where to find it:

51480364 Henle edition

00296960 Schirmer Performance Edition

51480034 Beethoven: Piano Sonatas, Vol. II (Henle)

00296633 Beethoven: Piano Sonatas, Vol. II (Schirmer Performance Edition)


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