Recorded on 07/01/2007, uploaded on 12/15/2011
Musician's or Publisher's Notes
The Piano Sonata No. 31 was composed in 1821. It is the middle sonata of a group of three that form Beethoven’s last compositions for the piano, with the exception of the Diabelli Variations. These last three sonatas were commissioned by the music publisher Schlesinger. Beethoven undertook the first sonata, op. 109, in 1820 and promised to deliver all three compositions within three months. The op. 109 was delivered that same year but the other two were delayed due to illness and other factors.
The first movement, though described as “Haydnesque” due to its orderly sonata form, replaces the usual dramatic, powerful opening movement with one filled instead with subdued contemplations. The movement is marked Moderato cantabile molto espressivo, a marking more customary for a slow movement than an opening sonata form. The key of this sonata is also A flat major. Beethoven, having received an air in the key of A flat marked amoroso, remarked that the key of A flat should be marked barbaresco and he accordingly changed the key signature. Despite this, some of Beethoven’s most famous music is in the key of A flat, such as the slow movements of both the Fifth Symphony and the Pathétique Sonata.
The middle movement, a scherzo in F minor, comes as a startling contrast to the first movement. In comparison, this scherzo seems rigid and terse compared to the lyricism of the first movement. Though seemingly simple on the surface, subtle syncopations and rhythmic ambiguities abound throughout the movement. It ends quietly in F major, preparing the way for the fugal finale.
The final movement represents another of Beethoven’s great explorations into the fugal form. In works like the Hammerklavier Sonata and the Grosse Fuge he combined the fugue with other traditional forms such as sonata and variation form. The concluding fugue of this sonata, on the other hand, is unique in its own way. The movement begins with a recitative which forms an effective bridge from the scherzo. This then leads into the arioso dolente, a lamentation in the parallel minor of the tonic key. After the arioso dies away, the three-voice fugue begins in the key of A flat major. The subject is constructed around a series of rising fourths and is foreshadowed in the opening of the first movement. The fugue comes to a halt on the dominant seventh of A flat major before slipping into the foreign key of G minor and a varied reprise of the arioso. The fugue resumes, however this time it is in inversion. The final fugue builds in intensity and brings the work to a triumphant close. Joseph DuBosecourtesy of the Steans Music Institute
The Steans Music Institute is the Ravinia Festival's professional studies program for young musicians.
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