Classical Music | Piano Music

Ludwig van Beethoven

Sonata No. 32 in c minor, Op. 111  Play

Evan Wong Piano

Recorded on 07/11/2014, uploaded on 08/06/2014

Musician's or Publisher's Notes

The Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, besides being the last sonata, is also one of Beethoven’s final compositions for the piano. It was conceived in 1820 along with the two sonatas preceding it (op. 109 and 110), while Beethoven was working on the Missa Solemnis. The first movement’s theme, however, actually makes an appearance in a sketchbook dating from 1801-02 and it appears that Beethoven originally planned a sonata in the traditional three movements. As work on the slow movement progressed, the idea of a third movement was gradually abandoned. When Anton Schindler questioned Beethoven about the sonata only having two movements, Beethoven replied, “I didn’t have the time to write a third movement.” More than likely, this was Beethoven’s humorous manner of explaining that the sonata was perfect as is. While this two movement form is unusual for a Classical sonata, it is not unique in Beethoven’s output (i.e., the Piano Sonata No. 24 is also in two movements).

The first movement begins with an impassioned cry on a diminished seventh chord. In the first several bars, the music moves through the keys of C minor, F minor and A-flat major mimicking, not so much in specific keys and certainly on a more advanced level, the tonal ambiguity of the opening bars of the First Symphony that caused such an uproar among critics. The key of C minor is ultimately regained and an elaborated dominant pedal leads the music into the Allegro ed appassionata. The music that follows is another instance of Beethoven’s explorations into intermixing elements of fugue into other Classical forms—in this case, sonata form. The first “theme” breaks upon the listener fortissimo and doubled in octaves in the low register of the piano. It immediately makes the impression of a fugue subject, possessing all the proper characteristics, and even recalls slightly the image of Bach. However, no answer, strictly speaking is given. Instead, an obsessive reiteration of the subject’s head motif (and a subtle variation) begins which will ultimately run the course of the movement. A brief passage in A-flat major hints at the possibility of a sonata form’s second theme, yet it is overtaken by the fugue-like first theme almost as soon as it begins. The following development makes exclusive use of the fugue-like theme. After an initial sequential passage in octaves follows intricate contrapuntal passages highly characteristic of Beethoven’s late period. The music returns back to the tonic key of C minor, varied from the opening of the Allegro, blending almost imperceptibly into the development. The quasi-second theme returns in the key of C major, fulfilling the requirements of sonata form, but is hardly given any further consideration than it received earlier. The coda continues with its obsession of the fugal head motif. However, the movement concludes with an unexpected turn to C major and quiet lyrical tune over rolling arpeggios in the bass.

The second and final movement, like finale of the op. 109 piano sonata, is an expansive set of variations in a slow tempo. Designated as an “arietta,” the movement begins with a lyrical theme in C major. The first three variations present an increasing challenge to the performer as Beethoven has marked the tempo to remain the same, but in each variation the rhythmic subdivision of the beat gets smaller. Modern performance practice results in a very slow tempo for the theme to accommodate for the increasing rhythmic activity. Following the third variation, the structure of the theme is not as strictly adhered to as before. The fourth variation departs from the galloping triplet rhythms of the first three variations and adopts a tremolo-like figure embellished with syncopated chords and brilliant figurations in the right hand. The constant tremolos and arpeggios continue driving the movement forward through a kind of interlude before the theme makes its return in an ornate coda. The sonata then evaporates in descending scales and finally, the descending leaps, countered by an ascending dominant to tonic progression, found at the opening of the theme.       Joseph DuBose

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