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Sonata No. 30 in E, Op. 109

March, 10 2024: Richard Goode, piano

In 1826, the last year of his life, Beethoven told his friend Karl Holz that he would write no more piano pieces. He made the statement during a discussion of his last three piano sonatas—opp. 109, 110, and 111—which he considered the best piano sonatas he had written. “It [the piano] is and remains,” he said, “an inadequate instrument. In the future I shall write, in the manner of my grandmaster Handel, one oratorio and one concerto for any string or wind instrument per year, provided that I have finished my Tenth Symphony (C minor) and my Requiem.”

Commentators still argue over whether Beethoven felt limited by the physical qualities of the piano of his day or whether he needed more moving parts/voices than pieces for piano alone could accommodate, but these last three sonatas certainly show no waning of interest in the creative possibilities of form within the sonata genre. Written between 1820 and 1822 while Beethoven was working on the Missa solemnis and Ninth Symphony, these late sonatas return to exploring the fluid forms and balances among movements that had characterized his piano sonatas of 1814–16—opp. 90, 102 (Nos. 1 and 2), and 101. In the interim years, the Hammerklavier Sonata, op. 106, a revolutionary work in many other ways, had reverted to a traditional four-movement pattern.

Beethoven completed the present E major Sonata mainly in the summer of 1820. He dedicated the work to Maximiliane Brentano, the daughter of Antoinie (whom many believe to be the intended recipient of the famous “Immortal Beloved” letter) and Franz Brentano, Beethoven’s frequent benefactor and financial provider for the publication of the Missa solemnis. There is no evidence that Maximilane ever played the Sonata or was even capable of handling its challenges, but along with the dedication copy Beethoven included a sweet personal letter full of appreciation for her and her parents, saying, “While I am thinking of the excellent qualities of your parents, there are no doubts in my mind that you have been striving to emulate these noble people and are progressing daily—my memories of a noble family can never fade, may your memories of me be frequent and good.”

Given the astounding form of the E major Sonata—two unusual and brief sonata-form movements capped by an expansive slow variation movement—several salient details bear noting. The sonata-form of the first movement is unprecedented in both the surprising brevity of its carefree main theme and the shocking interruption by the dramatic, slow recitative-like second theme. Further, Beethoven’s lively development section never varies the arpeggiated, alternating hands texture from the short opening theme; instead the process of development comes from harmonic manipulations.

The fierce Prestissimo erupts from the subdued close of the previous movement. Even faster than Presto, the movement serves the purpose of a scherzo but with the more serious framework of a concentrated sonata form. The regular four- and eight-bar phrase lengths contrast with the previous movement’s metric ambiguities. Beethoven not only shows his academic prowess by invoking double counterpoint but uses it for the novel purpose of showing off the piano’s registral range.

The hauntingly beautiful variation set that concludes the E major Sonata aptly shows Beethoven concentrating the weight of these late sonatas toward the end. Following the theme, marked “Gesangvoll, mit innigster Empfindung” (Songful, with innermost feeling), the first two variations add harmonic interest, whereas the third, fourth, and fifth variations feature various contrapuntal techniques. The fourth variation, in particular, presents an exquisite study in the timing of certain sounds decaying while others are held. The sixth variation returns, seemingly to the simplicity of the theme, but the added insistent repeated notes suggest a grander purpose here as Beethoven intricately builds up his layers of ornamental sonorities.

—©Jane Vial Jaffe

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