Fantasia in G minor, Op. 77

January 19, 2020: Paul Lewis, piano

Napoleon’s 1809 campaign for Vienna

Beethoven was miserable during the summer of 1809 owing to Napoleon’s invasion and occupation of Vienna. The composer wrote of this time:

We have passed through a great deal of misery. . . . Since May 4th, I have brought into the world little that is connected; only here and there a fragment. The whole course of events has affected me body and soul. . . . What a disturbing, wild life around me; nothing but drums, cannons, men, misery of all sorts.

The noise and confusion was especially hard to bear because the court and most of his friends had fled the city, communication was disrupted, and he was unable to spend his customary sojourn in the countryside where his creativity was always rejuvenated. Despite his mood and intermittent inability to write anything “connected,” he composed an impressive number of works during the invasion year: the Fifth Piano Concerto, the Harp Quartet, three piano sonatas (opp. 78, 79, and 81a), several lieder, and a number of miscellaneous pieces, among them the present Fantasia, op. 77.

Though Beethoven may have begun writing down the Fantasia during this trying time, he may have actually conceived it in December 1808 for the same concert on which he premiered his Choral Fantasy, which begins with a grand piano introduction in improvisatory style. The solo “Fantasia” that he extemporized on that concert might well have been some form of the present work. In any case, he completed the Fantasia in October, after the armistice was signed and presumably during or following a stay in Hungary with his good friends the Brunsviks—Count Franz, who received the dedication, and his sister Therese.

Billed in G minor, the remarkably free-ranging Fantasia touches on that key—never to return—with a cascading scale figure and somber chordal phrase. Repeating the gestures in an unrelated key, Beethoven moves on through a kaleidoscopic array of keys and thematic gestures, eventually settling sweetly in the distant key of B major. He then proposes a simple eight-measure theme in that key and treats it to seven variations before a broad coda reintroduces harmonic uncertainty—even a sweet variant of the theme in C major! The boisterous cascade and subdued chordal gesture of the opening return to settle his main B major key once and for all, to which he adds a comical sign-off.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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