Program Note – Beethoven’s Opus 111

By no stretch of the imagination was Ludwig van Beethoven a stranger to suffering. It is suspected that during his lifetime Beethoven struggled with multiple health concerns, including kidney disease, liver disease, inflammatory bowel disease, alcoholism, heart arrhythmia, and Paget’s disease. Aside from his physical health, Beethoven spent many years wrapped up in a difficult legal battle for the custody of his late brother’s son, witnessed the Napoleonic occupation of Vienna, and spent countless years carrying an unrequited love for a mysteriously unnamed individual. To top it off, from the age of 26 Beethoven began to gradually lose his hearing, becoming fully deaf by the age of 45. Known to be an emotionally charged man, and an equally (if not more so) emotionally charged composer, it is not difficult to find examples of such darkness and desperation creeping into his writing—look no further than his iconic Moonlight piano sonata or his thunderous fifth symphony. Yet, as epic and exciting as this music is, Beethoven’s greatest accomplishments, perhaps, are pieces from his later years that explode with such unconfounded, vigorous joy, acceptance, and vitality that appear to reject the parameters encoded by his circumstances of adversity. This dichotomy of tribulation and joy in Beethoven’s life essentially lays the groundwork for his final piano sonata, Op. 111. 

The sonata is cast in two movements, as opposed to the prototypical three or four, and opens with a violent, guttural scream. The first movement is, without a doubt, defined by a terrifying sense of rage mediated by brief, passing moments of respite. Tension and agitation are not generated by virtuosic, chromatic passagework, but by passing instances of silence. These chilling moments of inaction seem to pose a problem—no matter the desperation of one’s efforts, the silence is a void that can never be filled. Notably, despite the inevitability and insurmountable terror suggested in this movement, the music never becomes complacent—at all times, it drives forward in search of a solution until it has nothing left to give. 

No words will ever seem to suffice for how Beethoven responds to the first movement with the Arietta. As a set of variations, it blooms gradually, generously and graciously unfolding its arms to welcome us into a warm, timeless embrace. Somehow able to avoid contradicting himself, Beethoven manages to write with such intimate sincerity that consequently reveals itself to be an unmitigated, playful absurdity. Moments of incredible richness and warmth are counterbalanced by extraordinarily delicate, vulnerable passagework. Considering its response to the first movement, one of the most astonishing features of the Arietta is one that most likely passes by unnoticed. Over the course of 20 minutes, the silences that plagued the first moment are entirely eradicated, however, they remain a central throughline to the Arietta’s narrative. Even at its most spare, one voice manages to hang on, giving everything it has. Arguably, the climax of the entire sonata is accomplished by a single trill, screaming out into the void—totally alone. For a piece of music that rides so closely to the line of silence, it is remarkable how it manages to avoid it—that is, of course, until it is time to join it. Despite a great deal of activity across the keyboard, the final variation manages to evaporate into thin air, escaping into outer space and slipping away into the heavens.

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