A pre-concert note on (one of) Beethoven’s most songful sonata(s), the no. 30, Op.109

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It has been said that, if Beethoven’s symphonies are his public pronouncements, his piano sonatas are his personal diary.  And the last three sonatas, of which the number 30 is the first, are the most intimate and private pages.

The sonata is notable for quite a few things:

  • The third and final movement is one of the great theme and variations ever written, equaling Bach’s Goldberg Variations in its profound scope and cyclical nature and constantly brings Bach’s counterpoints to mind: 
    • The Aria is marked “songful but with most intimate feeling”, with Variation 1 retaining the song-like character of the theme but is more an aria than a chorale, Variation 2 light and delicate, Variation 3 filled with vigorous runs throughout, Variation 4 with interweaving lines like a quartet, Variation 5 a vibrant and insistent fugato.
    • Variation 6 can be considered a variation on a variation: with the progression of the variation going from doublets through triplets to doublets in double time and finally reaching the semidemiquavers, which ushers in a final re-statement (or return) of the theme which now seems cast in a completely new light, after what has gone before.  The “search” is over and one finds one’s way back, finally. 
  • The first movement has a very short first subject (that is rather lyrical) and a second subject immediately following it that is a different style and in a different tempo (more emotional and intense). Czerny has said that “this interesting movement is more of a fantasia than a sonata”.
  • The second movement follows the first movement without a break.  

The piano sonata no 30 has much significance.  First, the composer Beethoven broke the bounds of the traditional sonata in more than one way; none of the movements are where one would expect them; the 3rd movement is also famously much longer than the other two movements combined.

It needs also be noted that by the time Beethoven reached numbers 30, 31 and 32 of his piano sonatas, he had turned the form that had been about an exploration of pianistic technique into a profound, deeply personal statement.  All 3 of these “late” sonatas seem to inhabit a world far away from the worldly, reflecting a composer’s journey deep inside to express something in Beethoven’s creative personality.

It is not known if this sonata was ever performed in Beethoven’s lifetime.  It is know, however, that Franz Liszt started performing it as early as 1830.

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