The opus 109 sonata partakes of the features I tried to describe of “the sublime” in my last post. It was Egon Petri’s recording that first introduced me to the sonata; its clarity of phrasing and structure were the work of a master teacher, profoundly illuminating and prompting me to try exploring the music at the piano (someday I hope to discuss a great Roland Barthes essay examining the logic and value of the amateur sight-reading of Beethoven’s sonatas). Its first theme always reminded me of the Scherzo of the last quartet – such a fleet yet contemplative theme, so full of potential nuances. I more fully heard those subtleties of “breathing,” of phrasing and emphasis, when I listened to Rudolf Serkin’s wonderful recording from the early sixties; I admired the performance’s sense of being in process, of hewing the phrases and tones from the music’s edifice. His is the opposite of an unfinished performance; rather it is that Serkin abjures any impression of surface smoothness and focuses on the larger formal arc or shape of a sequence or movement. Every small, intentional strangeness of emphasis or slight fracturing of rhythm in the initial statement of the opus 109 theme calls attention to the wondrous promise of the larger form, of the highest level of coherence and meaning.
In short, the listener is grateful for the signs of struggle and even estrangement here; they indicate the presence of meanings and emotions below the beautiful ordered surfaces of the music. This effect achieved in Serkin’s performances of the late Beethoven sonatas is related to what I tried to say about the sublime – that there is in late Beethoven a level of aesthetic experience that moves beyond the perception of conventional beauty to the experience of an open-ended baring the building materials of the music, where the unexpected rifts become openings for unexpected, undreamt-of expression, akin to the sight of the Matterhorn and in its own way stirring awe and inciting the imagination, uncapturable, evanescent, and transcendent.
After less than twenty seconds of the initial lyric melody, the grand gesture of a loud and sweeping broken chord occurs in the treble, a sort of step up Matterhorn: a startling block of sound followed lower in pitch by another stamped chord, and yet the fullest, stamped loudness never occurs, for the grandness immediately evanesces into gentle, resolving chords; then within seconds, the pattern is repeated, except that the resolving chords are now made to stretch toward a new harmony and a swift rhythm in thirty-second note triplet arpeggios which sweep down the keyboard – but again the soft gentling occurs, even in these fleet triplets. This pattern keeps pulsing until it gives way once more to the beautiful lyric melody of the sonata’s opening. In Serkin’s wonderful performance, all these sequences, whether stamped or softened or stretched, partake of the special improvised angularity which is a sign of the uncanny presence of the sublime.
The middle movement of opus 109 is a stormy scherzo, a very fast march, but like Mahler’s marches, it undercuts itself with off-beat emphases and strange syncopations and, most of all, through the continual triplet tread, so that three note units seem not to spring forward but to turn back in a sort of contrapuntal conversation with itself – this is most evident about twenty seconds into the movement at bars 16 and following. Similarly, the harmony remains ambiguous; for all the stridency of the initial e minor theme, the movement keeps refusing to offer a conclusive assertion of e minor closure. Even the final bars, wavering between the conclusive and the exploratory, play with modulations to the G major complement to the movement’s key of e minor, then C major, and then some insistence on the unstable dominant seventh chord before the final e minor chord.
But it’s the final movement of opus 109 that is a most impressive instance of Beethoven’s late style. It is in variation form, like the final movement of opus 111 and the world-encompassing Diabelli set, opus 120, and I’ll later offer some thoughts about the form itself. But first, there are some wonderful YouTube videos of a Daniel Barenboim master class for Jonathan Biss playing the opus 109 sonata, particularly its last movement (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OHgfuf-Nn-Q is the second in the relevant video sequence). Biss plays the theme with a beautiful sense of the structure of phrases, always alert to nuance and to the quieting approach to each cadence (there are some wonderful added details in Serkin’s similar performance of the theme, for example the B octaves struck to ring out the statement of the subsidiary theme after the double bar at bar 8). Then, with the first variation, Barenboim interrupts to call attention to the odd angularity and uniqueness of the sequence, so disconnected from the sixteen bars stating the theme. This oddity appears in the stretching of rhythm and phrase, in the ornamental double grace notes or thirty-second notes packed in before the emphatic initial beats of bars and in those beats themselves with their ringing tones, struck high above the previous range of pitches in the music. This variation’s taking apart of the theme, stretching it almost beyond recognition, is a first step in exposing and breaking apart the theme’s essential elements. (The fifth variation even recruits an antique fugue further to unfold the process.) This breaking down to essences and then reconstituting them in an improvisatory release of new music represents a process at the core of late Beethoven and is most evident in the final, sixth variation (beginning at bar 153).
Here in the sixth variation, the theme is reduced to its simplest common denominator, the most basic chords for two bars, and then the quarter notes are doubled, then multiplied by three, then by four, and then by eight. Finally, trills are introduced in the middle, then in the bass, and then in the high treble, as a sort of alert or alarm ringing out to accompany the continuing deconstruction of the original chords. And at the end all the trill and blur of thirty-second notes quiets down to give way to the moving simple restatement of the original theme, out of which an entire world of possibility had developed.
Variation form as Beethoven employed it in the last decade of his life differs from his use of it earlier. In the great c minor variations, opus 35, for example, there is an eloquent propulsiveness (and even a fugue there also) yielding breathtaking concluding cadences; even the tragic slow variations offer a tight dramatic structure. The purposeful momentum and focus on powerful drama give way to the new use of variations I’ve tried to describe in the previous paragraphs (and perhaps at a later point I’ll try to describe some of what the Diabelli set achieves). Of course, the fact that Beethoven continued to explore this form suggests the significance for him of the process of growth from an original germ of musical material; the organic germination process is at the core of his music, even as in the late period, it yields more and more open-ended deconstructions of exposed conventions, inspired explorations of abstract structures, and the improvisatory revivifying of dead or dying forms.