BEETHOVEN'S PIANO SONATAS
SONATA N0. 18, OP. 31/3
ON ITS MUSICAL CONENT




In our look at the musical content of this sonata we follow the pattern indicated in our introductory comments on music criticism offered here.  This pattern offers you comments in the following sequence: 


 MUSCIOLOGISTS AND BEETHOVEN RESEARCHERS

ACTIVE MUSIC CRITICS

ACTIVE, PERFORMING ARTISTS


Each category can be directly accessed by clicking on the above links.  Therefore, if you prefer one kind of comment(s) over another, you can make your own selection. 


MUSCOLOGISTS AND BEETHOVEN RESEARCHERS

What does the Beethoven researcher William Kinderman have to say with respect to the musical content of this sonata?  

"Even more than the D minor Sonata, the opening of op. 31 no. 3 in E-flat major sounds like a continuation of music that had already begun.  Its initial 'call' figures have no stable harmonic support; Beethoven's characteristic device of rhythmic acceleration, together with asymmetrical phrasing and a fluctuation in tempo, all lend tension to the spacious opening theme.  The initial impression of holding back, of hesitation, stands as complementary to the irrepressible rhythmic energy characteristic of this sonata as a whole.  When the opening theme of this Allegro closes, it sets into operation a steady eighth-note motion; later, in the second theme, the figuration is rendered in still faster sixteenth-notes.  The comic atmosphere of these passages is heightened in the development, when a prominent motif derived from the main theme is reiterated with amusing insistence in the bass.

Particularly innovative is the following Allegretto vivace in A-flat major, labelled 'Scherzo' by Beethoven.  It is a typical scherzo neither in its metre (2/4) nor in its form, a sonata design without a trio.  The defining quality, of course, lies in its general character of humorous wit and rhythmic verve.  As in the first movement, a meaningful hesitation is built into the opening.  After the initial phrases, a hushed, unharmonized staccato continuation reaches C and then D-flat, before Beethoven reinterprets this pitch as part of the dominant seventh of A-flat major.  Later, after repetition of both the opening theme and the quiet deflection to C, Beethoven replaces the move to D-flat with jarring, almost explosive fortissimo chords, decisively carrying the music away from the tonic.  By contrast, the ensuing closing theme of the exposition is delicately transparent, staccato, and pianissimo.

The development unfolds around appearances of the main theme in new keys--F major and C major.  Beethoven extends the C major statement melodically to lead to D-flat, and in the following passage forges the climax of the whole scherzo.  D-flat is stressed in all the pitch registers, and the supporting diminished-seventh harmony is altered to a dominant seventh as Beethoven 'composes out' an enormous linear descent from the highest D-flat to the lowest A-flat marking the beginning of the recapitulation (Ex. 23).  But the D-flat, we recall, is not new:  Beethoven's curious dwelling on this pitch at the outset, and his brilliant stroke of placing the fortissimo eruption in the recapitulation on D-flat, can only be fully appreciated if the climax of the development has made its mark.  Here, as elsewhere, Beethoven's treatment of dissonant sonorities is discriminate but potent and far-reaching:  the tension of the climax on D-flat overflows, as it were, into a network of related passages.

The third movement, a minuet with trio, is the focus of lyricism in the sonata.  A darker, mysterious dimension surfaces through a persistent emphasis on C-flat, the lowered sixth degree in E-flat major.  In the second half of the minuet this sensitive pitch occurs twice, but in the middle of the trio it appears no fewer than seven times, as part of a diminished-ninth chord on the dominant.  For a few moments the music is frozen on this static dissonance, before the graceful melodic character is re-established.  In the coda Beethoven recalls these darker inflections, casting shadows over the pianissimo conclusion.

In the finale Beethoven recaptures with a vengeance the comic, grotesque, even parodistic tone of the opening movements of this sonata and of the G major Sonata.  There is something almost mechanical about the opening figuration, which sets in motion a tarantella rhythm that dominates the wide expanses of this sonata form.  Like the finale of the Tempest Sonata, this Presto con fuoco is practically a perpetuum mobile, but Beethoven takes special care to hold back the momentum in the last few bars: twice the music halts on fortissimo arpeggiated diminished-seventh chords, before he reinterprets the jocular opening motif as a series of rising sequences leading to the powerful full close" (Kinderman: 77-79).

From Solomon's comment, we were able to 'extract' the following:  

" .  .   . Bekker saw the  .   .   .   third as the beginning of a new virtuoso style which would later come to fruition in the Waldstein and Appassionata sonatas.  .  .  .  " (Solomon: 106).  

Also Cooper provides us with a brief comment:  

"In its overall structure and character the symphony [the 8th Symphony] follows the Piano Sonata, Op. 31, No. 3, but in the symphonic world it is quite unprecendented" (Cooper: 213).


ACTIVE MUSIC CRITICS

Joachim Kaiser has a great deal to say with respect to this sonata, of which we can only provide you with a look at his introduction:  

"Auf den ersten Blick ist dies ein Stück witziger, fast mutwilliger, brillanter Musik.  Staccato-spitz, souverän durchkalkuliert, einfallsreich.  Und insofern, wie Opus 31 insgesamt, offenbar auch ganz auf ein bestimmtes Stil- und Spiel-Ziel hin entworfen.

Der >>erste Blick<< trügt nicht.  Ein feurig-eleganter Reißer, ein hochgemutes Werk ohne jede schwache, leere, dünne Stelle bleibt Opus 31 Nr. 3 allemal, selbst wenn man allmählich daran zu zweifeln beginnt, ob wirklich die Zwischentöne, Betroffenheiten und Mysterien hier ganz fehlen, denen wir in Opus 31 Nr. 1 und 2 begegneten.

Die Sonate spielt mit dem Klavier und seinen Möglichkeiten.  Sie spielt darüber hinaus auch--erstes ausgeführtes >>neoklassizistisches<< Kunststück mitten in der Blütezeit klassischen Komponierens--mit Stil- und Form-Modellen:  mit Rokoko-Parlando, altväterischem Menuett, mit vermutlichen Voraussetzungen und Erfüllungen der Sonaten-Architektur.  Sie konnte darum sogar dahingehend gedeutet werden, als nähme Beethoven hier, teils lächelnd, teils überlegen auftrumpfend, ironisch-distanziert Abschied von Form- und Kompositionsmöglichkeiten, die er hinter sich lassen wollte.

Darf man darum in den vier Sätzen gar lauter perfekt geformte Masken erblicken:  Das Allegro überrascht mit einem vieldeutigen Beginn, mit einer Ablauffolge aus Parlando-Empfindsamkeit, virtuos ausführlichen Zwischenspielen, naiv melodischen Gebilden und pointiertem Verharren, Erstarren.  Auch Scherzo und Menuett konfrontieren mit seltsamem Nebeneinander aus vorbehaltlos Melodiösem und fahlem Stillstand.  Das Finale freilich ist über alle Stil-Spielereien hinaus, eine Presto-Ballade mit Jagdhorn-Stößen und donnernden Unisono-Kraftstellen" (Kaiser: 325; --

-- At first sight, writes Kaiser, this is a piece of witty, almost deliberate, brilliant music, staccato-style pointed, sovereignly calculated, full of inventive ideas and that it, insofar, as Op. 31 overall, obviously was designed towards a specific goal.   

The >>first sight<<, continues Kaiser, does not betray us.  He then calls this sonata a fiery, elegant, spirited work without any weak, empty or thin spaces, even if one were to begin to doubt that any undertones, concerns or mysteries are entirely lacking that we have met in Op. 31 No. 1 and No. 2.  

The sonata, writes Kaiser, plays with the piano and with its possibilities.  And beyond that, as the first fully developed >>neo-classicicistic<< work--at the zenith of the period of classical composition--it plays with models of style and form:  with Roccoco-Parlando, with the old-fashioned minuet,  and with pre-supposed prerequisites and fulfillments of sonata architecture.  It could even, continues Kaiser, be interpreted in such a way as if Beethoven, here, partly smiling, partly playing on his superiority, is saying farewell to possibilities of compositional forms that he wanted to leave behind, in an ironic, distanced, manner.  

May one, asks Kaiser then, see in these four movement only perfectly formed masks, as the Allegro suprises us with an ambiguous beginning, with a sequence of parlando sensitivity, virtuosic, lengthy interludes, naive, melodic forms and poignant stiffness.  As Kaiser writes, also the Scherzo and the Menuet confront us with a peculiar mixture of unpretentious melodiousness and pale stillness, while the finale, on the other hand, moves beyond all stylistic effects and forms a Presto ballad with hunting sounds and thundering unisono passages).


ACTIVE, PERFORMING ARTISTS

Due to the nature of this work, Anton Kuerti's discussion certainly does not bring us any closer to the so-called "solemn" Beethoven:  

Kuerti writes that the reaction to an art work can be very much influenced by the expectations with which one approaches it, and that, perhaps, Op. 31 No. 3 might remain a mystery to us until we discover that in this work we can hardly find one serious moment.  If we consider, continues Kuerti, that Beethoven is trying to fool us here, we can really enjoy this work and do not waste any time in looking for some profound beauty in it.   

In Kuerti's opinion, the fact that this work does not contain one slow movement and that the slowest movement is a minuet is a good hint that we are not dealing with a 'serious' work, here, and it is also noteworthy that this sonata contains a Minuet and a Scherzo but no slow movement, at all. 

Allegro

Kuerti points out that we should not misunderstand the introductory mood of this movement.  The introductory movement is not a sigh, as is sometimes maintained, but rather a tongue-in-cheek tickle, and that even doubly tongue-in-cheek when we consider with what 'ridiculous', strange chord it begins.  The following bars should be understood as mockery, as, otherwise, it would be unbearably pompous and stiff to make such a fuss in order to reach a simple 6/4 tonic chord.  This interpretation, states Kuerti, is confirmed when Beethoven, laughingly, continues in a frivolous manner, and this is brought to a conclusion when the "introductory tickle" is repeated and when he adss a naughty little note at the end.  

The second subject, writes Kuerti, pretends to begin in a lyrical fashion, but deceiving appearances are immediately dispelled when the mood becomes playful, and the isolated pairs of notes "twitch" us cheerfully.  The great, right-hand solo suddenly hurried quite unusually, but then continues in a jovial manner. .  .

Kuerti then points out Beethoven's skills with which he leads us to the recapitulation:  instead of preparing us in the usual manner, with a dominant chord, he joyfully marches into the opening harmony, and before we know it, we have arrived "at home".  

Scherzo: Allegretto vivace

Where we expect a slow movement, states Kuerti, Beethoven offers us a Scherzo.  Then he surprises us with the fact that it is not like any other classical Scherzo, since it is not written in ABA form, as usual for such brief interludes, but in sonata form.   .  .  .  

Kuerti describes this Scherzo as a bubbly intermezzo whose ostinato accompaniment halts only a few times, as if it was fearfully hiding from something; and the "terrible" then arrives in Form of a playful, yet strong kick into the read end and send the music back into its initial confusion, with Kuerti describes as a thoroughly good-natured movement, full of puns, witty pauses and sudden fortissimo chords, and a few spicy harmonies and a certain "homely" mood remind Kuerti even of Berlioz.  

Menuetto: Moderato e grazioso

Kuerti describes the minuet as the most serious movement of this sonata, with its old-fashioned, grandmotherly formality, set in the midst of the fresh humor of the rest of the sonata.  Even here, the Trio shows a hint of persiflage when it, with its grotesque jumps of ninth, pretends to be graceful.  Kuerti further reports that Saint-Saens was so enthused with this Trio that he 'borrowed' it for his Variations for Two Pianos.  

Presto con fuoco

The minuet, concludes Kuerti, is followed by a loud dance, full of tricks, beginning with an introduction that does not even sound like an introduction but rather like a finale.  After two such attempts at a "finale" have ended, the movement explodes and can hardly contain itself before its brilliant ending.  D (Kuerti: 35-36).

 

Here, we offer you a chance to listen to a midi file of this sonata, via the following link: 

Kunst der Fuge: Beethoven-Sonatas

We wish you a great deal of listening enjoyment!

For those of you who want to explore this topic further in a serious manner, we can offer you a link to the Beethoven Bibliography Data Base of the Ira Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies in San Jose, California:


Opus 31/3 - Search