BEETHOVEN'S PIANO SONATA N0. 27, OP. 90
CREATION HISTORY AND DISCUSSION OF MUSICAL CONTENT






Beethoven 1814



INTRODUCTION

"For four years Beethoven wrote no sonatas, symphonies or string quartets.  These were years of fermenting change for the composer, by now completely deaf, during which he turned ever more in on himself, incubating the creative energy for the stunning achievements till to come" (Kuerti:  57).

Better than by this Kuerti comment, we can hardly be prepared for Beethoven's renewed compositional activity.  If we consider that the last sonata, Op. 81 a, was completed by the end of 1809 and presented to the Archduke upon his return to Vienna, on January 30, 1810, then, according to Kuerti's calculation, we arrive at the possibility that in the year 1814, we will again be confronted by Beethoven's compositions in the piano sonata genre or in other mentioned genres.  In our upcoming creation, publication and dedication history, let us try to gather all relevant facts and present a chronologically ordered report.  In doing so, we should, first, take a look at Beethoven's life circumstances of this year.  

 

ON ITS CREATION AND PUBLICATION 

In this year, these circumstances saw him on top of a new wave of success with his revision and successful staging of his opera "Fidelio", but also with repeated stagings of his occasional work, the "Battle Symphony".  As is known, Beethoven invested the financial gain derived therefrom, in seven bank shares that he subsequently wanted to leave behind for his nephew Carl.  What, however, provided the outer occasion for the composition of the 27th Piano Sonata?  

Although we usually do not like to move ahead of ourselves by delving into the publication history of a work before we have completed its creation history, it appears that the publication history of this sonata also offers us particulars with respect to the outer occasion for its composition, so that we might briefly discuss them here.  Thayer (p. 616) points out that in the year 1813 (when his brother Caspar Karl suffered from tuberculosis) he arranged for a loan for him through the Viennese publisher Steiner; a provision of the agreement was that, if it should fall upon Beethoven to pay this loan back [in the year 1814], he could do so by granting Steiner the rights of a new sonata that had not been published, yet.  

The remainder of the details of this publication history, however, should be held back until its turn arrives in this page, while we should continue our search for traces of the creation of this work.   

With respect to this, Thayer (p. 574), reports that sketches to the first movement of the sonata can be found in the so-called Dessau sketchbook (as Thayer-Forbes reports in its 1964 edition, this sketch book was at that time [1964] in the possession of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna) and after two finales to Fidelio, to Florestan's aria, the melodram of the opera and drafts for the farewell song for Tuscher,  "Die Stunde schlägt", WoO 102, and Thayer further reports that it was Nottebohm who came across the sketches for the song and the sonata.   

Unfortunately, no further particulars with respect to sketches or manuscripts of this sonata are at our disposal.  Thayer (p. 591) points out that this sonata bears the 16th of August 1814 as its completion date, and it is also listed by Thayer as having been completed in that year (p. 604). 

With respect to the dedication of this Sonata, through Thayer's remark (p. 591) we came across Beethoven's letter to Count Mortiz Lichnowsky of September 21, 1814:  



Count Mortiz Lichnowsky

                                      "Baden, am 21ten September 1814

Werther verehrter Graf und Freund!

   ich erhalte leider erst gestern ihren Brief [1] --  Herzlichen Dank für Ihr Andenken an mich ebenso alles schöne der verehrungswürdigen Fürstin Christiane [2] -- ich machte gestern mit einem Freunde einen schönen spaziergang in die Brühl [3] und unter Freundschaftlichen Gesprächen <kommen>kamen sie auch besonders vor, und siehe da gestern Abend bey meiner Ankunft finde ich ihren lieben Brief -- ich sehe daß Sie mich immer mit Gefälligkeiten überhäufen,  da ich nicht möchte, daß sie glauben sollten, daß <einen> ein schritt, den ich gemacht, durch ein neues Interesse oder überhaupt etwas d.g. hervorgebracht worden sey, sage ich ihnen, daß bald eine Sonate von mir erscheinen wird, die ich ihnen gewidmet, [4] ich wollte Sie überraschen, <allein> denn längst war diese Dedikation ihnen bestimmt, aber Ihr gestriger Brief macht mich es ihnen jetzt entdecken, <liegt> keines neuen Anlaßes brauchte es, um ihnen meine Gefühle für Ihre Freundschaft und Wohlwollen öffentlich darzulegen -- aber mit irgend nur etwas, was einem Geschenke ähnlich sieht, würden sie mir weh verursachen, da sie alsdenn meine Absicht gänzlich mißkennen würden und alles d. g. kann ich nicht anders als ausschlagen -- ich küsse der Fürstin die Hände für ihr Andenken und wohlwollen für mich, nie habe ich vergessen, was ich Ihnen überhaupt allen schuldig bin, wenn auch ein unglückseliges Ereigniß verhältnisse hervorbrachte, wo ich es nicht so, wie ich wünschte, zeigen konnte [5] -- was sie mir wegen

   was sie mir von Lord Castleregt sagen, so finde ich die sache auf's beste eingeleitet, sollte ich eine meynung hierin haben, so glaube ich, daß es am Besten seyn würde, daß Lord Castleregt nicht eher schrieb wegen dem werk auf Wellington, als bis der Lord es hier gehört [6] -- ich komme bald in die stadt, [7] wo wir alles überlegen wollen wegen einer großen Akademie  [8] -- mit dem Hof ist nichts anzufangen, ich habe mich angetragen --  allein --

  (Notenbeispiel) al - lein al - lein al -lein 

Jedoch Silentium!!!  leben Sie recht wohl, mein verehrter Freund und halten Sie mich immer ihres wohlwollens werth  -- 

                                                                                      ihr Beethoven

tausend Hände Küsse der verehrten fürstin C."

                                        (Baden, on the 21st of September 1814

Worthy, revered Count and Friend! 

   unfortunately, only now I receiv your letter [1] -- Sincere thanks for your memory of me and also everything beautiful to the venerable Princess Christiane [2] -- yesterday, I went for a beautiful walk in the Brühl [3] with some friends and in our friendly conversation you <appear> also appeared in particular, and behold, when I arrived home I found your dear letter -- I see that you always shower me with favors, since I do not want that you should believe that a step that I have taken had been caused by a new interest or anything of that sort, I tell you that soon, a sonata of mine will be published, that I have dedicated to you, [4]  I wanted to surprises you, <alone> since this dedication had been reserved for you for a long time, but your letter of yesterday makes me reveal it to you now, <lies> it did not require for a new occasion to publicly demonstrate my feelings for your friendship and well-meaning -- however, with anything that looks like a present, you would cause me hurt, since in that case, you would misconstrue my intentions completely and all of this sort, I can only decline -- I kiss the hands of the Princess, for her memory of and well-meaning towards me, never have I forgotten what I owe all of you, even if an unfortunate event brought forth circumstances in which I could not show it as I wanted [5]  -- what you tell me of

   what you tell me of Lord Castleregt, I find this matter spendlidly arranged, should I have an opinion with respect to it, then I believe that it would be best if Lord Castleregt would not write sooner with respect to Wellington until he has heard it here [6] -- I shall come to the city, soon, [7] where we can think about everything with respect to a great  Academy  [8] -- with the Court, nothing can be arranged, I have offered myself -- alone -- 

 (Note sample) a - lone a - lone a -lone 

However, Silentium!!!  farewell, my revered friend, and always keep me worthy of your well-meaning -- 

                                                                                 your Beethoven

a thousand hand-kisses to the venerable Princess C.)

[Quoted and translated from: Ludwig van Beethoven Briefwechsel Gesamtausgabe, Volume 3, Letter no. 740, p. 56 - 59]

[Original:  in private hands, in Germany; to [1]: has not been preserved; to [2]: refers to Princess Christiane v. Lichnowsky; to [3]: refers to a forest valley near Mödling, to [4]: refers to the Piano Sonata, Op. 90; to [5]: refers to his falling-out with Prince Lichnowsky, in the year 1806; to [6]: refers to Viscount Henry Robert Stewart Castlereagh who came to the Congress of Vienna as British representative, in September, 1814; to [7]:  refers to this sentence having been written above an illegible version of it; to [8] refers to Letter no. 733 to Treitschke; details taken from p. 58-59].

 

When we now recall the terms of Beethoven's agreement with the Viennese publisher Steiner, the rest of Thayer's report on this matter [that we had postponed until now] makes appropriate sense to us:  

". . . Thus it would seem that this formed the beginning of their relationship in a business way, since beginning with Op. 90, Steiner published a substantial number of Beethoven's works . . . " (Thayer: 616).

Thayer lists Op. 90 as  having been published by Steiner in 1815 and as having been dedicated to Count Moritz Lichnowsky (p. 631).  

 



Op. 90 - Title Page



Thayer further reports on a possible public performance of this sonata during Beethoven's lifetime:  

"Linke's concert took place on the 18th of February [1816] in the hall of "Zum Römischen Kaiser," the programme, except a Rondoletto for the Violoncello by Romberg, being also entirely Beethoven, Stainer von Felsburg played "a new Pianoforte Sonata," (14 Lpz. AMZ op.cit.: "A new pianoforte sonata by this master, heard here for the first time, surprises all of his numerous admirers.  Which sonata was played is unclear; Schindler (Biogr., 1, pp. 240-41) identifies it specifically as Op. 101, but the date on the autograph of this sonata is November, 1816.  In his correspondence Beethoven mentioned it for the first time in a letter to Härtel dated July 19, 1816 (A 542).  Frimmel (FRBH, n, pp. 232-43) believes that the sonata played was Op. 90 (Cf. TDR, III, 480 and 586)" (Thayer: 641).

This information with respect to a possible performance of this work during Beethoven's lifetime is the last detail that we can provide with respect to its creation, publication and performance, while it leads us to the next part of this section, our discussion of its musical content.  

 

ON ITS MUSICAL CONTENT

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: 


 MUSICOLOGISTS 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. 


MUSICOLOGISTS AND BEETHOVEN RESEARCHERS

 

Here, we turn again to William Kinderman and Barry Cooper:   

"The first movement of the E minor Sonata op. 90 tends to elide the formal divisions between the exposition and development and between the development and recapitulation.  As in the next sonata, op. 101 (as well as in opp. 57 and 100), the exposition is not repeated.  The development begins quietly, in bar 82, on the pitch B, drawn from the preceding dominant chords that close the exposition, and it is based almost entirely on the first theme, though the accompaniment in repeated notes and chords is drawn from the second group.  The entire second half of the development (bars 113 ff.) employs a different accompanimental texture outlining broken chords in the right hand, while a figure drawn from the opening theme is intensified with sforzandi in the left hand.

Especially fascinating is how the musical content of bar 130--where Beethoven changes the key signature to one sharp, indicating E minor--is treated in the ensuing canonic passage to allow the recapitulation to emerge.  This bar already contains the essence of the recapitulation in its second and third beats, in particular in the descent of the third G-E in the high register.  After three repetitions (bar 131) this figure is isolated and stressed dynamically in the next bar, with an imitation an octave lower,  Then a series of canonic mutations elongates the figure in three successive rhythmic augmentations, and its relationship with the principal theme gradually becomes clear.  The close stretto at the unison (bars 138-41) stresses the pitch level of the imminent recapitulation; in performance, these bars are difficult to bring out effectively, on account of their dense texture, as the motif continues to turn onto itself.  Finally, the stretto expands across other registers and yields to the recapitulation (bar 144). As in the first movement of the Fourth Symphony, there is no cadence; harmonically, this entire static passage has remained on the tonic.  The rapid sixteenth-note figuration of the development . . . has proven against all expectations to belong to the head of the principal theme.  Instead of defining a single structural moment, the recapitulation represents a process that extends over the 18 bars that precede the literal point of recapitulation.  As in the first movements of two of the last quartets, opp. 130 and 132, the tonal and thematic recapitulations do not coincide.

The second and final movement, in E major, is the most Schubertian movement in Beethoven, a luxurious rondo dominated by many, almost unvaried, appearances of a spacious cantabile theme.  This is the last big lyrical rondo finale in the Beethoven sonatas, the successor to the closing movements in op. 2 no. 2, op. 7, op. 22, op. 31 no. 1, and the Waldstein.  In this rondo, and in the A major Sonata op. 101, Beethoven comes closest to the emerging Romatic style, yet there are elements here that point unmistakably towards the unique synthesis embodied in many compositions of his last decade.  The op. 90 Sonata is a reminder that even during the Congress of Vienna period Beethoven's basic compositional integrity remained intact and continued to grow, work by work, as he forged the elements of a new style" (Kinderman: 180-182).

"During the summer Beethoven also wrote a new piano sonata in E minor (Op. 90). It was his first for five years, and the genre seems to have held less attraction for him than it had done a decade earlier.  Although the work exhibits no startling novelties, it offers a new solution for a two-movement structure: an energetic first movement and a more lyrical finale--approximately the reverse of the pattern in Op. 78.  The contrast is heightened by a change from E minor to E major, and the overall approach is more Romantic than in earlier sonatas.  Both movements are headed by a lengthy instruction in German instead of the customary Italian tempo mark (Beethoven was to show a marked preference for German terminology from now on), and the instructions indicate expression rather than just tempo: the first movement calls for 'feeling and expression throughout' and the second for a very cantabile touch.  This second movement displays an unhurried, song-like quality that is more characteristic of Schubert than Beethoven.  Another feature placing this sonata closer to Schubert and the early Romantics than to typical late Beethoven is its almost complete lack of counterpoint.  Nearly all the thematic material in both movements is in the right hand; where the left does temporarily take over in the first movement (bars 113-29), the texture is a tenor melody with figuration for the right hand.  A similar texture appears briefly in the finale (bars 229-33 and 237-45), one of a number of subtle relationships between the two movements.  Others include the emphasis on the third of the scale in the main themes, resulting in direct contrast between the G of the first movement and the G# of the second; the use of C major as the tonal goal (the passage of tonal stability furthest from the tonic) in both movements; and self-contained opening sections leading to firm perfect cadences (bars 23 and 32 respectively)--such closure is common in a sonata-rondo finale, but rare in a sonata-form first movement.  The autograph score is dated 16 August 1814" (Cooper: 232).

 

ACTIVE MUSIC CRITICS

Let us again look at what Joachim Kaiser has to say: 

"Nicht als spannungsvoller Strukturzusammenhang, als Entwicklung von Motiven und Kontrasten prägt sich diese zweisätzige Sonate ein, sondern man erinnert sich an ein melodie-erfülltes Klangwunder:  Erregt und elegisch der erste Satz, kantabel und schubertisch wiederholungsselig der letzte.  Beethoven hat im Kopfsatz die Sprache des e-Moll so kunstvoll und konventionsfern subjektiviert, daß der spezifische >>Ton<< hier alle enthusiastisch exaltierten Einzelheiten, alle rhythmischen Verzahnungen und phantastischen Hochflächen zu >>über<<-tönen, in sich zu verschließen, schwärmerisch empfindungs- und ausdrucksvoll zu entschärfen scheint.  Ein Hörer, der nicht in die Noten blickt, dürfte schwerlich darauf kommen, daß momentweise Fortissimo-Akkordballungen vorgeschrieben sind, wie selbst die Hammerklaviersonate sie kaum schroffer fordert.

Solange nicht Beethovens patriotische Gefühle, sondern seine Sonaten zur Diskussion stehen, geht die Feststellung, Beethoven habe den beiden Sätzen von Opus 90 ausschließlich deutsche (und keine italienischen) Vortragsbezeichnungen vorangestellt, wenig her.  Um so sorgfältiger wollen die deutschen Anweisungen erwogen sein.  Sie deuten beide Male auf Gegensätze hin:  >>Mit Lebhaftigkeit und durchaus mit Empfindung...<<, oder >>Nicht zu geschwind und sehr singbar...<<.  Das sind weder pauschale noch eindeutig extreme Anweisungen.  Sondern genau abgewogene Worte, die sich auf eine ebenso genau komponierte Musiksprache beziehen.

Der Kopfsatz meditiert zunächst über verschiedene Formen des Auftaktes.  Aus dem Gegensatz von gestochen kurzen Forte-Auftakten, langsam gebundenen Piano-Auftakten und im pianissimo erscheinenden auftaktigen unisono-Oktaven ensteht über motivische Entwicklungen, Pausen und Fermaten hinweg ein natürliches und lebensvolles Geflecht bewegter Beziehungen.  Der zweite (letzte) Satz kehrt nostalgisch oft zu seinem singenden Rondo-Thema zurück, das bei jedem Erscheinen zuerst >>dolce<<, dann >>teneramente<< (zärtlich) vorgetragen werden soll.  Wie es bei der Darstellung des ersten Satzes darauf ankommt, die kleinen und großen Kontraste zu selbstverständlichen Folgen eines sinnfälligen Verlaufs zu machen, so bedarf der Schlußsatz einer liebevoll aufmerksamen Darbietung jener unauffälligen Artikulationsvarianten, die Beethoven diskret und anti-symmetrisch hinzufügte" (Kaiser: 462-463; --

-- Kaiser writes that this two-movement sonata does not enter our memory in form of a suspenseful structural context or in form of the development of motifs and contrasts, but rather in form of a melody-filled miracle of sound:  Agitated and elegiac the first movement, cantabile and Schubertian-talkative the second movement.   In the first movement, continues Kaiser, Beethoven has subjectivized the e-minor language so artfully and far-removed from convention that the specific >>tone<< appears to  drown out, enclose within itself and expressively disarm all rhythmic interrelationshps and fantastic heights.  A listener, continues Kaiser, who does not look at the notes would hardly realize that, in stages, fortissimo chord agglomerations are called for as even the Hammerklavier Sonata demands them any harsher.  

As long, continues Kaiser, as Beethoven's patriotic feelings are not the point of discussion but rather his sonatas, the realization that for the two movements of this sonata, Beethoven has exclusively used German performance indications and not Italian ones, does not matter a great deal.  However, these indications should be looked at with great care, nevertheless.  In both instances, they point at contrasts, >>Mit Lebhaftigkeit und durchaus mit Empfindung...<< (lively and entirely with feeling), or >>Nicht zu geschwind und sehr singbar...<< (not too fast and very singable).  Kaiser describes these as neither across-the-board nor as explicitly extreme indications, but rather as carefully weighed words that relate to an as precisely composed musical language.  

The first movement, continues Kaiser, intitially meditates on various forms of the introduction, and out of the contrast of piercingly short forte up-beats, slowly bound piano up-beats in and unisono octaves that appear in the pianissimo, across motivic developments, pauses and fermatas, there arises a natural web of lively connections. The second and last movement, writes Kaiser, often nostalgically returns  to its singing rondo theme that, at each appearance, should forst be played >>dolce<<, then >>teneramente<< (tenderly).  As much as in the performance of the first movement, the small and big contrasts have to be made part of matter-of-course sequences of a single, understandable process, the performance of the second movement requires a lovingly alert rendition of those unobtrusive variants of articulaation that Beethoven had added discreetly and anti-symmetrically.)   


ACTIVE, PERFORMING ARTISTS

The active pianist Anton Kuerti provides us with the following overview of this sonata: 

Maitre Kuerti's introduction to his description of this sonata also, in quoting him, became 'our' introduction.  Let us repeat it here:  

"For four years Beethoven wrote no sonatas, symphonies or string quartets.  These were years of fermenting change for the composer, by now completely deaf, during which he turned ever more in on himself, incubating the creative energy for the stunning achievements till to come."

Not only chronologically, but also from its style, Kuerti considers this sonata to be more closely related to Beethoven's later sonatas than to its predecessors.   In the event, continues Kuerti, that this has not yet been recognized, this may be due to the modest format of this sonata, and due to the absence of virtuoso display, due to the misleading simplicity of its last movement, that ends quietly and mysteriously, without any fanfares. . . .    

Mit Lebhaftigkeit und durchaus mit Empfindung und Ausdruck

Kuerti describes this works as one of extraordinary contrasts, particularly due to the difference between the 'angry' e-minor of the first movement and the lyrical, cheerful E-Major of the last movement. In the introductory theme, two contrasts jump out at us in the extraordinary dialogue between anger and tenderness, between the masculine and the feminine.  The obviously elevated 'upward' trend of the main theme is what Kuerti describes as a central, uniting element, and each time when the music halts, this 'upward' trend sets in.  

The (musical) materials, writes Kuerti, are used in a rough and ostensible manner, and everything that is unnecessary is eliminated.  Also the modulations are often contracted and surprising, as for example, in the transition to the second theme (1); here, we wound find ourselves in a new key without knowing how we arrived in it.  

Kuerti describes the "retreat" (2) as a second exertion, the musical equivalent of transforming water into wine, whereby the wine is the main ingredient and the water dominates the running sixteenth-notes that circle higher and higher and dominate the second half of the development.   By Beethoven's stubborn repetition of only five notes of the "water" and of his reducing them first to half the speed, then to one quarter of the speed and by his finally and obsessively concentratrating on the first three notes, he forces these poor victims to transform themselves into the pattern of the main subject and to provide the introduction to the recapitulation.  Kuerti finds this more typical of Beeethoven's later style than of his so-called heroic middle period. 

Nicht zu geschwind und sehr singbar vorgetragen

In the even, writes Kuerti, that we would only evaluate the finale from its first theme, then this movement would qualify itself as being closest to Schubert's style with its slightly 'lazy' tendency towards lyricism and latent sadness, and that in spite of a sweet, smiling character.  However, when we then turn to the extraordinary tendencies of this Rondo, argues Kuerti, we no longer doubt who is at work here.  Kuerti writes here of passages of "naked music" that even outdo the directness of the first movement  . . . here, he refers to the last part of the third episode (3), the theme of which he describes as a slowly descending scale, through four bars, that repeats its descending with slightly unsettling harmonies.  This passage, writes Kuerti, is extended and followed by even stranger passages, in which smaller fragments are repeated again and again, sometimes with alarming accents that convey a paralyzing feeling.  . . . 

Kuerti describes this as an utterly realistic language of a musical message that, in its lack of decoration, is almost naked.  The bitter taste and the unrest that is evoked and left behind by these passages forms a contrast to the songful health of the main theme, and this contrast is dissolved wonderfully in the coda (4), when the theme swells on majestically in order to present its hidden passions.  After this demonstration, continues Kuerti, the theme returns to its pensiveness that, in the end, dissolves like morning dew.   (Kuerti: 57-58).

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 90 - Search