Expression & Narrative Design in Beethoven's Piano Sonata, Op. 110

Essay response to questions posed by William Kinderman.  January 13, 2005


William Kinderman:  Discuss the unique design and expressive meaning of Beethoven’s penultimate piano sonata, the Sonata in A flat Major, Op. 110.  Consider in particular the relation between the Arioso dolente sections and the two fugal passages in the final movement.  What is the significance of the unusual passage in recitative that introduces this finale?  What affinities exist between Op. 110 and other late works by Beethoven, such as the Missa Solemnis?  Offer comments on the relation between the movements, and the narrative design of the whole composition.

Just as Mozart relied heavily upon the referencing of traditional topoi for symbolism of character and motivation (particularly in the operas and piano concerti), Beethoven developed a language of self-referencing that became particularly prominent in his later works.  Already in the ‘Waldstein’ sonata one can detect Beethoven’s utilization of earlier devices of musical symbolism.  In William Kinderman’s monograph on the composer, he points to Beethoven’s use of a haunting figure of a single, stark bass note (sounded in octaves) offset by chords in the upper winds as found in the Joseph Cantata, written while the composer was still residing in Bonn.  This introductory figure led to the text “Tod! Tod!” in that cantata, conveying a cold menace that would translate even more dramatically as it appears at the opening of Act II of Fidelio (the ‘dungeon scene’).  Here, this nearly identical setting of Beethoven’s own “death” topoi provides the ideal dramatic atmosphere, and emotional tether, for our first view of the prisoner Florestan – chained, hungry and near death.  By choosing to dispense with the florid Andante favori which was to serve as the “Waldstein’s” second movement, Beethoven substituted a brief “Introduzione” to the finale.  This short movement is noticeably operatic in its arioso like qualities, inviting curiosity to its narrative design.  Most revealing is, perhaps its very beginning in which Beethoven again references the “death” topoi by presenting bare F’s in the bass which are then, tentatively, responded to from above.  This bass line descends in exactly the same manner as in Fidelio.  Considering the works are contemporary with one another, it is conceivable that the “Introduzione” from the “Waldstein” gives way to the same symbolic C major of hope and divinity that Florestan’s aria does in the opening scene of Act II.  Evident in this example of Beethoven’s self-referencing are several characteristics of his later work.  These include his increasing usage of vocal elements in his instrumental compositions, self-referencing for the sake of symbolic implication, a profound interest in death and transcendence, and movement toward creating works with a directional narrative.  These elements become integral to Beethoven’s compositional pursuits during his last decade, and are manifest in profound measure in the Piano Sonata in A Flat Major, Op. 110.

Once Beethoven’s deafness had largely consumed him, he is known to have socially withdrawn himself.  Reduced to conversing through conversation books, the communicative imperative in his music became heightened.  Although music was always a source for personal expression for him, his renewed sense of obligation to his art as a process towards human and spiritual betterment illuminated a need in him for the most direct communication of his musical messages.  Beethoven determined that the human voice provided the most fundamental means of articulating thoughts and emotion – just as it does in speech, it can also do in music.  While large-scale texted works were in his plans (including the Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony), Beethoven also had realized the power of suggestion held by vocal idioms in purely instrumental music.  This device had already been utilized by Mozart in the dramatization of his piano concerti.  Beethoven, in turn, had incorporated elements of recitative in the “Tempest” sonata and his scena treatment in the ‘Waldstein’.  By referencing such a blatant vocal device such as recitative, Beethoven could entice the listener into contemplating his world of symbolism and narrative by utilizing tools readily associated with text in a purely instrumental idiom.  The recitative of Op. 110 serves much the same function on a superficial level, by establishing that a dramatic scena is underway and demands attention and active contemplation.  However, this usage is not simply about gaining the listener’s attention as it is about connecting on an intimate level.  In addition to recitative and recitative-like passages, several of Beethoven’s late works include references to vocal forms including the arioso, arietta and cavatina.

The use of vocal references the sonata Op. 110 is successful in inciting contemplation of the work in view of the large-scale, texted composition in which he was immersed at the time.  The Missa Solemnis occupied Beethoven for several years, but was largely completed by 1822.  However, he broke off work on the mass to compose his trilogy of piano sonatas, combining sketches for the sonatas with those of the mass.  Knowledge of this dual conception is enough to make explicit the religious overtones often mentioned regarding these last sonatas.  However, closer inspection of the sonatas with the Missa Solemnis reveals the symbolic self-referencing Beethoven poured into these works.

Op. 110 is often cited as a remarkable achievement on numerous levels, including the genesis of nearly all of its thematic material from its first two measures of music.  This very idea of seemingly creating something so large and complex from nothing draws immediately upon the symbolism of the Divine that is inherent in this piece.  The religious connotations of this work are significant in that Op. 110 seems, on many levels, to be a musical depiction (if not literally programmatic) of the Passion.  On an immediately tangible level, one sees the symbol of the Cross invoked in the initial voice exchange between soprano and bass in the first bar of the work (this is the same device employed in the penultimate bar of the second movement of the Fourth Concerto where, if Jander’s suggestion that this movement is a depiction of Orpheus’ taming of the Furies, Beethoven casts his religious cloak over the myth with the ‘cross’ of the voice exchange after Euradice has been reclaimed by the Underworld).  The cross is inferred likewise in the dove-tailing of figurations, such as those at the end of the exposition.  The physical cross is exploited particularly in the ‘trio’ section of the second movement where contrary musical motion necessitates the crossing of hands in several places.  This physical gesture is a foreshadowing of the finale of the sonata where, through the diminution of the first fugue’s subject, Beethoven instructs the pianist to negotiate a passage with crossed hands that is otherwise playable without.

Beyond the mere symbolism of pianistic mechanics, the sense of the work is indicative of the Passion.  It has been noted that the first fugue subject of Op. 110 is related to the fugue subject of the “Dona nobis pacem” of the Agnus Dei in the Missa Solemnis.  Both fugues are based on a subject molded from ascending fourths in 6/8 time.  In the mass, this fugue is interrupted by the “music of war” in which a trumpet in the distance seems to be announcing the arrival of a saviour (as it also does in Fidelio).  This ‘war music’ is then dispelled by the soloists in a recitative calling upon the Lord to intervene in effectively the same manner as the tenor soloist dispatched the unwanted “Töne” in the finale of the Ninth Symphony.  The fugue returns [dona nobis pacem] with descending figures just as the fugue of Op. 110 (which had been interrupted by the 2nd arioso dolente), including similar treatments of registrations and reinforced octave climax in the bass.  It is this parenthetical treatment of the fugue (progress being interrupted) that further links the third movement of Op. 110 to the Agnus Dei.  In the sonata, the pairing of the arioso and the fugue is somewhat unprecedented, but it is comparable to the setting of the Agnus Dei with the 6/8 fugue of the “Dona nobis pacem”.  This fugue, which shares its thematic CAN with that of op. 110 is marked by Beethoven as a “prayer for inner and out peace”.  He who can deliver inner and outer piece is He who suffered and died upon the Cross.

Op. 110 is a work filled with worldly pain not found in its companions opp. 109 and 111.  The combination of base and sublime are striking in this particular sonata where the second movement is constructed on a rather vile folk-song:  “Ich bin lüderlich, du bist lüderlich” [I’m a bum, you’re a bum].  The purpose of such music in a work filled with Divine references is two-fold.  It provides material for musical contrast on the most superficial level, but more importantly it fulfills a symbolic purpose.  Christ’s message on earth was to afford even the most lowly a place in Heaven.  As he was cursed and ridiculed by one thief on the Cross the other sought and received forgiveness.  In this respect, the most seemingly unworthy of human beings can be transformed by the grace of God.  In the case of op. 110, this transformation takes place in the coda of the last movement in which the “lüderlich” folksong is combined with the “dona nobis pacem” derived fugue subject, combined with Beethoven’s provocative direction “nach und nach wieder auflebent” [gradually coming to life] and being executed in a whirlwind coda that eventually soars into the upper register.

As with the Missa Solemnis, op. 110 makes symbolic use of register as well.  As the violin solo in the Benedictus might represent the descent of the Holy Spirit to the altar, in the sonata the conclusion of the second arioso finds a series of G Major chords, possibly signifying the death of Christ.  These chords are blurred by the sustained pedal and crescendo that are then taken up by arpeggiation, from low to high, while also decrescendoing merging into the 2nd fugue.  This moment is the first indication of successful transcendence in the sonata.  The first movement 2nd them group finds an agonizingly dramatic passage in which a strong, laborious descent in the bass is offset by the treble’s attempts to ascend to great heights.  Perhaps symbolic of Christ’s own spiritual faltering in the Garden of Gethsemane, the symbolic reaching upward in the sonata continues to fall back to earth.  Solomon remarks that Beethoven greatly enhanced the symbolic power of ascent and descent in his late works due to his narrative designs, and it seems that those efforts culminate in op. 110 and the Missa Solemnis.

At the symbolic heart of the late works of Beethoven, as exemplified in the late sonatas as well, appears to be the effort to depict, in music, the timelessness of God.  Beethoven inscribed in his Tagbuch of 1816 that “Time does not exist for God”.  As Messaien noted when referring to the composition of his opera St. Francis d’Assise, it is difficult for a composer to portray infinity in musical terms.  In the late sonatas of Beethoven, we find an inclination to begin works with music that does not feel like a beginning.  In op. 109, for instance, music seems to be in progress – indicated by a motor figuration (the very pulse obscured by beginning on an ‘upbeat’ that feels like a downbeat) as if the listener catches Beethoven in mid-conversation.  Op. 110, in kind, begins in the same character as op. 109 concludes.  This provides one link between these two works and incites further exploration to the larger narrative of the last three sonatas.  But in op. 110, the timelessness of God seems to appear most conclusively in the recitative, where the Bebung on A brings time to a standstill through a complete lack of harmonic or melodic motion.  Beethoven achieves this in the Agnus Dei of the Missa Solemnis through the use of a traditional topic of stasis on the repeated chords of the “Agnus Dei” text.  In the sonata, this appearance of the Divinity is introduced through the unexpected form of the Recitative which brings us to the arioso dolente.

Christopher Reynolds, in his book on allusion in music, points out the undeniable similarity between the descending theme of the arioso dolente and J.S. Bach’s setting of “Es ist vollendet” [It is finished] in the St. John’s Passion.  While it is possible, but not confirmable, that Beethoven was acquainted with Bach’s Passion, he may very well have been acquainted with the aria from his stay in Berlin.  Even if he did not know the work first-hand, he was certainly aware that this phrase was a topic for grief and suffering as used by C.P.E. Bach and Mozart, among others.  However, considering that Beethoven employs nearly identical rhythm and uses the same turn at the bottom as J.S. Bach (and especially considering the narrative of op. 110) it seems more than likely that Beethoven must have been aware of the text setting.

In the end op. 110, like many of Beethoven’s late works, seems to be a composition about a process.  On a local level, in late Beethoven we see a shifting of the weight of the sonata from the first movement to the last.  In a larger view, this motion seems to imply that there is a directional narrative that must move towards a larger goal.  In viewing opp. 109-111 collectively, we can see an implied narrative in the natures of these works.  Op. 109 is built upon the idea of upward momentum, but always dispelled and defeated.  Its ascending scales and figurations seem to be making violent attempts to break loose from some restraint (perhaps suggestive of the violence of birth or creation itself).  The fact that the theme of the variations returns at the end of the sonata makes the work reflective, but not transcendent despite all the best efforts.  If op. 110 is a depiction of the Passion, with symbolic portrayals of the suffering, death and ascension of Christ, then William Kinderman’s observation that the victory is not reveled upon but, somehow, seems to burst forth beyond the final bar can only suggest that the final contact with the Divinity is to be found in op. 111.  If this is Beethoven’s intention, it can be accepted in the complete lack of worldly strife encapsulated in the Arietta and ensuing variations.  The first movement may be filled with the same terror and trembling Beethoven used in his Credo, but it is dispelled in the shimmer of the last movement.  The Credo of the Missa Solemnis defines and confirms belief in the Holy Trinity.  Op. 109 references the Credo through comparable structures while op. 111 is a work of complete transcendence and a confirmation of faith as depicted by the Credo/Crucifixus.  In view of the symbolic connection of all three sonatas to the mass, one can accept the religious overtones of the sonatas and, perhaps even accept them as a further symbolic affirmation of the Holy Trinity.