It is well recognized that during his last years, especially from 1817 on, Beethoven's music underwent a transformation that redefined his legacy. Moreover, in a series of powerful masterstrokes the composer forever enlarged the sphere of human experience.
There is disagreement as to when precisely the late style first appeared. There are differences over the extent to which it emerged from internal or external sources, and critics have struggled to describe its characteristics in a coherent and meaningful way, but few have disagreed about the existence of the phase itself, let alone its seismic character or its chief examples: the late sonatas and string quartets, the "Diabelli" Variations and the bagatelles, the Ninth Symphony and Missa solemmis
Sonata Op.101, in A major.
The Sonata in A major, op.101, published in Vienna by Steiner ,in 1817, is the first of the "final five" piano sonatas with which Beethoven brought his work on this genre to a close.
The crux of this Sonata is contained not in the opening Allegretto ma non troppo, despite its quiet, lyrical beginning in medias res on the dominant. The suspended quality of the music is enhanced by Beethoven's seamless lyricism, his placement of the exposition in the dominant key, and his avoidance throughout of strong tonic cadences. Following this short movement of yearning quality and the brusque, angular, contrapuntal march in F major which forms the second movement, a more fundamental level of feeling or state of being is uncovered in the slow introduction to the finale, marked Langsam und sehnsuchtsvoll. Here the music is drawn progressively lower in pitch, collapsing onto a soft sustained chord that will serve as a turning-point and a new beginning. This soft chord, which represents the end of the descending progression and the termination of the Adagio, also embodies the a priori condition for the first movement, since it represents the exact sonority in the precise register out of which the opening of that movement has sprung. In view of this, the opening of the Sonata in medias res assumes a new and deeper significance. The importance of this original sound is confirmed by its transformation, after a short cadenza-like passage, into the actual beginning of the opening movement. This reminiscence lasts a few bars before it dissolves into the emphatic beginning of the finale.
The finale is in sonata form, with its development assigned to a fugato. The fugal textures in the finale unfold with uncompromising determination and virtuosity. Op. 101 is among the most difficult of the sonatas. Beethoven himself once described it as "hard to play"
The A major Sonata marks a major transition in Beethoven's style, pointing unmistakably to the unique synthesis achieved in works of his last decade.
Sonata Op. 111,in C minor
Beethoven's last Sonata. Op. 111, in C minor, completed in 1822, defines with absolute assurance the two polarities within which his creative consciousness evolved. The two movements completely symbolize the two primary functions of the mind: analysis and synthesis of conflicting elements on the one hand, and transcendence of all oppositions on the other. It is literally and figuratively a lifetime away from the Op.2 group.
The first movement of Op. 111 represents the last example of Beethoven's celebrated " C minor mood", evidenced in a long line of works from the string Trio op.9 and "Pathetique" Sonata to the Coriolan Overture and Fifth Symphony. The sonata begins with a Maestoso exposing left-hand plunges of the diminished seventh in a dramatic and tightly spaced rhythmic relationship. An effect of parenthetical enclosure is created not only through the sudden thematic and tonal contrast and slowing of tempo but also through the sudden return of the original tempo and agitated musical character. Consequently, the intervening lyrical utterance is isolated, like "a soft glimpse of sunlight illuminating the dark, stormy heavens", to use imagery of Mann's Kretzschmar in DoktorFaustus.
The lyrical passage reaches C major in the recapitulation and it seems to foreshadow the atmosphere of the Arietta finale. The transition to the ensuing Arietta is built into the coda. The rhythm and register of the last bars allude unmistakably to the diminished-seventh chords of the exposition.
With the Arietta we enter a new world. In this case it seems offensive to reduce to conceptual analysis a musical experience which so transcends conceptual activity. The movement establishes a sense of immediacy in which the perception of sound creates a state of contemplation. As Claude Palisca said so simply, "the Adagio molto - a long set of variations in an arietta is so eloquent and so complete that nothing further seems to be required".
33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli Op.120
The 33 Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli. Op. 120 represent Beethoven's most extraordinary single achievement in the art of variation writing. In their originality and power of invention they stand with other late masterpieces such as the Ninth Symphony, the Missa Solemnis, and the last quartets.
When Anton Diabelli invited selected composers to write a variation on one of his waltzes, to be published as a collection, Beethoven at first declined to participate but later offered to provide a set of variations on the Diabelli theme. The scope of the work grew and the 33 variations (started in 1819, completed in1823 and dedicated by Beethoven to Antonie Brentano ) were published in June 1823 under the title "33 Veränderungen über einer Walzer von A. Diabelli".
Beethoven used the term Veränderungen, following Bach's title for his "Aria mit 30 Veränderungen " ( Goldberg Variations).
Together with the Bagatelles Op. 120 Published in 1825, the Variations Op. 120 represents Beethoven's final contribution to the piano literature.
Parody lies at the heart of this composition.
Beethoven expanded his draft of the work in 1822-3. He left his older variation order intact for the most part, but opened with two new variations (the present Vars. 1 and 2), added many more variations towards the end, and inserted one at the middle of the set. These added variations contribute substantially to the form of the work, imposing not a symmetrical but an asymmetrical plan, an overall progression culminating in the last five variations. The work as we know it is thus to a great extent the product of two conceptions: an original conception and a superimposed conception.
The inserted variations added by Beethoven in 1823 contribute a subtle dimension to the set whose implications transcend the purely musical sphere. Most of them are, in one sense or another, parodistic variations, and while this is clear enough on close inspection, it is sufficiently subtle to be overlooked.
This issue of parody in Op. 120 is complex. It is interesting that in Op. 120 the overall formal progression of the variations relies heavily on parody of the melody of Diabelli's theme, an idea that, though prominent in the finished piece, is not in evidence in the 1819 draft. Although it is possible to speak of the unity of the whole work, such as we find in other works of the composer, the variations are based on a trivial theme not of the composer's making,thus the complete work spans a tension from ironic caricature to sublime transformation of the waltz of DiabelIi. This extra-musical dimension of parody is essential to a full understanding of the piece, although by its very nature it is not immediately obvious in the work itself.
About the artist
Concert pianist, musicologist and educator, Luisa Guembes-Buchanan was born in Lima, Peru, where she received her early musical education at the Conservatorio Nacional de Música. She holds degrees in Performance and Musicology from the Manhattan School of Music, C.W.Post College , New York University and Boston University.
Ms. Guembes-Buchanan has given performances throughout the United States, Latin America and Europe both as a recitals and soloist. She has held teaching posts at Amherst College (MA), Stonybrook University (NY), and the New England Conservatory at Hingham (MA).
In addition to her numerous Master Classes, Ms. Guembes- Buchanan is a founding member of several teaching and performing organizations dedicated to promote young performer's education and the facilitating of performing opportunities for them. As a musicologist, she has lectured and participated in panel discussions in the United States and Latinoamérica .