Ludwig van Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 26 in E-flat major, Op. 81a, known as the Les Adieux sonata, was written during the years 1809 and 1810.
The title Les Adieux implies a programmatic nature. The French attack on Vienna, led by Napoléon Bonaparte in 1809, forced Beethoven's patron, Archduke Rudolph, to leave the city. Yet, there is some uncertainty about this nature of the piece — or at least, about the degree to which Beethoven wished this programmatic nature would be known. He titled the three movements "Lebewohl," "Abwesenheit," and "Wiedersehen," and reportedly regarded the French "Adieux" (said to whole assemblies or cities) as a poor translation of the feeling of the German "Lebewohl" (said heartfully to a single person) (Kolodin, 1975). Indeed, Beethoven wrote the syllables "Le-be-wohl" over the first three chords.
On the first 1811 publication, a dedication was added reading "On the departure of his Imperial Highness, for the Archduke Rudolph in admiration".
An average performance of the piece lasts about 17 minutes. The sonata is one of Beethoven's most challenging sonatas because of the mature emotions that must be conveyed throughout it. It is also the bridge between his middle period and his later period and is considered the third great sonata of the middle period.
Three movements of this sonata originally written in German and French, and the last two movements are described in German because of the unusual tempo. The translation in English shown in italic as below:
- Das Lebewohl (Les Adieux - The Farewell): Adagio - Allegro
- Abwesenheit (L'Absence - The Absence): Andante espressivo (In gehender Bewegung, doch mit viel Ausdruck - In walking motion, but with much expression)
- Das Wiedersehen (Le Retour - The Return): Vivacissimamente (Im lebhaftesten Zeitmaße - The liveliest time measurements)
The sonata opens in a 2/4 time Adagio with a short, simple motif of three chords, over which are written the three syllables Le-be-wohl ('Fare-thee-well'). This motif is the basis upon which both the first and the second subject groups are drawn. As soon as the introduction is over and the exposition begins, the time signature changes to split C (alla breve) and the score is marked Allegro. The first movement oscillates between a turbulent first subject which portrays deep disturbance and a second subject which is more lyrical in nature and gives the impression of reflections. The rhythmic figure of two short notes and a longer note which is used repeatedly in the first subject is developed inexorably through the 'development' section with rich harmonies and discords which are harmonically closer to the later period of Beethoven's compositions than the middle for their intellectual penetration. The movement has a surprisingly long coda which occupies about three-tenths of the movement's length. The coda encompasses both the subjects in a display of powerful mastery over composition. Typically the movement played properly with repeats lasts a little over 7 minutes.
The Andante Espressivo is harmonically built on variations of the diminished chord and the appoggiatura. The movement is very emotional and is often played with rubato that would be found in later composers such as Schumann and Brahms. Much of the subject matter is rhythmically repeated consecutively as well as section-ally. This seems to be for emphasizing the feelings of uncomfortable solitude with a fear that there will be no return. The arrival of the dominant seventh chord at the end of movement signals the return to the tonic key, but remains unresolved until the triumphant appearance of the main theme in the final movement. Typically the movement lasts just under 4 minutes.
The finale, also in sonata form, starts joyfully on the dominant, B flat, in 6/8 time. After the startling introduction, the first subject shows up in the right hand and is immediately transferred to the left hand, which is repeated twice with an elaboration of the arrangement in the right hand. Before the second subject group arrives, there's one remarkable bridge passage, introducing a phrase that goes from G flat major to F major, first through distinctive forte arpeggios, then in a more delicate, fine piano arrangement.