Ludwig van Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 30 in E major, Op. 109, composed in 1820, is the antepenultimate of his piano sonatas. In it, after the huge Hammerklavier Sonata, Op. 106, Beethoven returns to a smaller scale and a more intimate character. It is dedicated to Maximiliane Brentano, the daughter of Beethoven's long-standing friend Antonie Brentano, for whom Beethoven had already composed the short Piano Trio in B flat major WoO 39 in 1812. Musically, the work is characterised by a free and original approach to the traditional sonata form. Its focus is the third movement, a set of variations that interpret its theme in a wide variety of individual ways.
Work on Op. 109 can be traced back to early in 1820, even before Beethoven's negotiations with Adolf Schlesinger, the publisher of his last three sonatas. Recent research suggests that Friedrich Starke had asked Beethoven for a composition for his piano anthology The Vienna Pianoforte School, and that Beethoven had interrupted work on the Missa Solemnis. In the end, though, he offered Starke numbers 7–11 of the Bagatelles, Op. 119.
There is an April entry in Beethoven's conversation book describing a "small new piece" that is, according to William Meredith, identical to the first movement of Op. 109. In fact, the outline of the movement makes the idea of a Bagatelle interrupted by fantasia-like interludes seem very plausible. Beethoven's secretary Franz Oliva then allegedly suggested the idea of using this "small piece" as the beginning of the sonata that Schlesinger wanted. Sieghard Brandenburg has put forward the theory that Beethoven had originally planned a two-movement sonata, omitting the first movement. Apparently some of the motivic characteristics that link the first movement with the others were only introduced later. Alexander Wheelock Thayer, on the other hand, put forward the view that the beginning of a sonata in E minor by Beethoven was not developed further and had nothing to do with Op. 109.
For the third movement, Beethoven first sketched a set of about six variations, then a set of nine, and finally a continuity draft for a set of six. The differences in character between the individual variations seem to be smaller in the nine-variation version than in the final printed edition,(p226) but according to Kay Dreyfus this already indicates a "process of exploration and re-discovery of the theme".(p194)
It has not been conclusively established whether Beethoven completed the sonata in the Autumn of 1820 or only in 1821. In letters to his publisher in 1820, he was already speaking of "Fertigstellung" (completion); but it is unclear whether Beethoven meant completed concepts, drafts or a fair copy that could be dispatched. The first edition was published by Schlesinger in Berlin in November 1821. It contained many errors, since Beethoven was prevented by illness from undertaking adequate proof-reading. The sonata is dedicated to Maximiliane Brentano, the musically gifted daughter of Franz and Antonie Brentano.
The date of the first performance is unknown. The first pianists to undertake to bring Beethoven's last sonatas, including Op. 109, to public attention were Franz Liszt, who regularly included them in his programs between 1830 and 1840, and Hans von Bülow, who even included several of the late sonatas in one evening.
With regard to Beethoven's late work, and especially to his late piano sonatas, Op. 109 is particularly noteworthy for its divergence from the norms of sonata form and for its harmonic and structural innovations.
Beethoven's last sonatas
Opus 109 is one of Beethoven's last three, five or six sonatas that are counted among his late works. The different cut-off points arise from the fact that the sonatas from Opus 90 on are varied and contradictory in form and in their predominant musical tendencies. The pianistic means are reduced to leaner, chamber music-like voice leading, as in the first movement of Opus 110, or dissolved into recitative-like passages, as in the third movement of the same work. These procedures contrast with a heightened virtuosity, a broadening of the form and an increase in overall length, as for example in the Hammerklavier sonata, Op. 106. In Op. 109, reminiscences of the straightforward style of the early, Haydn-influenced sonatas contrast with harmony that is sometimes harsh, anticipating the music of the 20th century.(p169) This gives special importance to the principles of polyphonic variation, as in the second movement of Op. 109, and consequently the use of baroque forms, especially fugue and fugato. Very wide intervals between the outer voices, a process of breaking the music into ever shorter note values (as in the sixth variation in Op. 109), use of trills to resolve the music into layers of sound (the same variation in Op. 109 and again in Op. 111), arpeggios, ostinati and tremolos gain increased significance.(p138)
This sonata seduces the listener with its intimate, less dramatic character and distinguishes itself by its special lyricism, "melodic and harmonic beauties" and ornaments and arabesques hinting at Chopin.(p192 ff.) In this sonata, as in many of Beethoven's late works, one interval is significant throughout. Here it is the interval of a third.(p140) It shares with other late Beethoven sonatas the shift of focus to the last movement, the dissolution into "pure sound" and the references to old baroque forms.(pp14–15) Some similarities to the opening of the Sonata in A, Op.101 have been noted.(p401)
Throughout the history of music there has been much philosophy and speculation about the character of the individual keys. In Beethoven, E major (frequently described as bright and radiant) and E minor (sad, lamenting) often appear together, as in Op. 14 No. 1, the second Razumovsky quartet and Op. 90. The combination has been said to mitigate both the light and the dark aspects of the music.(p401)
Differences from the standard model
Opus 109 differs from the "standard model" in several ways. Although written in three movements, it feels more like "two balanced movements",(p163) since the first movement is linked to the scherzo-like Prestissimo by holding down the pedal. The internal form of the first movement is based less on elaboration than on the contrasting juxtaposition of fast and slow, loud and soft, and major and minor. Hence the second movement takes on even more of the function usually assigned to the first movement, which would be in sonata-allegro form. Then the third movement is – most unusually for a sonata – a theme and variations. Thus the theme in the third movement takes on the role of the slow movement, which is usually the second movement in the standard model. Although the sonata is formally in three movements, many leading musicians and recordings make it sound like two movements by going into the second movement without a pause and then clearly separating the third movement. However, musicologists Jürgen Uhde, Richard Rosenberg, Udo Zilkens and Carl Dahlhaus divide the work into three movements in their detailed analyses.
The three movements of this sonata are:
- I. Vivace ma non troppo / Adagio espressivo, E major, 2/4 time
- II. Prestissimo, E minor, 6/8 time
- III. Gesangvoll, mit innigster Empfindung. Andante molto cantabile ed espressivo, E major, 3/4 time.
A performance lasts about twenty minutes, of which the third movement takes more than half. Overall, the sonata is endowed with abundant melody and interesting, complex harmony.(pp192–3)