Concert pianist and piano professor Julian Jacobson continues his series focusing on Beethoven sonatas. On Saturday November 12th 2022 Julian will perform all 32 sonatas in one day at St John’s Church Waterloo in London, and in this post he assesses Beethoven’s Opus 31 sonatas.
You can read all Julian’s posts in this series by clicking here.
Beethoven’s opus 31: an oddly assorted trio of sonatas
Beethoven’s op 31 is often taken as the start of his “middle period”, the magnificent and sustained series of masterpieces extending to the 8th Symphony and the “Archduke” Trio. Beethoven’s conscious wish, in the wake of the personal crisis eloquently described in the Heiligenstadt Testament, was to begin anew: the music would become much more tightly organised and formally integrated. As composers often are when they’re experimenting with new ideas, he was much occupied with the piano at this time: op 26, 27, 28, 31, 34 and 35 are all for solo piano, the third Piano Concerto is op 37, and op 30 is a trio of violin sonatas with elaborate piano parts. The three sonatas carry, unusually, no dedication – a further indication of Beethoven’s conscious spirit of revolution.
After many years I continue to find the first of the set, the G major, one of the oddest pieces he ever wrote. Long before I learnt it I read in some book that it was the sort of ugly duckling of the sonatas, and performances used to be quite infrequent. The first movement, with its dislocated opening theme and hare-brained scales and arpeggios rushing around all over the place, is perhaps the portrait of a man in the grip of creative ferment and new emotions, not yet able to settle to anything: yet, being Beethoven, it’s also masterly in construction, with not a wasted note. (No one knows what dynamics Beethoven really wanted in the opening, the manuscript being lost and the early editions offering a mass of contradictions: I’ve arrived at my own solution.) The slow movement is odder still, a prolonged parody of an Italian opera aria or duet complete with trills, cadenzas, and passages in thirds and sixths – yet hardly a love duet! The finale is emotionally blank, almost catatonic, as it noodles and ambles on its amiable path till the faster coda indicates a late access of new resolve.
The second of course is the so-called (with only shaky historical or musical justification) Tempest, Beethoven’s only sonata in the very Mozartian key of D minor (though we also have the wonderful slow movement of op 10 no 3). Certainly one of the master sonatas, and of great emotional intensity, it’s famous for the formal innovations of the first movement, going beyond the Pathétique in its alternation of slow and fast passages, and for the ghostly recitative passages, marked by Beethoven to be played with full pedal. (Surely the time has come when there’s no need to question those pedal marks any more?) I read somewhere that Beethoven got so excited when playing the right hand slurred pairs of quavers that he sometimes didn’t sound the second note at all – a sure indication of the direction one needs to go towards! The slow movement, of a broad, austere nobility, is his last fully-fledged independent slow movement in the sonatas till the Hammerklavier. The fascinating perpetuum mobile of the finale is said to have been suggested to Beethoven by the galloping of a horse outside his window, though I suppose that must have happened all the time. It contains, near the end, a horrible “correction” by nearly all editors which I refuse to have anything to do with (an E instead of an F – bar 334, right hand second note).
In stark comparison the third of the set is a pure comedy of manners. It opens with a chord almost unthinkable as an opener in any work before 1800, slyly and without drawing attention to itself. Formally the movement owes a lot to Haydn’s 49th sonata in the same key of E flat, Beethoven finally showing his debt to his teacher which as a churlish young man he refused to acknowledge (Haydn didn’t enjoy the lessons much either). There is no slow movement: instead a genuinely comic Scherzo, sempre staccato, is also notable for being in duple instead of triple time, a Beethoven innovation repeated in the op 110 sonata and the op 130 string quartet. The third movement is a delicious old fashioned minuet and the finale an unstoppable 6/8 Presto with the sound of horns (giving the sonata the nickname of “Hunt”), surely influenced by the finales of Mozart’s E flat Horn Concertos though replacing their genial buffoonery with a sublime, unstoppable energy.
Do these three sonatas have anything to do with each other? Should one play them as if they’re connected, motivically or affectively, or a logical sequence? In ordinary cycles I never put them together. In the earlier sets of three (op 2, op 10 and the op 12 violin sonatas), the middle sonata is light and witty and the final number is grand and a bit show-offy, at least in op 2 and 12. But in both op 31 and the op 30 violin sonatas the middle number is the most serious and intense, and the one in a minor key, while the last is a comedy. Beethoven never again wrote a multi-sonata opus, apart from the two op 102 cello sonatas. On the other hand, the final three sonatas, though each has its own opus number (109, 110 and 111), are palpably a trilogy with much thematic cross-reference and an inevitable progression to the final chords of op 111. So with op 31 my solution is to play them as if they have nothing at all in common, each for its unique character.
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