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The years between the 1802 D-minor Sonata and the 1816 A-major work of Op. 101 were incredibly productive for Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), probably even more so than his own substantial expectations of himself. The list of compositions completed in those 14 years is staggering and of course impractical to itemize here, but just to touch on the highlights: seven symphonies, up to and including the Eighth; the five piano concertos and the violin concerto; three versions of his only opera Fidelio; five string quartets; and seven piano sonatas. And much, much more.
In 1816, the year of Op. 101, Beethoven had taken into his head not only to compose a piano sonata, but also to Germanize the Italian terminology traditionally used in musical literature, and even to create a German name for the piano. In this burst of nationalism, and operating on the false assumption that the instrument had been invented by a German (at that time Cristofori was not acknowledged as father of the piano), he searched seriously for a proper name. Would it be Hammer-Klavier, Hammer-Flügel, or what? His choice was for the former, Hammerklavier, and he used the term for the sonata of that year, Op. 101, and than for only one other sonata, Op. 106, which somehow is the only one to which the term has stuck.
Another description he might have applied to Op. 101 considering the freedom of its form and fantasy-like expressiveness is the one he had attached to the two sonatas of Op. 27 – Quasi una fantasia – composed in 1801. Now, however, fantasia had a quite different meaning to him than it had 15 years earlier, when brilliance of style and scope of virtuosity were practical factors with which he dealt. Now, expressiveness and the probing for eternal verities commanded the formal structure, and since as an architect Beethoven had become supreme and supremely confident, pianism as such was of little concern. It should be said here concerning pianism that in his late sonatas Beethoven often wrote as much against the keyboard as for it, contriving passages that demand very special intuitive as well as physical qualities for the revelation of the depth and poetry of the music.
Poetry is the watchword of a first movement here that is notable for extremely lean textures and for a dynamic scheme that only once and briefly calls for a fortissimo. It opens – at mid-sentence, so to speak – with a warm, intimate melody. Etwas lebhaft, und mit der innigsten Empfindung – “Somewhat lively, and with the most heartfelt expression” – says the performance directive. This goes on to a gently pleading secondary subject, which in turn melts into a melodically static episode whose distinctive element is syncopation. The expansive Beethoven is in this movement very economical, dealing with these materials very concisely and always very lovingly.
The intimacy of the first movement is countered by a second movement that marches quirkily to fixated dotted eighth/sixteenth-note figures. There is something unnerving in the aggressiveness of this rhythmic idée fixe, and the effect is intensified by dissonances and trills that seem wildly out of place in context. Wonderfully in place amid this agitation is a brief episode where the action is smoothed out with welcome Beethovenian warmth – a port in the march’s storm. A benign trio arrests the action of the march, which returns in toto.
The poignant Adagio that follows the march purports to be a bona fide slow movement but in reality is an introduction to the finale. Beethoven’s noble expressiveness, in full thrall here, is heightened by the appearance of the first movement’s main theme. This is a truly poetic moment that proves – if more proof were needed – that Romanticism was born with Beethoven. This halting apparition is broken off abruptly by a fast scale and then a set of trills, the last of which signals the beginning of a high-powered final movement that is in turn muscular, sprightly, and dynamic by way of a vital four-voiced fugue with its subject an extended version of the movement’s main theme. The highly developed movement ends, one is led to believe, with a quiet fading away, but the belief is shattered, Beethoven-style, by seven very loud A-major chords, an emphatic contrast to the serenity of the Sonata’s opening.
-- Orrin Howard, who annotated Los Angeles Philharmonic programs for more than 20 years while serving as Director of Publications and Archives, continues to contribute regularly to the Philharmonic program book.