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In May 1820, Beethoven agreed to compose three piano sonatas for the Berlin publisher Adolf Martin Schlesinger. He completed the first, Op. 109, in the fall and apparently began the other two, but illness and work on the Missa Solemnis intervened. The autograph of Op. 110 is dated December 25, 1821, but revision continued in January 1822.

Each of what would Beethoven's last three piano sonatas is a world apart, a unique distillation and synthesis of formal and expressive devices. The first movement of Op. 110 opens softly and simply - though stopping on a mini-cadenza in the fourth bar is an early warning of the liberties to come, as are the movement heading (Moderato cantabile molto espressivo) and the marking con amabilità. Changes of texture and figuration are as important as harmony in marking the structural pillars of this rhapsodic movement.

The second movement is a scherzo in the manner of the late Bagatelles, a highly charged joke of meter-jarring accents, odd gaps, and explosive dynamic contrasts. Recent research by Martin Cooper has indicated that it also includes musical references to two popular songs, "Unsa Kätz häd Katzln ghab" (Our cat has had kittens) and "Ich bin lüderlich, du bist lüderlich" (I am draggletailed, you are draggletailed). The specific force of the allusions may not be felt, but their boisterous, comic character is clear.

Remarkable as these movements are, it is the extraordinary third movement that dominates discussion of this sonata. Beethoven combined slow movement and finale into a single cathartic span, the principal elements of which are an Arioso dolente (lamenting song) and a three-voice fugue. "In the context of the last three piano sonatas, it is both a Passion and a Pietà," Claudio Arrau said, and there is a decidedly Baroque feel to this music, in the choice of the interwoven forms and the very clear sense of Affekt and psychological line.

The finale of this very vocal sonata begins with a recitative that modulates from the key of the scherzo (F minor/major) to A-flat minor for the Arioso dolente, a tragic melody over a throbbing accompaniment that ends in dark exhaustion. The confident, propulsive fugue (in A-flat major) offers sharp contrast. "It is no great feat to write a fugue," Beethoven remarked. "I wrote dozens of them in my student years. But the imagination also asserts her claims, and today another, genuine poetic element must be blended with the antique form."

The fugue breaks off with a loud trill and fading arpeggios, and with a little semi-tone slip E-flat major becomes G minor and the Arioso returns, marked "wearily, lamenting." In his late music, Beethoven explored many substitutes for the dominant key, but the use of the leading tone was unusual. Setting this statement of the Arioso a half-step lower is a symbol of exhaustion and the melody itself is now full of sighs and little gaps, as if the music itself were short of breath.

The fugue also returns, now in inversion and marked "little by little gaining new life" and modulating back to A-flat. Beethoven also effects a kind of textural modulation, as the fugue sheds polyphony, and grows in volume and speed, until the original theme (right-side up) is hammered out in big chords over rapid left-hand figuration.

The effect of the fugal development and new life attained can be overwhelming. It is "an exertion of will to banish suffering," according to composer Vincent d'Indy. Or for pianist Alfred Brendel: "In a last euphoric effort, its conclusion reaches out beyond homophonic emancipation, throwing off the chains of music itself."

- John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.