A Musical Departure, Absence and Return - Piano Sonata no. 26, Op. 81a

Dedicated to the absence and return of E2 in late 2003.


(Sonate caractéristique: Les Adieux, l'absence et le retour)

Dem Erzherzog Rudolph gewidmet

Das Lebewohl (Les adieux): Adagio -- Allegro

Abwesenheit (L'absence): Andante espressivo, In gehender Bewegung, doch mit viel Ausdruck

Das Wiedersehn (Le retour): Vivacissimamente, Im lebhaftesten Zeitmaße

The sonata "Les Adieux", composed in 1809-10, was Beethoven's response to the enforced absence of his friend, patron and pupil Archduke Rudolph of Austria. Ironically, given the French titles of the movements, it was Napoleon Bonaparte who forced the Archduke out by being so unmannerly as to invade Austria and advance within shooting distance of Vienna. (For more historical context, see Beethoven and Napoleon - I am going to post that tomorrow. Well, soon.) However, as you can see Beethoven also provided good German titles and even translated the Italian tempo directions into German.

Beethoven may have got the idea from Jan Ladislav Dussek's Sonata op.44, also called "The Farewell", in the same key (E flat major): Dussek's work was published around 1800, but his entire œuvre has now disappeared into obscurity. It too begins with a slow introduction, but has four subsequent movements.

The sonata is unusual among Beethoven's works for having a consistent dramatic programme. In this it follows the Pastoral Symphony (Op.68) of the previous year (1808) whose movements were given titles referring to scenes of the countryside (a stream, a peasant gathering, a storm, a shepherd song) and to the "cheerful", "happy" or "thankful" feelings occasioned by being in the country. The Symphony contains some obviously imitatory passages: the birdsong of the slow movement, thunder and lightning in the fourth movement, and musical imitation of an inebriated dance-band and of the simple melodies of a shepherd's horn or pipe. However, much of it is more mood-painting than sound-painting, Beethoven bringing the psychological effect of the countryside into the concert hall.


The programme of the Sonata is carried out along even more abstract lines. The movements depict, not external events, but Beethoven's own reactions to his patron and friend's departure in an uncertain time of war, and eventual return. The only explicit reference to the sounds of the outside world comes at the very beginning (Adagio), when the syllables "Le - be - wohl!" (Farewell!) are written above the first three notes. The musical setting is striking: the right hand has a descending scale (3-2-1) in E flat major, harmonized as if by a pair of French horns which could only play the notes of the natural harmonic series. E flat is the key of (most of) Mozart's horn concertos, the Trio of Beethoven's own "Eroica" symphony which is dominated by a trio of horns, and his earlier Piano Sonata no.4 (Op.7) which opens with a broad chordal gesture that brings the horn section to mind (or to ear).

However, the horns of Op.81a are no longer confidently proclaiming a new work, but softly and almost elegiacally calling from the distance. The left hand, entering on the third note " - wohl", confirms the darkened atmosphere with - not the E flat that would confirm the opening statement - but a low C. The implied key is no longer glad confident E flat, but C minor, a key associated with grim and tragic struggle in Beethoven's works. Beethoven's C minor is typefied by the "Pathetique" Sonata Op.13, the slow movement funeral march of the Eroica symphony, and the first movement and scherzo of the Fifth Symphony.

At first this C minor is no more than a suggestion, a setback from which E flat could reassert itself; but with a more rhythmically expressive rising motive in the melody, the harmony moves downwards to reaffirm the hold of C minor. By bar 5 we are almost resigned to tragedy, when with a crescendo and sudden shift of harmony E flat major is suddenly reimposed. But there was no logical progression from C to E flat: it's as if Beethoven is trying to put on a brave face. The harmonic turmoil (achieved within a strict rhythmic structure) continues with another statement of the "Le-be-wohl" motif. Again the third chord upsets our expectations, even more radically: C flat major. This is a logical progression, but only in a key with six flats: E flat minor. Even though we've landed on a "happy" major chord, the E flat major horn call of the opening is now thoroughly denied.

As if to confirm the blow dealt to the original tonality, the rising motive turns towards E flat minor, then pauses with a succession of isolated "questioning" phrases. The emotional ambiguity continues as the phrases push upwards to A flat minor - seven flats, an unprecedently "depressed" key! - and then, amazingly, A flat major. Can we return to E flat after all? The music itself seems not to believe that this rescue is possible: silence and disjointed pianissimo A flat chords signal a total loss of confidence.


But, attaca subito e forte, the Allegro shows that, eventually, it can be. This was probably the most harmonically unstable and complicated first theme Beethoven had ever used, with the harmony starting on the "unbelievable" A flat chord and sliding precipitously downwards while the melody is a speeded-up version of the introduction's rising motive. Until its very last note we are kept in suspense: will we land in a tragic minor, or an optimistic major? Normally, the job of a main theme is to establish the key, but this one almost succeeds in eliminating it! But, for the time being, we return to E flat major and go through a relatively normal sonata form movement.

Beethoven doesn't forget the deep uncertainties of his introduction in the new, livelier atmosphere, though. The transition (change of key) is managed by putting the "Le-be-wohl" 3-2-1 motif, speeded up, in the bass line, with the notes chromatically altered to undercut (in yet a different way) the key E flat. The second subject (tune in a contrasting key) is, again, the "Le-be-wohl" 3-2-1 motif, in long notes, with an accompaniment marked by subtle "blue note" tweaks to the harmony. At the end of the first part of the movement, the "Le-be-wohl" motif returns, quietly and sans accompaniment, again using only the natural notes of the E flat horn -- as if to lead us back to E flat major.

The first time round, we do get back, but the second time bar gives us a different harmony yet again, that puts us momentarily and violently into C minor, as if the change of mood in the very first bars was threatening yet more seriously. Beethoven uses the conventional repeat of the first section (which should always be played) to rub in that the quiet return of the "Le-be-wohl" notes can either bring us home to E flat, or cast us adrift in C minor -- and yet further afield. The development (taking the themes through different keys) ensues with very rapid changes of key and alternating distorted versions of the first two notes of "Le-be-wohl" with fragments of the first subject. At last, the long notes link up into a longer melody, which seems to confirm a key: C minor again! The bass descends onto a bottom C, and we are, it seems, definitely cast into the shadows.

At the bleakest point, C minor is replaced by A flat major, by changing only a single note of the chord: G to A flat. For a while nothing happens, the music can't seem to progress beyond pianissimo A flat chords. But, as if remembering how the movement got started, or by sheer force of will, the chord moves up an octave and crescendos into the return of the first subject, harmonically unstable as before. Rather than a convincing rebuttal of the darkness of C minor, as in the finale of the Fifth, this transition is only a temporary evasion.

The escape more or less holds good until the end of the movement, after a long coda in which the first subject and the "Le-be-wohl" motif appear in many different guises. Towards the end the horn calls speed up and overlap with each other, as if departure was imminent and the last rapid goodbyes were being said. Beethoven's interior reactions have the last word: the last statement of "Le-be-wohl" deep in the bass is accompanied by a cheerful quaver figure, but it gradually peters out in the highest register of the piano (the distance between the two friends reflected in the distance between the hands?) and resolves onto a single pianissimo yearning progression C-Bb. Almost the same progression would be used much later by Mahler to end, unresolved, the last song of his Das Lied von der Erde, Das Abschied (The Farewell). The last two chords, while slamming the door on the first movement, give no satisfying answer to this.


As if to confirm our forebodings, the Andante espressivo begins on a chord of C minor. But rather than a settled grimness as in the Eroica's funeral march, it evinces troubled uncertainty. Within the first quarter of a bar C minor is replaced by a diminished chord, the acme of musical discomfort and unpredictability. Even more weirdly, we hear a near-quotation of the expressive rising figure from the introduction, in its original rhythm. Apparently the Allegro didn't succeed in removing the sting of this tragic phrase.

Somewhat against the odds, the music manages a coherent eight-bar sentence ending in C minor, then with a more urgent feeling into F minor, but pausing, and then into G minor, with a determined succession of sforzandos as if urging the music onwards; but again the thread is lost and the right hand meanders upwards without resolving onto any chord. A new melody follows, in G major, and seems to promise brighter things, flowering for a moment into almost manic ornamentation, but soon returns to the minor and is succeeded by dry, hesitant staccato figures. These, in fact, are an almost unrecognizable transformation of the 3-2-1 progression of the opening, and end up in the same key, C minor.

At this point the whole pattern from the beginning of the Andante espressivo is (more or less) repeated, but in a key one whole tone lower, ending in B flat minor. This is a truly bizarre procedure by "normal" standards of Classical form, since it makes it impossible to return to the home key of the movement and create a balanced and satisfying form. The result is a feeling of aimless drift: it may just repeat itself ad infinitum, and we cannot know how long the "Absence" is going to be. Beethoven has replaced the ideal of a self-contained movement with that of a section, incomplete within itself, which makes no sense except as part of a larger structure.

The quotation from the introduction already showed that this movement is actually a continuation rather than a new statement. Haydn had already written slow movements which lead into the finale, and Beethoven had written a somewhat similar "Introduzione" movement to the finale of the "Waldstein" sonata, but nothing with quite this degree of desolate uncertainty. The middle section of Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse, a short chapter with no human characters depicting the slow decay of an abandoned house, is a literary parallel.

(The quiet and mostly subdued nature of the movement makes it clear that this was by no means an attempt to describe actual events in Vienna: in fact, the city was shelled by Napoleon's troops, then occupied, and battles continued in the region for some time. During the bombardment Beethoven even hid in the cellar of a relative's house with pillows over his ears, trying to protect his sensitive and deteriorating hearing.)

Returning to the music, Beethoven launches the Andante theme for yet a third time, with yet another jolt of key. But this time the music does not achieve any melodic statement: it breaks up into isolated unaccompanied figures, over a chord that is all but ready to resolve grimly back into C minor and land us back where we started.

Again, Beethoven uses the shift of a single semitone to make a complete change of direction: the B natural in the bass moves downwards to B flat, which is the dominant of E flat. Psychologically, it is the only chord that can firmly establish the home key E flat by moving to it, making a "perfect cadence": the musical progression which produces the most satisfying sense of finality. The Allegro movement had a lot of B flat - E flat chord changes, but few of them had the sort of emphasis that establishes the home key beyond all further doubt. That will be reserved for…


With a sudden, bright forte chord and a bubbling eruption of semiquavers the finale begins, vivacissimamente: the semiquavers stream from the bass upwards into the highest register and then down again, and there comes another sudden chord, lower down, as if to anchor the harmony yet more firmly -- not that it much needs it, since it is nothing but ten straight bars of a B flat 7th chord -- and another upwards run, and then, at last, the harmony resolves itself clearly and simply into E flat. We are back home.

The finale, in fact, is another lively sonata form movement with a main theme and contrasting tune. What is most remarkable about the theme is its utter simplicity and normality, a really Mozartian lack of pretention: it might almost be a sea shanty. Somewhat fancifully, it's as if a long-lost friend walked in the door looking just as he did so many years ago and wondering what all the fuss is about. The theme is taken up by the left hand with rather cheeky interjections from the right, then quickly grows into a full-scale fortissimo all the while thundering out the basic chords of E flat major.

In a subtle analogy with the first Allegro, the transition (change of key) again happens through a dramatic alteration of harmony, but this time it has rather less menace to it: hints of B flat minor are quickly transformed into a chattering figure that suggests gossip rather than tragedy, and then into the broad melody of the second subject. The layout of this theme on the piano is similar to the corresponding place in the first Allegro, but there are no "blue notes" in the accompaniment to contradict its serenity.

Again we get a development ranging quickly through widely different keys, but this time it is remarkably quiet and confined almost entirely to major keys (as in the first movement of the "Pastoral" symphony). Rather than a dramatic upset, the section expresses different aspects of the same contented mood. The return of the first theme occurs with little fanfare and as before it builds to a joyful noise fortissimo on E flat, the lyrical second subject following in the same key.

Beethoven actually slows down the tempo (Poco Andante) for the coda of the movement -- the end of the entire work. After stating the main theme he writes a tiny set of variations on its first few notes: throwing in little decorative notes, double notes, syncopations, but all the while keeping to the same simple harmony of E flat major. After all the excitement of the fast finale it's as if he is relaxing, just playing around with notes. But this is no way to end a respectable piano sonata -- so it's back to the fast tempo for a last variation, amid a hail of semiquavers, that sounds the lowest and highest E flats on the keyboard and confirms the return home, and there's no more to say.

Of course, there are many more subtleties, twists and turns in the work than I can try to go into here. There is really no point in reading all of this without listening to (or playing!) the sonata, since (to coin a phrase) as far as understanding music goes a bar is worth a thousand words. And please, the first few times you listen, forget everything I've said: there's nothing worse than "listening out" for a particular bit that some random writer said was interesting, but, in the process, forgetting to hear the rest of the music. Beethoven explains his sonata much better than I can.

Still, I hope I've managed to stimulate some interest in the work, and give some notion of how Beethoven used unusual harmonic and rhythmic structures to realize in music the particular psychological situation he found himself in.

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