And Now We Will Talk to Each Other in Tones

What does a deaf composer write? Simply the greatest music ever composed.

Had Beethoven stopped composing in 1812, he still would have found a place in the first rank of composers in history. But what Beethoven did between 1817 and 1827 is simply remarkable, even setting aside his disability. Looking back from our 21st century vantage point at these works mutes just how revolutionary Beethoven really was. He slammed the door on the Classical Period, but instead of evolving into the first Romantic composer, he simply skipped Romanticism entirely. It is tempting to say that he was the first Modernist, but that’s not exactly right either. In 1817, Beethoven simply evolved into the first and last of his kind. He became Beethoven. And we will never see his like again. Here is the story:

By 1816, Beethoven’s life was in shambles. His “popular” compositions were no longer attracting crowds and his deafness was all but complete. A true virtuoso who had initially gained acclaim as a performer, Beethoven hadn’t performed live in two years and his disability would prevent him from ever doing so again. His family squabbles had all ended badly and he was now resigned to never marrying. His patronage had all but dried up, he was living in abject squalor, and actually had been arrested, having been mistaken for a vagrant. Beethoven’s friends and patrons began to despair.

Beethoven’s muse, however, was far from done with her greatest disciple; music, once again, proved the path back. One of Beethoven’s pupils and staunchest supporters, the Baroness Dorothea Ertmann, convinced Beethoven to write a new piano sonata for her. And in composing what became his Opus 101, Beethoven began to unlock new doors. The prodigal had returned.

Beethoven’s Late Period would see the composer fully fuse his art with his own emotions. Great performances of these remarkable works connect you, as the audience, with Beethoven’s soul in such a profound way that it appears to be truly mystical. Forget mass. If you want to have a true religious experience, get to a concert hall and see on of these remarkable works performed live.

Beethoven opens his 28th piano sonata on a tender note. Abandoning the generic Italian tempo notations, he instead instructs the pianist: Etwas Lebhaft und mit der Innigsten Empfindung (somewhat lively with the most intimate emotion). What does this mean? Consider his relationship with the Baroness. As relayed by her confidant, Felix Mendelssohn:

When she lost her last child, Beethoven at first did not want to come into the house; at length he invited her to visit with him, and when she came he sat himself down at the pianoforte and said simply: “We will now talk to each other in tones” and for over an hour played without stopping. She remarked: “He told me everything, and at last brought me comfort.”

Felix Mendelssohn

The piano (still called a fortepiano during Beethoven’s life) was still evolving further away from the harpsichord. The pedal had been invented, which allowed for the suspension of notes over time and Beethoven had been the first composer to make extensive use of this new innovation. The keyboard itself continued to grow–now to over six octaves–and Beethoven notes a low E in the score of the 28th sonata in fortissimo as if to say “look what we can now play!” It is also notable that Beethoven’s fortepiano contained a pedal that no longer exists on modern instruments. Then, and now, each hammer of the piano strikes three strings. But Beethoven’s pedal, if I understand this correctly, could shift the hammers over so that they struck only one string, creating a thinner timbre. Much of the third movement in the 28th piano sonata is notated to be played with this “sul una corda” pedal. Sadly, that sound is now lost to us.

Beethoven’s harmonic language in the 28th piano sonata hews closely to the Classical traditions, but he begins to stretch the rules at the margins. The opening theme outlines the tonic key of A major, largely by defining the scale around the fifth (or dominant) tone of A major. We naturally expect a resolution to the tonic–an A major triad–that will relieve the harmonic tension. Instead, Beethoven provides a deceptive cadence that allows him to modulate to the subdominant key, F-Sharp major. Over and over again, Beethoven creates the expectation of A major, only to frustrate the audience with something else. In the final measure, Beethoven finally give us a low A, which merely suggests the resolution that arrives a beat later at the very end. Between those tones, Beethoven contemplates the end of tonal harmony. But he’s not there yet. The Late Period has only just begun.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 28 in A major, Op. 101:

There is so much to say about this remarkable first work of the Late Period. Following the dream-like first movement, Beethoven presents two further movements that seemingly have little to do with each other–a march followed by a hymn. But out of the final trills of the third movement (starting at around 13:50), the finale bursts forth, unifying everything that has come before. The structure of this movement combines the typical sonata form (exposition, development, recapitulation) with Baroque fugue. Beethoven, it seems, had not been a complete dilettante as he pursued popular fame. He had recommitted himself to the study of great composers–Palestrina, Handel and Bach, most notably. But Beethoven was not merely looking backwards. With two eyes ever focused on the future, Beethoven set about laying down a marker for posterity.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s