It should not be a surprise to any regular reader of this blog that I consider Beethoven’s chamber works to be his most significant compositions, and his piano sonatas in particular to be among those where my connection to Beethoven is strongest. Beethoven’s final piano sonatas are breathtaking in their beauty and inventiveness and, perhaps, in the fullness of time I might come back to explore some of them in greater detail. But if I am ever going to get to Schubert (currently stalking Beethoven around Vienna like the shy fanboy that he was), I’m going to have to make some cuts. The Godfather took me to task for ignoring the Fourth Piano Concerto. Fair point–but ignoring any of the late sonatas or quartets is a far worse crime.
Beethoven’s Late Period works fill me with equal parts awe and dread. Reaching back through time, right to where this blog began in the 1300s, Beethoven’s music begins to incorporate techniques that had been long abandoned, while at the same time thrusting form and harmonics forward–so forward that these remarkable compositions naturally coexist with so much of the music that is being written today.
A few examples:
Beethoven’s 30th piano sonata is not nearly as famous as the one it succeeds, but in many ways it is my favorite of his Late Period works for solo piano. Most analyses focus on the third movement–a grand theme and variation that rivals anything that Bach produced–and rightly so, but my interest today lies in the theme from the first movement, which repeats regularly as part of the sonata form. It is instantly recognizable, at least to me–I dedicated an entire entry here to the endless appeal (and reuse) of Couperin’s theme Les Barricades Mysterieuses. Let’s refresh our recollection:
Francois Couperin, Second livre de pieces de clavecin, Ordre sixieme: No. 5, Les Barricades Mysterieuses:
Beethoven takes this timeless tune and jazzes it up.
Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109:
Jazz you say? Yes, jazz. And if there is any question about whether Beethoven could swing, what he let fly in the second movment his final piano sonata leaves absolutely no doubt (skip to 6:40 in the below if you are impatient):
Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111
Whether Beethoven invented boogie-woogie in 1820, nearly a century before the jazz age, is really besides the point. By this point in his life, Beethoven could be forgiven for slipping permanetly into the blackest of moods. Robbed of his most prescious sense, a complete failure in matters of love and family, denied the stable income his benefactors had promised, and, with the final defeat of Napoleon, the liberal dreams of his youth dashed against the authoritarian rocks of monarchy–very little had gone Beethoven’s way in life. And yet, his ideals and profound optimism endured. Beethoven wrote this final work for his instrument roughly contemporaneously with the start of his work on the Ninth Symphony. Rhythmically adventurous, harmonically complex–this is a triumph of optimism over the very depths of nearly absolute despair.
Beethoven’s Late Period demands scotch, the most contemplative of spirits. Unfortunately, spiking demand, thanks to increasing interest from Asian markets and collectors, has driven up the cost of scotch to frankly ridiculous levels. The next few entries in this series will be devoted to Late Beethoven and Scotch, a match made in heaven.
Today’s selection is Ardbeg’s Uigeadail. Like Late Beethoven, just reading it can be scary–how the hell do you play/pronouce that? For the record, it is something like Oog-a-dal. Playing Beethoven is considerably more difficult. But also like Late Beethoven, it presents as one thing (classically tonal/full of fresh flowers and fruit on the nose), but is decidedly something more different (chromatically adventurous/tasting clearly of smoke and the sea). Most importantly, the scotch is just perfectly balanced, across all of its various components, high strength (do add a drop or two of spring water to your dram), and . . . ok, this analysis is getting a bit strained. Let’s just say that Ardbeg’s Uigeadail is one of the best value scotches on the market today, about $75 in a liquor store that prizes customers equally with profit.