Composed in 1809 - 1810; Published in 1811
Also called "Les Adieux" (see note)
Op. 81a is a transitional work: the sonic landscape of the introduction presages some of his late compositions, while other portions could easily have been written a few years earlier. This sonata is also unusual in three respects that have nothing to do with the music itself.
Of all the sonatas, this is the only one with an explicit program. Archduke Rudolph, a close friend and sponsor of Beethoven, was forced to leave Vienna due to the imminent Napoleonic invasion, and Beethoven composed this work with the movements representing, respectively, his friend’s farewell, his absence, and their reunion. (He even delayed completion of the finale until Rudolph actually returned to Vienna). It is also no coincidence that this is also the first sonata in which the original titles and principal tempo indications are in German. To employ even common musical terms such as Allegro and Andante was politically incorrect at this time because Italian was the Napoleon’s native language*.
Lastly, the work owes its unusual opus number to the fact that it was bound with a sextet for two horns and string quartet (Op. 81b) which Beethoven had composed much earlier. Although the grouping of several similar compositions under a single opus number was still relatively common (although no longer so for Beethoven, whose works were in such demand that he could sell each one individually), this type of “dog’s breakfast” publication was always a rare occurrence.
The sonata is not only programmatic, but also highly pictorial. The first three notes of the introduction bring to mind a post-horn call. One can almost imagine the Archduke’s horses’ neighing in the flourish immediately preceding the main theme, following which, the left hand imitates the clattering of coach wheels while the sharp, rising three notes in the right hand depict the cracking of the driver’s whip. Also, in the coda, it is not hard to picture, in the winding down of the tempo and the spreading of the hands, the Archduke’s coach disappearing from view. The second movement wonderfully evokes a sense of loneliness, while the third, complete with fanfare, conjures up the joy and excitement of seeing a close friend after a lengthy absence.
Yet, for all the programmatic content, the sonata is rigorously constructed, beginning with the Introduction, which is totally integrated with the rest of the composition. Indeed, the opening three notes are the source of virtually all the important material of the first movement. In various transformations, that motto also plays a meaningful role in the remainder of the sonata. All three movements are in fairly standard sonata forms, except for the deeply expressive Andante, which lacks a development section. The Finale, with its E-flat major scales and arpeggios, is highly reminiscent of the Emperor Concerto, written around the same time.
* "Les Adieux" was the last name Beethoven would have chosen, and not simply because of anti-French sentiment. Beneath the important descending three-note motto with which the Sonata begins, the composer wrote the syllables, Le-be-wohl, whose meaning in German - 'live well' - is quite different than the French 'good-bye,' or 'God be with you'.
—Notes by Robert Silverman