Composed in 1814; Published in 1815
The years 1812-1814 were the least productive of Beethoven’s career. No wonder: the combination of particularly severe personal stress, a sharp decline in his hearing, and the impact of the recent Napoleonic occupation could hardly have been conducive to the incredible productivity that had characterized his output in the 19th century’s first decade. (He did remain busy during those years, but it was ‘busy work’ that principally occupied him: the creation of patriotic pieces like Wellington’s Victory and The Glorious Moment, which were written to commemorate the Congress of Vienna, several folksong settings, and the final revision of Fidelio.) The sonata in E minor, Op. 90 marks a return to more serious composition. Perhaps coincidentally, Beethoven appears to have “picked up where he left off” with the principal thematic germ of the first movement⎯the three-note descending motif, G-F#-E⎯remarkably like his previous sonata’s (Op. 81a) main theme, G-F-E flat. The two ideas are even developed similarly in places.
As with all his mature two-movement sonatas, each movement contrasts sharply with the other. In the opening, highly concentrated movement, two dissimilar ideas are presented at the outset, and it is these themes that Beethoven ultimately subjects to extensive development. Especially masterful is the manner in which, at the end of the development section, the composer ruminates about the first of these motives⎯three descending notes⎯to the point where the rhythm of the movement almost dissolves completely. However, just before chaos sets in, the music regains its momentum, and the main theme emerges out of the prior dissolution of the musical material.
The concluding movement is not only the last of the five congenial Rondos to appear in his piano sonatas, but is as leisurely, lyrical, and repetitive a finale as he was ever to compose. (Some commentators refer to it as ‘Schubertian’ because of its melodiousness, but with the exception of a cadence just before the movement’s conclusion, that particular reference eludes these ears.) Thank goodness Beethoven knew a good tune when he wrote it: it occurs virtually unadorned sixteen times over the course of the movement. Beethoven knows exactly what he is up to, however, and teases us at the sonata’s conclusion, pretending that the movement is going to continue even more. Suddenly, he decides that enough is enough and as abruptly as this sentence, the music stops cold.
—Notes by Robert Silverman