Composed in 1816; Published in 1817
Op. 101 was Beethoven’s first truly substantial piano sonata following the Appassionata of 1805. Stylistically, this work and the two Op. 102 cello sonatas are so far removed from any of his previous compositions that one can argue that it is these three works that usher in his “late period.” Forms are unorthodox, or unorthodoxically placed within the sonata. His earlier efforts to combine and relate individual movements now reach fruition in a single, organically-unified composition. Beethoven was never a stranger to contrapuntal writing, but from this piece onward, pervasive, imitative polyphony would henceforth become an integral part of his style. Although virtuosity of the sort found in the Waldstein or the Appassionata is assiduously avoided, the uncompromising, and largely unpianistic, writing makes Op. 101 one of the most difficult of his sonatas to play.
In the leisurely first movement, although one can find features of standard sonata form, the characteristic element of contrast is totally missing. Sections blend together seamlessly. Even the opening measures give the illusion that the piece has already been going on for a while, much as if we had happened upon a conversation already in progress. *
The old-fashioned minuet had earlier surrendered its place in a sonata or symphony to the faster scherzo; however, even the scherzo has been banished in Op. 101. Instead, the second movement is a jerky, gnarly, heavily contrapuntal march. The middle Trio provides welcome contrast in mood and density, but it too relies on contrapuntal writing, taking the anachronistic form of a canon (and consequently resembling a two-part invention that Bach would have made his students throw into the waste-basket).
A relatively brief Adagio follows, contemplative and sparse, forecasting the tragic vision that would characterize those awesome slow movements that were to come in his last works. It too seems to begin in mid-stream, and soon begins to meander harmonically, getting a bit lost in the process. In its wanderings, it arrives unexpectedly at a re-statement of the opening measures of the sonata. But this is not where we should be at this point and Beethoven quickly breaks off the quotation. Still, the question of what to do next remains. While pondering those last three notes of the previous phrase with increasing agitation he suddenly sees his way out of his predicament, and while the right hand is occupied with long trills, the left hand delivers a pair of one-two combination punches that lead directly into the Finale.
The problem of finding a finale appropriate to what has gone before, as well as a convincing way of introducing it, occupied Beethoven increasingly throughout his career. Some critics believe that his rate of success in this regard is somewhat less than 100 percent, but in Op. 101 he succeeds beyond question. The jubilant fourth movement’s centerpiece is an intense, thumb-twisting fugue. Beginning quietly and ominously, it piles one voice on top of another, building without respite to an almost unbearable degree of tension, before returning triumphantly to the main theme. Just as masterful is the Coda. It begins very much like the opening of the fugue, but Beethoven is just toying with our expectations. He suddenly changes course, and winds down the excitement, forcing the pianist to pretend he is a string quartet in the process. Then, when all is at a standstill, Beethoven delivers a final knockout blow, bringing the sonata to an abrupt conclusion.
* So seamlessly does the first movement follow the final measures of the previous sonata (No. 27) that perhaps, in an offbeat way, it has been going on for a while! Just possibly, this is another of Beethoven’s attempts, in his later works, to elucidate his creative process: in this case, he could consciously be guiding us from his previous world into his new one.
— Notes by Robert Silverman