Composed in 1820; Published in 1821
With his gigantic Hammerklavier of 1818, Beethoven had taken the piano sonata as far as it could go in anything resembling a traditional format. If he was not to repeat himself, any subsequent effort would have to lead the form into uncharted waters, and his three final sonatas, Op. 109-111, composed between 1820 and 1823, are indeed unlike any others written previously.
As revolutionary as these sonatas are from so many standpoints, they reach backward for much of their originality. Late in his career, Beethoven seemed to undertake a conscious exploration of his musical roots, and in Op. 109, he was clearly preoccupied with the Baroque era. With its shifting moods and tempi, the opening movement almost seems to hearken back to the free organ fantasies of Bach and his predecessors, while the last movement, for reasons I will soon explain, could almost be called Beethoven’s Goldberg Variations.
Beethoven did not only pay homage to other composers in his later works; he sometimes echoed himself. This is the case of the main theme of the first movement, which is derived from the finale of his sonata, Op. 79. However, the most striking feature of the opening movement is its extreme conciseness. It obeys all the conventions of sonata form, but the main theme⎯if you can call that sort of noodling a theme⎯is over almost before it begins. The brief, sharply contrasting secondary material gives us another rare glimpse of Beethoven's improvisatory skills. It is only in the central development section that he lets us feel comfortable enough to settle back, unwrap our cellophane-covered candy, and listen to the music. Soon, however, the unsettled material returns, and a coda brings the movement to a peaceful, yet uneasy close.
The middle movement, a wild Tarantella, immediately shatters this calm. Although listeners would be justified in assuming that the main theme is in the right hand, it is the left hand’s counter-theme that Beethoven later subjects to substantial development.
In his last sonatas, Beethoven reserves his most sublime thoughts for the finales, and Op. 109, with its glorious set of variations, is no exception. Unlike the second movement of the Appassionata, where one variation leads almost imperceptibly into the next, each variation here is discrete and distinctive. The subtle, almost intangible, links between them attest to Beethoven’s masterful skill as a spiritual travel guide. I earlier referred to this movement as Beethoven’s Goldberg Variations. There are three reasons for this comparison: both themes share a similar Sarabande-like rhythm; both sets make copious use of imitative counterpoint; and at the conclusion of both works, the composer restates the theme almost verbatim, allowing us a few extra moments to reflect on how many changes the themes⎯and we⎯have undergone since their initial occurrence.
—Notes by Robert Silverman