Composed in 1821 - 1822; Published in 1823
Yin and Yang are perfectly reflected in the two movements of Beethoven’s final sonata, in which the nervous, pent-up energy of the concise opening movement gives way to the utter serenity and timelessness of the second.
Here, as in many of his late works, Beethoven was consciously exploring his musical roots. The first movement clearly has its origins in the French Overture, a standard genre of the Baroque period. Its principal components were a slow introduction in dotted rhythms, followed by a fast fugal section. (A kinship with the Introduction to that of his earlier Pathétique Sonata, also in C minor, also cannot be overlooked.)
A terrifying trill in the lower bass leads to a statement of the explosive, defiant three-note main theme. Like a caged beast, it tries again and again to escape its bonds, and finally breaks free, with an energetic fugue. The second theme, although very different from the first, is similarly constricted and requires several attempts to break out of its constraints. The fugal Development section is unusually short for a piece of this scope and an overall sense of restlessness and frustration soon returns. The key changes from C minor to C major in the brief coda, but this is not the joyful C major of Op. 2/3 or the triumphant C major of the close of the Fifth Symphony. Rather, the mood is one of resignation and acceptance.
The second movement is, in my opinion, the most sublime, transcendental work written for piano. With the theme’s stark simplicity, the astonishing sonorities that Beethoven explores over the course of the piece, and the final drive to the movement’s climax and release, its profundity is unmatched in the entire repertoire.
Beethoven’s obsession in the latter part of his career with the interval of the third is here extended to the number ‘three’ in general. The time signature is 9/8 (or three times 3/8), and without exception, each beat in every measure is similarly subdivided and sub-subdivided. Although not termed as such, the movement is a set of continuous variations that are characterized by a process of increasing rhythmic animation, while the theme and accompanying harmonies remain constant. *
Variations 1 through 3 increase the rhythmic activity to the point where Beethoven seems to be straining at our earthly confines, much like the buffeting an airplane must endure before breaking the sound barrier. (So active and syncopated is Variation 3 that some wishful commentators have suggested that the beginnings of jazz date from this point.) Variation 4 is a so-called double variation: the repeat of each section receives totally different treatment than its initial iteration. Here, the rhythm is broken down into even smaller rhythmic subdivisions (a background rumble or a pointillistic elaboration of the melody). The boundaries of everyday existence are now behind us; our spirits are in free flight. A lengthy interlude follows, featuring trills, music’s ultimate thematic disintegration. Then, when all is dust, Beethoven begins reassembling his material. Finally, the theme begins again, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, transporting us to a state of spiritual ecstasy that will continue into infinity, even after all is silent…
* It is interesting that, as with the middle movement of the Appassionata and the slow movement of the Archduke Trio. Beethoven never entitled this type of composition a set of variations. He reserved that designation only for movements such as those in the Sonatas Op. 26 and 109, in which each variation is far more of a distinct entity.
—Notes by Robert Silverman