Vivace, ma non troppo. Sempre legato - Adagio espressivo
Andante molto cantabile ed espressivo
Some 20 of Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas pre-date the period of his fullest maturity during the early 1800s. Although even these works were often more experimental than anything by Mozart or Haydn, it is with the great series beginning with the Waldstein in 1804 that his most original thoughts are found. By the time of his last three sonatas, Opp. 109, 110 and 111 , composed in 1820-22, he had turned the medium from what had originally been an early form of home entertainment into a profound, deeply personal statement. All three seem to inhabit a world away from the world, going beyond the mere exploration of pianistic technique to express something inward and introspective in Beethoven's creative personality.
All three show Beethoven breaking the bounds of the traditional sonata by abandoning the traditional movement forms of the medium and exploring new ones. For example, variation technique and fugue usurp the more familiar 'sonata form', and the layout of the sonatas as a whole has managed to become both more condensed ( Op. 111 has only two movements) and more diffuse, in the sense that traditional movement 'types' are no longer the cast-in-stone sureties of earlier works. This is particularly the case with Op. 109, where none of the movements are where one would expect them. The first alternates between two areas of music marked respectively Vivace and Adagio and, with the latter predominating, seems to be turning the slow introduction/allegro first movement form on its head. The middle movement, despite its tempo marking, has more of the characteristics of a first movement than the expected scherzo, while the finale, like that of Op. 111 , is a set of variations.
If the form seems diffuse, there is at least a sense of unity provided by the thematic material. The arabesque-like figuration of the opening Vivace hides within itself the main idea of the Prestissimo, as well as the theme of the variations. The arabesque soon leads into the first of the two improvisatory Adagio sections; only in the movement's coda does the latter's stepwise motion merge with the arpeggiated chords of the Vivace. The Prestissimo is in E minor - though, as we have seen, its melodic outline has already been prefigured in a major-key form in the Adagio opening. Unlike the other two late sonatas, there is no fugal writing as such in the present work, though this central movement instead explores elements of canon.
Where variation movements in early Beethoven sonatas usually kept to the basic pulse and form of the melody, gradually introducing increasingly decorative figuration, in Op. 109 his approach is much more wide-ranging. The tempo changes with virtually every variation (there are six in all). The third, for example, is based not on the theme's melody but on its original bass line, and the fifth is an extended Allegro with canonic writing to the fore. The sixth reverts to the tempo of the theme and features repeated notes that gradually quicken until they become a trill that finally dissolves into a last presentation of the theme in its largely unadulterated form.