The Final Keyboard Trilogy: Beethoven’s Last Three Piano Sonatas and their Background


Dr Robert Blackburn, former Principal Lecturer in Music, School of Music and Performing Arts, Bath Spa University

17 April 2012

I gave a general talk on the Beethoven piano sonatas at the BRLSI in May 2006, the detailed summary of which can be found in the BRLSI Proceedings, Volume 10, (2005/6), pp. 232-235. The present lecture-recital concentrated on the three sonatas Opp. 109, 110 and 111, which Beethoven composed in 1820-22, against a background dominated by the composition of one of his very large-scale works, the Missa Solemnis for soloists, chorus and orchestra.  Beethoven had originally intended this to be performed at the ceremony of inauguration for his friend and pupil the Archduke Rudolph of Austria (younger brother of the Emperor Franz I) as Archbishop of Olmutz. However, the ceremony took place on 9 March 1820, when the Missa Solemnis was still a torso, and the pressure was off, at least to some extent. Completed in 1822, with minor revisions later, the Missa Solemnis was actually first performed in St Petersburg, and only later in Vienna.

Portrait of Beethoven (1819) by Ferdinand Schimon

[Denis Matthews, the British pianist and Beethoven biographer, in his 1985 study of the composer, quoted Beethoven’s friend Anton Schindler’s comment on Schimon’s portrait.  Schindler said ‘from an artistic point of view Schimon’s is not a distinguished work of art, yet it is full of characteristic truth.  In the rendering of that particular look, the majestic forehead, this dwelling-place of mighty, sublime ideas, of hues in the firmly shut mouth and the chin shaped like a shell, it is truer to nature than any other picture.]

Adolf Schlesinger, the Berlin publisher, had approached Beethoven in 1819 for ‘three new piano sonatas’. The contract was signed on 31 May 1820, and the fee of 90 ducats agreed. By this time, Beethoven, through the influence of his unpaid secretary Franz Oliva, clearly a shrewd and sensible man, had decided to incorporate, as the first movement of the first sonata, a Vivace / Adagio movement in E major which he had already composed, intending it originally as a contribution to a new piano Method, to be published by Friedrich Starke, one of his publishing associates in Vienna. The rest of the E major sonata (Op. 109, as it became) was quickly drafted in June and July 1820, though the composer made many alterations to it in the autumn, and certainly had not surrendered the completed score to Schlesinger much before November---and maybe not until early 1821. That autumn, he was very busy working on the Benedictus and Agnus Dei of the Missa Solemnis.

The year 1821, during which Beethoven gradually managed to start and finish the second of the three sonatas, the one in A flat, Op. 110, was generally speaking virtually empty compositionally. Part of the reason may have been his efforts over the Missa Solemnis.  But the main reason was that Beethoven’s general health, never very good ( he was 49 in December 1820) spiralled downwards in 1821. He suffered from rheumatic fever that year, and later jaundice, and it has been suggested that he also contracted hepatitis. Either way, the Arioso dolente of Op. 110 (in A flat minor) and its reappearance in G minor (a semitone lower) with marking ‘Ermattet, klagend’ (exhausted, weeping) unequivocally shows the transmutation of acute personal suffering into the highest art. The falling melody of the Arioso dolente has been compared with the great alto aria, with viola da gamba accompaniment, Es ist vollbracht (It is fulfilled) from J.S, Bach’s St John Passion (1723). Optimism prevails as the Fugue of Op. 110 resolves itself towards the end of the sonata, as the main idea of the Fugue is presented in a fully energised, dramatic form. This A flat Sonata is the only one of the three which ends forcefully and triumphantly, after its quiet,contained ‘con amabilita’ first movement.

Life mask of Beethoven taken by Franz Klein in 1812

In the final sonata of the three commissioned by Adolf Schlesinger, the composer’s initial idea was apparently for a work in the key of B flat, the key of the great ‘Hammerklavier’ sonata, Opus 106,of 1818. This material eventually appeared in 1826, in the String Quartet Op. 130, in that key. The relevant sketches for 1821-2 show a C minor opening movement in 6/8 time, while another idea, intended for a possible third movement, became the main theme of the eventual Maestoso / Allegro first movement, still in C minor. Again, surviving sketches reveal Beethoven writing down two famous classical period fugal ideas, one from Haydn’s String Quartet in F minor, Op.20 No.5 (1769-700 and the other the Kyrie of Mozart’s Requiem (1791). Both contained a falling chromatic figure, on which the first movement of Op. 111 was based, following the dramatic, slow Maestoso introduction. The general mood of this surging movement is dark, the level of tension extremely high, even though the Coda ends quietly in the tonic major (C major). As with Op. 109 in 1820,and as also with Op. 110 in 1821, Beethoven made extensive revisions to the score, especially in the great Arietta with variations, which formed the second and last movement. When Adolf Schlesinger’s son , Moritz, received the fair copy of Op. 111 in Paris (the autograph score was dated 25  December  1821), he is said to have wondered whether a third movement (that is, an Allegro finale ) should have been included, returning to the key of C minor. Convention might seem to have required this. But nothing could have been further from Beethoven’s intentions. The sublime Arietta, marked ‘Adagio’ and also ‘molto semplice e cantabile’ (very simply and in a singing style) requires the greatest intensity throughout, and its ending, like its beginning, seems to speak from another world. The two movements of op.111 have often been compared to Earth and Heaven. As Thomas Mann said in his great novel Doktor Faustus (147), in which his (fictitious) music tutor explicates Op. 111 to a group of awed German students in the years around 1900) anything beyond the Arietta would not only have been completely redundant, but it would even have been a contradiction of all that had gone before, and had already reached ultimate fulfilment in the very last pages of the Arietta.

Several points remain. In 1819, Beethoven had begun his set of variations on a waltz sent out by the Viennese music publisher Anton Diabelli to fifty composers. Beethoven wrote 23 variations, then set the work aside to complete the Missa Solemnis and the three Schlesinger piano sonatas. However, there is a resemblance between the harmonic shape of Diabelli’s waltz (also in the key of C) and the Adagio theme of Op. 111’s Arietta, which has often been noticed over the years, completely different though they are in character. In 1823, the Diabelli Variations were completed, 33 of them in all, and they were dedicated to Frau Antonie Brentano. Nowadays, thanks to the meticulous scholarship of the American Beethoven specialist Maynard Solomon, Antonie Brentano, nee von Birkenstock (1780-1869) is regarded as the virtually certain intended recipient of Beethoven’s celebrated unsent letter of 1812 to an anonymous ‘Immortal Beloved’, found among his papers after his death. Antonie and he were never lovers in the conventional sense, but he became very close to her and her family between 1810 and 1812 and was a regular visitor to the family home in Vienna   They never met again after Antonie and her family returned to Frankfurt in the latter year. But Beethoven always remembered her, as she did him until the end of her very long life. Op. 109 was dedicated to Antonie’s daughter, Maximiliane, a gifted pianist, while Op. 111 became one of the many works dedicated to the Archduke Rudolph. Regrettably Op. 110, that serene yet troubled work, received no dedication. There is every indication that Beethoven would have liked to dedicate the three sonatas to Antonie, but held back from doing so.  A separate point concerns the commission by Friedrich Starke for a piece or pieces for his Piano Method. After deciding to use his original single piece for the E major sonata, Beethoven replaced this with five short Bagatelles for piano, with a total length of 102 bars, the same as the displaced Vivace / Adagio movement. The five pieces became Nos. 7 to 11 of the Op. 119 set of Eleven Bagatelles, published in 1822.

In looking at these three supreme piano sonatas of 1820-1822 as a whole, we may notice several important features. None of them is as technically demanding as the ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata Op. 106,which had always been intended as a physical challenge to all future players-as it still is. But each one still requires, as one would expect, the greatest sensitivity, care and technical control throughout. They reveal new beauties to performers even after a lifetime of being played. The three sonatas make greater than ever-simultaneous use of the extreme ends of the keyboard, which on Beethoven’s 1818 Broadwood (a gift from the London firm and still in existence) had reached six and three quarter octaves. This aspect was already evident in Op. 101 in A major, as well as in Op. 106. The musical style was more contrapuntal than ever before, with in Op. 109’s final variation, and in the later parts of Op. 111, a much greater use of the trill in both left hand and right hand. There were more subtle dynamic gradations than ever before, and greater use of the special left foot una corda (single string) pedal. Finally, in each sonata, greater weight was thrown on the final movement than ever before (again, a trend begun in Opp.101 and 106) to the point that in each sonata, the final section completely outweighed in duration what had gone before, and also developed a special, cumulative intensity as a result.

Portrait of Beethoven in 1823 by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller

Despite Beethoven’s decision to include sets of variations as the finale of two of the three Schlesinger sonatas, the characters of the three works are quite distinct. In one sense, performed as a sequence, they are cumulative, with the appassionato darkness of Op. 111’s first movement followed inexorably by the thrilling spaciousness and profundity of the Arietta, standing as a fitting climax to the great sequence of earlier solo sonatas, products of a lifetime of keyboard virtuosity. As with the five late string quartets which followed in 1824-26, the three final piano sonatas took a very long time to become recognised as standard repertoire pieces. Too difficult technically for most amateurs, and too challenging in their musical language for Beethoven’s contemporaries, it was not until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that they became fully recognised for what they are. The turning point came first with Eugen d’Albert and Ferruccio Busoni, both of them composer-pianists, and great interpreters of the music of both J.S.Bach and Beethoven. Much later came the first gramophone recording of all the sonatas by ever-memorable Artur Schnabel (1882-1951) in the 1930s. Numerous other great pianists have followed, among them Wilhelm Kempff, Edwin Fischer, Solomon, Wilhelm Backhaus, Alfred Brendel, Maurizio Pollini, Daniel Barenboim, Peter Serkin and Stephen Kovacevich. The tradition has been sustained in Britain by the Liverpool-born pianist Paul Lewis, who has recorded all the sonatas for Hyperion in recent years. Most recently, the British pianist John Lill played all the sonatas in a series of recitals in London. Barenboim’s concerts in Berlin, also comprising the whole series of sonatas, though not in chronological order) is available on DVD.

The following document was issued to all members of the 55-strong audience for this lecture-recital, in which the two-hour plus time-span permitted me to play most (though not quite all of) the three sonatas. Copies of an article by Bayan Northcott from The Independent for 25 August 1990 were circulated. The title of this was ‘Containing the Flood’, and it was a review of a study published in that year by Barry Cooper under the title ‘Beethoven and the Creative Process’. This was essentially about the big change in Beethoven scholarship brought about by the detailed examination and collation of the surviving sketchbooks made by the composer as preparation for the act of composition. The sketchbooks had been dismembered and scattered across the world in the decades after Beethoven’s death in 1827. Their recovery, reassembly and close study has become the foundation of modern detailed Beethoven scholarship during the past sixty or seventy years.

Anonymous, after a painting by Carl Schlösser.  Beethoven Composing.

Circa 1890.  Lithograph. This is typical of the many romanticised images of Beethoven which appeared during the course of the nineteenth century, and beyond.

Opening of the Allegro con brio ed appassionato from the first movement of the C minor Piano Sonata, Op. 111. This section is preceded by the solemn, striking Maestoso, the only slow introduction in any of the last five piano sonatas. Though quite different, it harks back to the slow introduction of the Pathetique Sonata, Op. 13, also in C minor, composed by 1799.

The Streicher piano at the Pasqualati Haus , 8 Molker Bastei, Vienna 1, where Beethoven lodged on the fourth floor. It is now a Beethoven museum.  The Streicher firm dates from 1802. Nannette Stein Streicher (1769-1833), born in Augsburg, had married the Viennese pianist, composer and teacher Johann Andreas Streicher (1761-1833) in 1794. She was the daughter of Johann Stein of Augsburg, and was herself a fine pianist. Nannette learned the craft of piano-making from her father, and  the business, ‘Nannette Streicher, nee Stein,’  did well.     Beethoven, Carl Maria von Weber and Johann Nepomuk Hummel all had a special liking for Streicher pianos, although Beethoven owned pianos by other makers, notably Erard, Conrad Graf and John Broadwood of London. In 1823, the firm was renamed ‘Nannette Streicher, geb. Stein und Sohn. In that year, the son Johann Baptist Streicher (1796-1871) became a partner. His son Emil (Nannette’s grandson) took over in 1871, but the firm ceased on Emil’s retirement. The name Streicher thus had a long and distinguished history.

We have come to the end. It should have become clear by now that Beethoven possessed within himself the creative power of nature herself. Tremendously subjective though he was, he raised the personal to the level of the typical and the universal and gave us an example of how it is possible in spite of material and human limitations to reveal the eternal in the temporal.


Edwin Fischer: Beethoven’s Pianoforte Sonatas (tr. Stanley Godman and Paul Hamburger ) Faber 1958. Originally published by Insel-Verlag, Wiesbaden as Ludwig van Beethovens Klaviersonaten , 1956, a series of nine lectures. Fischer (1886-1960) was a distinguished Swiss pianist and conductor, and a Bach specialist. These words were the final sentences of Fischer’s last lecture.


Sonata in E major, Op. 109

Composed 1820. Dedicated to Maximiliane Brentano

I   Vivace, ma non troppo (sempre legato)—Adagio espressivo—Tempo I—adagio espressivo –Tempo I

II  Prestissimo (ben marcato)  (key –E minor)

III Theme and six variations, marked Gesangvoll, mit innigster Empfindung (Andante molto cantabile ed espressivo) Theme with repeats

Variation I: Molto espressivo

Variation II: Leggieramente

Variation III: Allegro vivace

Variation IV: Etwas langsamer als das Thema (un poco meno andante ciò è poco più adagio come il tema)

Variation V: Allegro, ma non troppo (fugato)

Variation VI: Tempo I del tema (cantabile)

Repeat of theme, without repeats


Sonata in A flat, Op.110

Composed 1821. No dedication. The composer was ill for much of this year.

I Moderato cantabile molto espressivo (con amabilità)

II Allegro molto(key – F minor, middle section D flat major)

III Adagio ma non troppo (una corda) Recitativo-più adagio-Andante-Adagio-Meno adagio-Adagio-Adagio ma non troppo (tutte le corde)-

Arioso dolente (Klagender Gesang-Song of Lament)

IV Fugue; Allegro ma non troppo

                   L’istesso tempo di arioso  (G minor leading to G major) (marked ermattet, klagend-exhausted, weeping)

                   L’istesso tempo della Fuga poi a poi di nuovo vivente (G major returning to A flat major)


Sonata in C minor, Op. 111

Composed late 1821-early 1822.   Dedicated to the Archduke Rudolf of Austria (1788-1831), Beethoven’s pupil and friend, who had been enthroned as Cardinal Archbishop of Olmütz on 9 March 1820.

I  Maestoso: Allegro con brio ed appassionato (C minor, concluding in C major)

II Arietta: Adagio molto semplice e cantabile (C major)

Theme with five variations running into one another, and a serene Coda.  A slow modulatory, quasi-improvisatory passage appears between Variation IV and Variation V. This passage is still in the same pulse as the preceding and following variations, i.e. 9 / 16.


*We have already spoken about the compelling nature of Beethoven’s music. There is something inevitable, continually self-justifying in this music, that commands respect through the logic and psychology of its composition. There is, in addition, a development from Op. 1 to Op. 135, which is enormously far reaching; from the beginning to the end, this music provides something new, formulates it with mastery, formulates the mastery anew, if you will. If masterpieces differ from one another by creating something new each time, through something that was not previously there, then Beethoven is the master par excellence. The more I get to know him, the more I admire him, love him, and respect him.  I’ve realised this again and again in recent years, above all when I played all the sonatas.


Alfred Brendel: The Veil of Order: Conversations with Martin Meyer (translated by Richard Stokes) Faber & Faber 2002. First published in German by Carl Hanser Verlag, Munich, 2001

*From Beethoven’s Tagebuch of 1812-1818, an unsystematic and irregular diary, consisting of observations, quotations from his reading, and casual remarks about daily life. The first ever full English translation of the Tagebuch is to be found in Maynard Solomon, Beethoven Essays, Harvard University Press, 1988, pp. 231-295, with notes on pp. 351-353. No such document exists for any other period of the composer’s life. There are 171 entries in all.

(1814) (25) There is so much to be done on earth, do it soon! I must not continue my everyday life; art demands this sacrifice too. Rest and find diversion only in order to act all the more forcefully in art.

(1815) (40) Everything that is called life should be sacrificed to the sublime and be a sanctuary of art. Let me live, even if by artificial means, if only they can be found!

(1815) (41) If possible, bring ear trumpets to perfection and then travel. This you owe to yourself, to mankind and to Him, the Almighty. Only thus can you once again develop everything that has to remain locked within you.

(1815) (43) Portraits of Handel, Bach, Gluck, Mozart and Haydn in my room. They can promote my capacity for endurance.

(1815)  (56) Do you want to taste honey without suffering the bee-stings?  Do you desire the wreaths of victory without the danger of battle? (Beginning of several  quotations from J.G. Herder, 18th C. critic and poet.)

(1816) (111) He who will reap tears must sow love. (Schiller: Wilhelm Tell, V,i)

(1817) (126) Tranquillity and freedom are the greatest treasures.

(1817) (127) True friendship can be founded only on the connection of similar natures. (Probably a quotation, source unknown) (Pliny?)

(1818) (150) A Man’s Most Precious Possession.  Sertorius did not mind the appearance of dishonour that occurred, and he maintained that he would merely buy time, which is the most precious thing for a man who wants to accomplish important things.  (Plutarch: Sertorius, para. 6, line.3)—Beethoven’s heading, underlined)


Dr Robert E. Blackburn, April 2012