Sonata #31 in A-flat Major, Opus 110

Composed circa 1821; Published in 1821

Like so many of Beethoven’s later works, this sonata reaches backward as much as it looks forward. The influence of the classical style is evident in the rapid figurations and Alberti accompaniments that appear in the first movement. A subsequent counter-melody in the left hand is a direct quote, in the minor, of the opening theme of Haydn’s Sonata No. 47. The Baroque period is reflected in the final movement, a complex mix of recitative (complete with a stock operatic cadence of that era), aria and fugue, the quintessential Baroque form. The general influence of Beethoven’s own previous music is also present: the re-statement of the slow movement following the first fugue echoes a somewhat similar event in the Sonata, Op. 27/1.

Throughout history composers were fully aware of the emotive power of music, and exploited it regularly. Still, insofar as the range of emotion is concerned, Beethoven’s music represents a sharp break with that of his immediate predecessors. In Op. 110, the spiritual journey through which Beethoven guides us over the course of the final movement is as profound as any he conceived. An intense recitative leads to a grief-laden aria. A fugue (whose subject is a variation of the sonata’s opening theme) attempts to console and uplift, but at the last moment it fails, and the key of the piece appropriately sinks from A-flat major to G minor. A variation of the aria follows, marked “lamenting, exhausted,” in which, as clearly as one can attribute an external event to abstract music, the grief-stricken protagonist dies, gasping for breath. A series of repeated chords signals some sort of transfiguration; as the sound fades away, the second fugue begins imperceptibly. (This fugue’s principal theme is a mirror image of the first, another common Baroque device.) Soon the original fugue theme reappears, but this time it does not falter. Instead, the music quickly gathers momentum and ends triumphantly and suddenly, like a rocket disappearing into space.

Although eclecticism and the inclusion of vulgarity is an entirely legitimate aspect of great art, some people have difficulty dealing with it. Particularly troubling are such occurrences as cowbells in Mahler symphonies, or the medley of tunes, including one entitled "Cabbages and Turnips," with which Bach's Goldberg Variations conclude. I must therefore apologize for noting that the sublime concluding movement of Beethoven's Sonata No. 31 is preceded by a scherzo that quotes two popular tavern-tunes of the time: Unsa Kätz häd Katzln ghabt ("Our cat had kittens") and Ich bin lüderlich, du bist lüderlich which, politely translated, is "I'm a slob, you're a slob").

—Notes by Robert Silverman