(Beethoven Piano Sonatas No. 30, 31 and 32)
What would it be like if we could hear Shakespeare talking to himself?
Imagine if we went back in time and found him, at the height of his powers, sitting alone in a darkened room, thinking out aloud. What would the bard sound like when he had no one to impress, no need for the fire and passion that are so essential a part of what we love about his writing, no richness of metaphor, no fervid ornamentation of speech? This was a man who polished language to its finest, most glorious lustre; how would that language change when he had only himself for an audience, when the power of that mighty tongue was turned inward? What would the writer of the greatest soliloquies in literature have to say to the silence of his own room?
That, unfortunately, is a question we will probably never know the answer to. But it’s the same impression of solitary genius, of a great master coming to terms with his solitude, that fills Beethoven’s final piano sonatas (30, 31 and 32). Gone are the fireworks of the early sonatas, the grand flourishes, the sound structured yet majestic – the sound of a great pianist who is miraculously, ostentatiously in control of his music. Instead we have an older, quieter, wiser Beethoven; a Beethoven who no longer feels the need to make his music defined and rigid and powerful, a Beethoven who is more willing to trust his instincts now, feeling his way quietly out to a terrible beauty of notes that even he can only begin to imagine. It’s almost as though Beethoven had finally got over his desperate need to impress, to show off, realising that peace is internal and true satisfaction can only come from within. Which is why he is now content to sit in front of his piano playing note after note to himself, trying to capture the calmness of beauty, the incredible joy of contentment which is also its greatest sorrow.
As such, these last sonatas are a stunning testament to the distance Beethoven had travelled, to his inimitable genius. The faster movements here still have all the force, all the drive of his earlier work (the first movement of Sonata 32 is particularly brilliant), though the power seems less controlled, more flexible; Beethoven is more willing to let the passions have full rein. But the real beauty of these sonatas are in their slow movements, which brim with feeling and transcendence like nothing else Beethoven ever wrote. These are perfection, or as close to perfection as Man can hope to get – one note follows another and each note is exactly right, and the overall tune is invisible, inaudible to the ear but true to the heart. It’s like listening to a combination of Chopin, Tatum and early Beethoven himself – a sound unmatched by any other work for piano I have ever heard.
Understand that I’m not knocking Beethoven’s earlier piano sonatas. I would still pick Moonlight (No. 14) or Pathetique (No 8) over pretty much any other piece of music, and I will always be in awe of Waldstein and Appassionata. What impresses me about the last sonatas is that they sound nothing like these earlier works, so that listening to the two together you could be forgiven for thinking they were by entirely different composers*. There is a sense of ease in these last sonatas, a seeming lack of anxiety, which means that while the early Sonatas take your breath away by force, these latter works leave you afraid to breathe for fear of spoiling their intricate and fragile perfection. It almost makes you wonder how things would have turned out if Beethoven had lived for another five, maybe ten years. Would music have stayed the same then, or would it have altered forever achieving a serenity we can only dream of now? Yet another question that we will never know the answer to.
What we do know is that those last years of Beethoven’s life were also his finest, that he achieved in those last days a maturity and a vision perhaps unmatched in Western Classical music. What we do know is that it was this Beethoven, a far greater composer in his dotage than he could ever be in his youth, who wrote the weary yet joyful sonatas that were to be his last. What we do know is that these sonatas still exist, are easily accessible to anyone who seeks them out, and cry out to be listened to for the sake of all that is beautiful in music.
* There are signs of the coming change, of course. Listen, for instance, to the slow movement from Hammerklavier (Sonata 28).