When asked to choose his favourite Beethoven Piano Sonata, legendary pianist John Lill chose the last sonata, op. 111.
Beethoven’s last piano sonata has only two movements (i. Maestoso, ii. Arietta) rather than the more typical three. Lill likens it to Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony; both are utterly complete and substantial, particularly the second and final movement in theme and variations form. ‘What can you follow that by?’ Lill asks. ‘Nothing. As Schubert said, what else is there left to write?’
Beethoven ends his last piano sonata in an incredible state of mind says Lill. Interestingly, Beethoven ends the work with a quaver followed by a rest. Whilst this might be the equivalent of a long pause in performance, he is effectively writing in a musical question mark; a bold statement for the end of his entire piano sonata oeuvre.
(See end of the video below for the last moments of the sonata)
Struggle and strife
Lill sees Beethoven’s struggle to be written into his works; Beethoven often got his effects by ‘throwing his performers about’. Even in the opening of the sonata, for instance, there is a downward-octave leap of a 7th in the bass part – Beethoven is making his pianists physically struggle to reach his notes in his impassioned beginning.
There is a colossal sense of purpose in this piece. After years of writing struggle into his works, ‘the finale of op. 111 is where this physical struggle ends up if handled correctly: in spiritual exultation and profundity; tremendous peace and serenity; something which is very mystical and which one cannot define, going long beyond words’.
It is for this reason that Lill says he would chose this sonata of Beethoven’s above all others, for it encapsulates his whole ethos and life of serenity following struggle and strife.
The opening two notes of the finale – the ‘haunting slurred downward drop’ – are key to the final movement, pervading the theme and variations and dominating the mood. Compared to the struggle of the first two notes of the first movement, the opening of the Arietta is already on the path towards peace and serenity.
The finale of this last sonata sees Beethoven foray into the world of jazz with syncopations and dotted rhythms in one of his variations. As Lill says, ‘Beethoven was always so ahead of himself in the last period – in the finale of op. 111 he introduces ‘boogie-woogie’ in the variations. Just go to Beethoven, everything is there’.
(See 9′ 09” in the video above)