Piano Sonata in E flat major op 81a by Ludwig van Beethoven

Piano Sonata in E flat major op 81a by Ludwig van Beethoven

Piano Sonata in E flat major op 81a by L van Beethoven is also known as Les Adieux. This Sonata was written in 1810 after the departure of Erzherzog (Archduke) Rudoph (one of the composer’s patrons). It is the only Beethoven’s programmatic Sonata and it is divided into three movements – Les Adiuex, L’Absence, Le Retour.

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The first movement begins with the introduction in Adagio. The three notes in the first motive indicate a word ‘Das Lebewohl’ meaning Les Adieux. It verbally expresses the programmatic idea of the piece. After the two opening chords in E flat major and B flat major we expect a further E flat major chord. Instead, Beethoven writes chord VI (c minor). The right hand continues as expected, but the left hand changes the function of the notes on which it alights. Further surprises will include the diminished chord at the start of bar seven, the flattened submediant (chord VI) at the start of bar 8.

The texture and voicing in Adagio is varied e.g. the balanced inner (or ‘alto’) part from the end of bar 8 to the beginning of bar 12 - one might compare it with a gentle flute line underscoring a more soloistic clarinet part.

Surprisingly after Adagio comes Allegro with a classical sonata form and a long coda. The motivic continuity of the Allegro section makes it clear why musicologists from 1860s could consider Beethoven’s work as organic - every note has a relationship to every other. The process as I see it in Op.81a is that of statement and repeat, with the repeat being based on but not identical to the original. We can notice that in bars 21-24 and 25-28; and 39-42 and 43-51.

As regards the overall form of the first movement, there is no clear separation of development and recapitulation. Such labels were formulated after the literature to which they refer and cannot be literally applied onto all works. However, there are two points that are very clear. Bars 110-124 are a recapitulation of the opening of the Allegro but in bar 124 the passage is in tonic rather than the dominant. The section from bar 197 till the end is a gentle Coda that consists of overlapping descending chords (‘Lebewohl’) suggesting an ‘affectionate leave-taking’.

The second movement is in Andante Espressivo. Its structure can be devided into two parts. It is harmonically built on variations of the diminished chord and an appoggiatura. This movement is actually a continuation rather than a new statement. However, at the end the dynamic is getting softer and the emotions are rising before the surprisingly coming third movement.

The finale is in vivacissimamente and also features a  sonata form.  After the sparkling introduction come the themes. What is quite extraordinary about the theme is its simplicity. Beethoven decides to slow down the speed (Poco Andante) for the coda of the movement - the end of the entire work. After the main theme he composes a small set of variations on its first few notes and adds decorative notes, double notes and syncopations. At the same time, he keeps the harmony in E flat major. After all the excitement of the fast finale it feels as if he's just playing around with notes. Later on Beethoven comes back to the fast tempo for the last variation and with the vast amount of semiquavers we can hear the lowest and highest E flats on the keyboard.

Edyta Lajdorf - concert pianist and experienced piano teacher. If you wish to sign up for piano lessons, please get in touch.

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