Beethoven Sonata No. 31 in Ab Major, Op. 110
In the late sonatas Beethoven returned to forms found in the Baroque and Classic periods before him. Classic sonata-allegro form was fairly strict with short succinct sections. Beethoven eventually migrates to expanded forms with significantly longer sections. A good example is his late sonata opus 106, a sonata which takes nearly an hour to perform. The last three of the 32 sonatas (of which 110 is number 31) return to a shorter simpler concept.
The first movement of opus 110 follows this more succinct pattern. Beethoven’s genius allows a strict sonata-allegro form to become hidden in what appears to be quasi-fantasy. The development section (middle section) is only 20 measures long. The movement modulates and passes through various intriguing harmonic areas but ultimately finds the thematic material and harmonic levels required of classic sonata-allegro form. The movement is generally quiet and lyric. Beethoven uses the upper register to imbue a loftier more spiritual sense to the music.
Found in the first movement are some unusual harmonic progressions which might point some thinkers to the coming romantic period. The second movement contrasts the first lyric movement with an energized “dance” of scherzo-like drive.
In the final movement, the composer uses baroque period forms including a free form recitative introductory section, an arioso section, a three part extended fugue, a return to the aria pattern, and then a return to an inverted fugue pattern based on the original fugue.
In a fugue, a simple theme is heard. This theme is heard repeatedly in different voices in linear fashion. A counter-theme usually accompanies each theme statement.
In this fugue, the theme repeats six times, alternating between tonic (in this case Ab, 1st degree of scale) and dominant (Eb, 5th degree of scale) After the sixth statement, an extended development section begins, eventually leading into a second aria.
As in a sonata-allegro form, the form of the baroque fugue offers the listener a sense of completeness. This is a three part fugue and therefore three voices enjoy the theme independently as time passes.
When the fugue pattern returns after the second aria, the theme is inverted, and as time passes it reverts and transforms from individual contrapuntal voices into a glorious uplifted homophonic finale full of joy and spiritual wealth.
In the department of mood swings, Beethoven’s final movement expresses a full helping of human sensation from despair, to hope, and finally shear joy. As viewed from the perspective of composers of the next period, that being the “romantic” period, this wealth of mood and change in spirit caused the romantics Schumann, Liszt, and others to consider Beethoven the first of the romantic composers. History describes him as an individualist and humanist. However, this composer came from a different time, and in a sense, he toys with man’s search for the spirit of God and not for the expression of the spirit of humans.