SONATA NO. 32 IN C MINOR, OPUS 111 by LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Beethoven’s Opus 111 was the final sonata Beethoven ever composed for piano. It is one of the most celebrated and revered works of his final compositional period, a period which saw creations of astonishing transcendence.
The work was completed in 1822 and published the following year. It was at first a highly controversial work, many people asking “where is the third movement?” Beethoven refused to even answer such questions, for he knew he had completed one of his most perfect creations.
The first movement announces an epic journey from the very first notes of the introductory Maestoso. The vast scale, the struggles of a lifetime, the uncertainty of human existence are all expressed at the very outset. Beethoven depicted the uncertainty, for example, in the fact that we have no idea what the key of the movement is for many measures! Beethoven’s tempo indication for this movement is Maestoso —Allegro con brio ed appassionato. That is “In a majestic tempo (the introduction) and then (for the main body of the movement) a lively tempo with great verve and passion.”
The pianist Carol Rosenberger said, “The two grand-scale movements of the Sonata op. 111 affect most who experience them as an unsurpassed expression of the two planes of human existence: the first movement, in C Minor, the heroic life struggle; the second, in C Major, total affirmation and transcendence.” At the end of the first movement, Beethoven brings us to a peaceful, even spiritual conclusion in C Major, thereby leading us to the sublime second movement.
This second movement, Arietta, communicates a spacious, timeless world — perhaps a vision of eternal truth — which is matched by very few works in the history of music. Although the movement could be clearly analyzed as theme and variations, it appears abstract, not of this world. And, at the end, after extended trills take us further into the universe, the piece ends in profound simplicity.
A GERMAN REQUIEM BY JOHANNES BRAHMS
When Brahms chose to compose a requiem – always a major undertaking for any composer – it was not to be connected with the liturgical rites of any organized religion. So, he chose not to utilize the traditional Latin text prescribed for use in the Roman Catholic service for the departed. But, instead, Brahms himself compiled a text made up of verses from the Bible which he found meaningful to people at the time of the death of a dear one. This is a requiem for the mourners, for those left behind, to comfort, to help them make sense of life and death. And to make it more human, more personal, he chose the text in his native language, and called it specifically “A German Requiem.”
The first movement begins with one of the great openings in Classical Music. We immediately feel the compassion, the comfort, the understanding of the deep sadness that mourners feel at the death of a loved one. At the end of the instrumental introduction the music becomes murky, dark. As it tapers away, the chorus enters with poignant simplicity. Three chords: “Blessed are they.” Every phrase of “Blessed are they who mourn” is musically completed with “for they shall be comforted.” And when Brahms set “Those who sew with tears shall reap with joy,” the second part of that sentence is set with animated, hopeful music.
At the beginning of the second movement, Brahms indicated “Like a march.” Indeed this is a death march, unstoppable and immensely powerful. Just as all plants have a life cycle, death will come to all of us and there is no stopping it. The music builds slowly, and after an enormous climax of awesome power, the death march subsides. Brahms temporarily moves to a major key with a more hopeful mood as he tells us to “be patient dear brethren until the coming of the Lord.” But the death march returns, again coming to a frightening climax. This time, as it subsides, it almost seems to stop. But here, in one of the great moments of the piece, Brahms places completely unexpected chords on the word “Aber: BUT! HOWEVER! The Lord’s word remains for eternity.” And the joy and rapture of the redeemed ones is depicted in music of extraordinary inspiration.
In the third movement, the baritone soloist expresses the feelings of an individual human being. He contemplates his life and mortality. “Lord, teach me what this is all about. What meaning does my life have? My life has a finite length. How shall I spend it?” Brahms depicts this sentiment in a nebulous world: the key center of the movement is not given definitely until the sixteenth measure and is obscured regularly; and there are conflicting rhythms, twos against threes, and music that comes on off beats. The chorus sings with pent-up intensity which lashes forth unexpectedly. After a particularly intense outburst, the music subsides. The baritone continues, contemplating the wasteful, worthless pursuits of human beings.The chorus can hardly wait to express similar sentiments. Finally, they are completely exasperated as they sing, “Now, Lord, who shall comfort me!” Where will I turn? - this in the troubled, unsettled harmony of diminished chords. Then Brahms places us in a new world. The answer is given: “My hope is in you.” He sets the music in the major dominant key of A as the “hope” rises gently, voice after voice in great inspiration. This leads directly to the final fugue section of the movement, “The souls of the righteous are in God’s hands and no torment will touch them.” This amazing and greatly developed section goes through many passages with different feelings and colors and harmonies. But the entire section is built on a low D pedal point. The rock-solid low D in the instrumental part never leaves, just as the ultimate joy of the loved ones is never in doubt.
After the epic scale of the great third movement, Brahms follows with two shorter movements. The first is without doubt the most famous of the work. “How lovely are your dwelling places” certainly depicts just that – a lovely dwelling place (heaven). And Brahms does this with one beautiful, soaring melody after another. And there is a lightness here which contrasts with the richer, heavier music we have experienced so far. Furthermore, in contrast to the other movements which are so richly endowed with conflicted emotions, often exceedingly intense, there is but one overriding atmosphere here, that of beauty and happiness.
“Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit,” the fifth movement for soprano solo and chorus, was composed at a later date than the rest of the Requiem and was added to what had already been a completed (and performed work. It has usually been thought that the death of Brahms’ mother during this period inspired its composition. It is indeed the most inward and personal movement of the piece. It is as if the soprano were speaking to one specific individual: “You now have great sorrow, but it will eventually pass and you will have joy again.” One million delicate, subtle feelings are expressed in this amazing movement. And the chorus is used almost as a Greek chorus, commenting from afar on the thoughts of the soprano.
The next movement couldn’t be more different. It is highly charged – the most openly dramatic movement of the Requiem. The chorus begins with a depiction of dark, veiled uncertainty. The baritone tells them a great mystery, “You will not all sleep, but will be transformed.” The chorus repeats the text with continued mystery. When the baritone yet again proclaims this transformation, he dramatically soars to a high F-sharp. The chorus continues in mystery. Finally, he breaks off as he says the transformation will happen “in the blink of an eye (ein Augenblick.”) “At the time of the last trumpet” is sung with the soloist and all the chorus parts entering, piling on top of each other, in a remarkable, gripping moment. “Then shall the trumpet resound and the dead shall rise” is set to truly thrilling music, as if a war were being waged. Brahms’ “victory over death” comes as a hard-fought victory, a war in the trenches. But a victory it is. Death is finally conquered. The emphatic declarations, pauses, and more emphatic declarations are of immense power, and lead us to the final fugue of praise to the Glory and Power of God.
The magnificent final movement could be considered an epilogue. It returns to the F Major tonality of the opening movement and the instrumental accompaniment recalls the comforting music of the beginning. The sopranos enter with an immensely inspiring, soaring melody, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.” The basses repeat the melody, followed by the whole chorus in some of the most heart-felt music ever composed. A comforting instrumental interlude follows. And then, on the words, “Yes, the Holy Spirit declares they shall rest from their labors,” the movement modulates to a new key (A Major), and in this modulation the work moves to a whole new world where there is nothing but peace. This A Major section is one of Brahms’ great miracles, a world filled with so much light. And when we return to F Major and the opening theme, now in the tenors, it seems all the more victorious and overfilled with joy. The work ends peacefully with thematic material from the opening movement. All is resolved. “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.”