Brian Chapman

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No. 14 in C# minor, Op.27 No.2 (Moonlight)
No.23 in F minor, Op.57 (Appassionata)
No.27 in E minor, Op.90 (Conflict between head and heart — Conversation with the beloved)
No.28 in A major, Op.101 (Immortal beloved)

In choosing to publish performances of these four Beethoven piano sonatas, I have deliberately included nicknames or descriptive appellations in all their titles.

For two of these sonatas we have time-honoured nicknames ready to hand, one particularly fortunate (Op.57), the other less so (Op.27 No.2), although neither deriving from the composer.

Op.90 is one sonata for which Beethoven provided descriptive titles, albeit in jest. The first movement was intended to be an affectionate joke at the expense of his friend, the Count von Lichnowsky, to whom Beethoven dedicated the sonata and who was about to embark on a second marriage against the wishes of his family. The second movement presumably afforded Lichnowsky a consoling vision of domestic bliss. We have it from the composer’s biographer, Anton Schindler, that both men laughed loudly when, at Lichnowsky’s request for the meaning of the sonata, Beethoven told him that the work was a musical representation of his love life.

The fact that Beethoven dedicated the work to Lichnowsky without publishing the titles has caused many commentators to suggest that they are best forgotten and that the work should be enjoyed as pure music in its own right. I disagree completely.

I believe that the titles Beethoven readily offered to Lichnowsky betray the work’s entire raison d'être, and the laughter accompanying the original disclosure was probably as much to conceal embarrassment as to share good humour. I take the absence of the titles from the published version to indicate a perfectly normal sensitivity on Beethoven’s part in deciding not to make explicitly public the private joke shared with his friend.

As nearly 200 years have now passed since that time, it is neither indelicate nor inappropriate to resurrect these titles and give them their due prominence as defining the work's programme. The biographical incidentals concerning Lichnowsky are thus seen as forming the composer’s point of departure in writing this music, and this is how I have interpreted the music for this recording.

In providing the Immortal beloved nickname to Op.101, I am seeking to make a contribution to the musicological analysis of this difficult and challenging work. The true identity of the Immortal Beloved to whom Beethoven wrote his famous impassioned three-part letter in 1812 has proved to be one of musical history’s more enduring mysteries. As the letter was found among the composer’s belongings after his death, there is no clear evidence that it was ever posted; all we can be sure of is that Beethoven safeguarded it among his most precious possessions.

Beethoven’s original biographer, Anton Schindler, first proclaimed confidently that the intended recipient was the dedicatee of the Sonata Op.27 No.2, Damigella Contessa Giulietta Guicciardi. Ever since this idea was discarded for various reasons, there has been no shortage of women in Beethoven’s life to be championed each in her turn by one or other enthusiastic biographer or musically inclined detective.

The two most serious recent contenders have been Antonie Brentano, somewhat dogmatically championed by Maynard Solomon (1977), and the Baroness Dorothea von Ertmann, suggested more circumspectly by George Marek (1970). These two theories are based on logistical evidence relating to hotel and police registers, visas, etc., together with various biographical morsels that have survived to be called in evidence. No theory, to my knowledge, has called any of Beethoven’s music to the witness stand, although the editorial annotations to this sonata by Kendall Taylor (1987) point suggestively in that direction; yet, in my view, all four movements of the Sonata Op.101 dedicated to Dorothea Ertmann are replete with musical evidence.

Before elaborating on this evidence in terms of the ‘programme’ for Op.101, or even taking too seriously the mystery itself, it is as well to note in passing the iconoclastic opinion of George Bernard Shaw (1893) who dismissed the entire letter as “idiotic” in an entertaining piece entitled Beethoven’s unsterbliche Geliebte from which Marek (1970) quotes generously after declaring that the letter “remains one of love’s most moving documents and will remain so whether or not we ever discover the whole truth about it.”

Sonata in C# minor,
Op.27 No.2 (Moonlight)

Adagio sostenuto
Presto agitato

This sonata is arguably the most pathological work represented in this collection. That it should be linked romantically in the popular mind with ‘moonlight’ (even ‘moonlight and roses’, having regard to some of the vulgar transcriptions for lush string orchestra) is as unfortunate as it is misleading.

One wonders if, in the light of the more mature and substantial Appassionata Sonata, the Sonata Op.27 No.2 might not wear the nickname Little Appassionata fairly comfortably? However, the problem with this idea is that the passion of the earlier sonata is not ‘little’ by comparison with that of its more mature cousin. On the contrary, Op.27 No.2 is literally inarticulate with passion, grimly controlled in the Adagio sostenuto’s confession of grief and pain, almost out of control in the Presto agitato. If the finale of the Appassionata may be characterised as defiance in the face of adversity, then the finale of Op.27 No.2 borders on sheer panic. Even the Allegretto maintains this relatively inarticulate aspect, though interposing a welcome relief of light and playful dance rhythm between the two tragic pillars that form at once the frame and substance of this awesome work.

No, the nickname of this sonata is too ingrained to be replaced after nearly two centuries of misuse; the best that one can do is reproduce it in strikethrough typeface as a gesture of protest!

As the question of pedalling often arises in relation to the Adagio sostenuto, I confess to applying the soft pedal (una corda) continuously throughout the movement while using the sustaining pedal conventionally. I take the composer’s special pianissimo marks for the main theme to indicate that the accompanying triplets and sustained bass octaves are not to be rendered as a passive accompaniment but are to form an active, expressive support to heighten the plaintive fragility of the theme.

Sonata in F minor, Op.57

Allegro assai
Andante con moto
Allegro ma non troppo—Presto

Never has a piano sonata been more appropriately nicknamed for posterity than Beethoven’s Op.57. It is remarkable that the Appassionata Sonata remains one of the most compelling and popular crowning achievements of the pianoforte repertoire while being one of the most unrelentingly grim essays to leave the composer’s hand.

Performances of this work are many and varied. Just as the musical composition might be viewed as the solitary journey of a hero beset by adversity, so the ‘journey’ of the individual performance will differ according to the various resonances excited in the performer by the music. My own inclination is to minimise the extent to which the music might tend to fragment into a series of disjointed episodes, a tendency particularly inherent in the writing of the first movement. I have attempted where possible to disguise the discretionary tempo changes in the first movement, seeking to let the sections flow as naturally as possible one into the other. One exception is the bravura treatment of the main theme commencing in E minor in the development section where I feel that a deliberate surging forward of tempo is desirable (bar 79).

Apart from this, I think it important to stress the strong psychological unity of the whole sonata. Even the apparent repose afforded by the opening of the Andante turns out to be illusory; the unresolved struggles of the first movement continue to stir beneath the surface, growing in smouldering intensity through the first two variations before igniting in the third variation to bathe the static theme in swirling ‘flames’ of demisemiquavers.

Opinions have differed strongly down the years with regard to Beethoven’s published repeat for the entire development and recapitulation of the finale. I definitely side with those who feel that the composer erred in his judgment by publishing this repeat.

Without the repeat there seems to me to be a better balance in the overall architecture; the Andante and finale form a fitting complement to the first movement. Inclusion of the repeat damages this balance and generates a dramatic problem through having to traverse a literal repetition of the movement’s climactic breakdown and recovery as the development resolves into the recapitulation.

In the intensified struggle of the final Presto the adversity, though met with defiance on equal terms, is never totally conquered.

Sonata in E minor, Op.90
(Conflict between head and heart—Conversation with the beloved)

Mit Lebhaftigkeit und durchaus mit Empfindung und Ausdruck (Lively and with feeling and expression throughout)
Nicht zu geschwind und sehr singbar vorgetragen (Not too quick and in a very singing style)

The conflict between the head and the heart that Beethoven projects here can be readily understood as a conflict between masculine and feminine elements, between the male and female partners to the relationship. The opening, gruffly detached chords are immediately answered by a smoother echo—as Taylor (1987) has suggested, the ‘answer which turneth away wrath.’ I have also heightened the ‘conflict’ between these two statements by introducing a slight ‘disagreement’ in tempo. After this idea is repeated through another similar pair of contrasting phrases, the music progresses through a series of episodes that vary in mood between soothing caresses and quarrelsome outbursts.

There is a noteworthy passage commencing at bar 55 in the second subject group that consists of melodic fragments in the right hand above repeated semiquaver broken chords in the left hand. It has been common to find some editors and numerous performers ignoring Beethoven’s curious piano marking for this passage and favouring at least a mezzo forte if not an outright forte! However, in its context, the piano marking makes sense as if two parties to a disagreement are doing their utmost to sort things out while remaining superficially calm. This passage ends with sudden forte octaves in the left hand to which a soothing caress is repeatedly applied in the form of a descending interval of a second that forms almost a ‘soothing’ leitmotiv for this movement.

The development section reworks all this material through a series of more or less spirited dialogues culminating in a quite graphic passage of palpable reconciliation leading to the recapitulation. I render the two pairs of masculine and feminine phrases on their reappearance without the slight conflict of tempo between them. Following the straightforward recapitulation, the brief coda to this first movement is built mainly from the ‘soothing’ leitmotiv. The final line in E minor is a repeat of a passage used to close off the first subject group in both the exposition and the recapitulation. However, it differs on its final appearance by having no ritardando at the end; it is as if the conflict is only incompletely resolved at this point.

The comparative bleakness of the closing E minor chord is gently erased as the second movement sets out on its generously melodious course. The long principal theme in E major, given in full no fewer than four times, brings about a complete transformation of mood into something that is at once a perfect representation of inner peace and contentment, the security of agreeable companionship and the intimate sharing of life’s most precious enjoyments.

The intervening episodes of this sonata-rondo movement are marked by lively echoes of the masculine-feminine conflict carried forward from the first movement, but each time the conflicts are quickly resolved as the elements are fused into an exquisite unity.

The sudden, quiet ending of this movement deserves comment. Following the fourth statement of the main theme, the gentle codetta is interrupted by a brief crescendo to an anxious silence. The threads are then gradually drawn together in a gently descending sequence that leads into an apparent fifth appearance of the main them, but the pulse falters and slows almost to a halt. Then follows a crescendo acceleration descending from the treble and suddenly expiring pianissimo in tempo on the bare octave of E. Beethoven has closed his portrayal of this happy, stable, love relationship in the most ideal way possible—a sudden, peaceful death.

Sonata in A major, Op.101
(Immortal beloved)

Etwas lebhaft und mit der innigsten Empfindung (Somewhat lively and with the deepest inner feeling)
Allegretto ma non troppo
Lebhaft. Marschmässig (Lively. In the style of a march)
Vivace alla Marcia
Langsam und sehnsuchtvoll (Slowly and full of longing)
Adagio, ma non troppo, con affetto
Geschwind, doch nicht zu sehr, und mit Entschlossenheit (Fast, but not too fast, and with determination)

This sonata was nicknamed The Sensitive by the eminent musical commentator Adolph Bernard Marx but, appropriate though it might be, the name failed to stick. The work’s wonderfully romantic opening movement has attracted many a would-be student but, time and again, the ensuing difficulties, both technical and musical, have deterred all but the most stout-hearted. To this day, it is regarded as one of the least accessible of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Opinion is divided as to its possible meaning, and it is fair to say that the consensus is one of puzzlement.

The key to its mysteries was disclosed to me by a friend, Dr Gray Woolley, a physiologist and jazz trombonist. He ventured the opinion that the amount of rubato I was using in the first movement was altogether inappropriate, robbing the music of its essential dance-like quality. He suggested that the appropriate image for this music was of ‘lovers dancing’, an illuminating variation on the usual images of ‘lovers conversing in a garden’ or ‘two friends sharing an intimate conversation in a quiet room.’

My friend had the advantage of not having heard the work before, whereas I was burdened with numerous examples of slow, halting, rubato-ridden interpretations that strive through tempo variation—particularly holding back—to realise Beethoven’s ‘deepest inner feeling’ directive. However, the image of ‘lovers dancing’ remedies the otherwise apparent contradiction between the ‘deepest inner feeling’ and ‘somewhat lively’ directives. While most interpretations usually opt for ‘deepest inner feeling’ with barely a hint of liveliness, the image of ‘lovers dancing’ affords two distinct advantages: it satisfies both halves of Beethoven's directive for the movement and, for me, it allows the meaning of the rest of the sonata to fall into place.

Nor is there any conflict between this image and the title of träumerische Empfindungen (dream-like sensations) given to the movement by Beethoven. This dream-like character of the movement is thus seen as a vision of a past love affair, fondly remembered but painfully beyond retrieval.

Toward the movement’s end (bars 85-87) there is a sudden crescendo to fortissimo of three repeated syncopated chords that may well be a resonance of a contemporaneous entry in the composer’s diary quoted by Behrend (1927): “When a swelling tear is lurking under the heavy eyelids, restrain it with a firm will from gushing forth.”

When the dream reaches its gentle conclusion, the problem is how to come to terms with the loss and live a purposeful future. In musical realisation, this means pushing the material of the first movement firmly aside and trying, if possible, to avoid any relapse.

The march-like second movement bursts upon us with what might be considered as a macho swagger. The music is angular and awkward with its sudden key changes, full of frenetic exuberance betraying a certain shallowness and insecurity—all the negative traits of brash youth—and even seeming to break things in its headlong progress (random trills against jagged rhythms in bars 16-18). The piece does include more tender phrases but these occur with an unsettling randomness that gives neither the listener nor the performer cause for comfort. A pianissimo passage anchored on an alternating D flat-C bass seems to be in danger of relapsing into the preceding reverie, but a crescendo tremolo on the C octave in the bass returns the music to its strident, martial mood. A phrase marked dolce and played twice (bars 44 and 47) high in the treble by the left hand may be thought of as a variant echo from the first movement that is violently pushed aside each time by a rising crescendo from the bass.

A contrasting contrapuntal section begins with a timid, repeated rhythmic figure that leads to an academic two-part canon. I have often thought that, were this passage to be submitted by a student of counterpoint to an examiner unfamiliar with Op.101, it might draw a fairly unflattering assessment. It carries more than a whiff of schoolroom dullness and one wonders whether Beethoven was mocking his own growing obsession with counterpoint as a barren cerebral activity, totally inadequate as consolation for the lost affair of the heart (see below). One cannot be sure and, for that reason, I have given this passage the benefit of the doubt by trying to camouflage its dullness with as much expression as possible. My uncertainty about this canon is shared by Drake (1994) who wrote: “Can we ever know why Beethoven wrote a canon at this point in the sonata, or whether it has anything to do with the musical plot of the sonata, or, for that matter, what is the musical plot of the sonata?” The canon ends in a pianissimo passage featuring the timid rhythmic figure with another alternating D flat-C bass that is powerfully swept back to a repeat of the martial music before it can relapse into the dream.

Marx wrote of this movement: “Not an outward act that is depicted here but rather a fantasy of deeds that could have happened, dreamed heroic traits that, however, high-minded and audacious, reach up to the stars.” (quoted by Drake, 1994). I have to confess that my image of this movement—the macho solution— is less exalted than Marx’s, and I find it easier to translate into performance. With regard to what is an appropriate tempo for this ‘march’, I feel that the effect should be a steady swagger rather than a frenzied ‘goose-step’ as one often hears.

The failed ‘solution’ of the second movement necessitates the inward-looking search of the third movement. Although this Adagio in A minor fails to arrive at a solution of its own, it contains some of Beethoven's most deeply felt expressive phrases that certainly give substance to the ‘full of longing’ directive. Finding no resting place, the music pauses on the dominant chord of E major, followed by a quietly reflective cadenza that suddenly falls right back into the reverie of the first movement; but, this time, the music is scored to be played haltingly. While the memory proves too painful to pursue further, it does afford an idea—the interval of a descending third that rounds off the first movement’s opening phrase—that is seized upon with mounting excitement as the basis for the highly energetic finale.

The last movement is to be played ‘with determination’, a directive that will not be properly served if the tempo is too quick. The ‘determination’ is required to achieve fulfilment and avoid precisely the sort of relapse that has just occurred at the end of the Adagio. As if to emphasise this, the opening theme falters right at the conclusion of its first statement, but the potential relapse is quickly avoided as the theme is re-introduced energetically in the left hand. The themes in the exposition of this sonata-form movement are given a highly contrapuntal treatment and they appear to convey a healthy strength and sense of purpose. After the exposition is repeated, the codetta leads to a reflective halt in which the danger of relapse looms once more.

In an apparent fit of anger and frustration, this moment of reverie is violently terminated by a fortissimo statement of the descending third motif. The ensuing silence is followed by a full-blown fugue based on the movement’s first subject, beginning pianissimo in the key of A minor. This four-part fugue serves as the movement’s development section and it leads through a towering climax to a seemingly victorious, heroic statement of the first subject at the recapitulation.

Once again, the opening theme falters and is followed this time by a gentler but even more contrapuntal variant of the first subject that culminates in a three-part canonic treatment in semiquavers. This attempted cerebral approach to the work’s basic problem seems to be working wonders, and the second subject proceeds on its cheerfully optimistic course.

However, when the codetta leads again to another threatened relapse, the effort of fighting it off—this time with an angry fortissimo A-F sharp statement—seems to drain the last reserve of will and ‘determination’. A pale, pathetic echo of the angry statement is heard (modified to A-F natural). From this point on, the music loses all heart, sifting aimlessly among thematic fragments from earlier in the movement, going round in repetitious circles, becoming more disembodied and flippant, and at last slowing indeterminately. With what seems to be the greatest reluctance, strength is finally gathered to close the work with an ascending series of fortissimo A major chords—a cold, almost contemptuous gesture that confirms, rather than conceals, the desolation confessed by Beethoven. The attempted conquest of the head over the heart has ended in failure.

This, then, is my interpretation of Beethoven’s Op.101; if accurate, it solves the problem of the work’s meaning and presents it as a fairly straightforward piece of romantic programme music. Without this unifying hypothesis, one is left in a sea of uncertainty; for example, Mellers (1983) declares that the second subject group of the final movement “lapses into farce” and the coda flickers out in pathos and bathos”; he also notes that other writers have found the conclusion of this sonata to be “cheerful, even euphoric.”

If my view is correct, then it affords a fresh angle on the path that Beethoven followed in his late works. The first of the two Cello Sonatas Op.102 (composed in 1815), though wonderful in its own right, may be seen as an experimental forerunner for the Piano Sonata Op.101 (1813-16) which thus forms the definitive point of departure for ‘late Beethoven’. The remaining piano sonatas and string quartets explore regions beyond human ‘head and heart’ as Beethoven resigned himself to the denial in this life of the human emotional fulfilment for which he yearned. This exploration took Beethoven on a highly personal journey into realms where few, if any, can follow with a sure understanding—though there have been, as there will always remain, many pretenders.

But what of the Immortal Beloved? The sonata voices a deeply intimate personal crisis of a kind that would be understood by its dedicatee. Without overstepping the bounds of propriety, Beethoven wrote his formal letter of dedication of the work to his friend and pupil of many years, Dorothea Ertmann, one of the finest pianists in Vienna and a specialist in the interepretation of Beethoven’s works: “Now please accept what was long intended for you, and what may offer proof of my admiration for your talent as an artist, and of my attachment to you personally.”

As the composer could probably rely on the Baroness to guess what this ‘long intended’ sonata was about, he possibly felt some need to set up a public camouflage of innocent afterthought in the curious letter he wrote to his publishers, Steiner & Co.: “By chance I have hit upon the following dedication for the new Sonata: Sonata for the Pianoforte or Hammerclavier composed and dedicated to Baroness Dorothea Ertmann, née Graumann by Ludwig van Beethoven. If the title is already made, I have the two following proposals: either I pay for the one title, that is at my cost, or it is to be kept for another new Sonata of mine, ..... I beg you to observe the strictest silence with regard to the dedication, as I wish it to come as a great surprise.” (Kalischer, 1926).

It seems to me highly unlikely that Beethoven would have dedicated this sonata to a female who was not the object of the first movement’s dream. Of course, this would not, of itself, serve to identify the Baroness as the Immortal Beloved to whom the famous letter was addressed. However, these ideas would certainly provide relevant corroborative detail if Marek’s advocacy for Dorothea Ertmann were to turn out to be correct.

I believe that the interpretation of Op.101 which I offer here is emotionally and logically consistent. It is my hope that it will make this marvellous work more accessible to a larger audience, and that it may provide additional insight for students, and for performers who may choose to include it in their repertoire.

Brian Chapman ©1996


Behrend, W. (1927). Ludwig van Beethoven's Pianoforte Sonatas. Dent, London & Toronto.

Drake, K. (1994). The Beethoven Sonatas and the Creative Experience. Indiana University Press, Bloomington & Indianapolis.

Kalischer, A. C. (1926). Beethoven’s Letters. Translated, J. S. Shedlock; edited, A. Eaglefield-Hull. Dent & Sons, London.

Marek, G. R. (1970). Beethoven: Biography of a Genius. William Kimber, London.

Mellers, W. (1983). Beethoven and the Voice of God. Faber & Faber, London.

Shaw, G. B. (1893). Beethoven's unsterbliche Geliebte. Appearing in The World, 1 November, 1893. Compiled in Shaw’s Music, III: 14-21, edited by D. H. Laurence. Dodd, Mead & Co., New York, 1981.

Solomon, M. (1977). Beethoven. Schirmer, New York.

Taylor, K. (1987). Editor: Beethoven Piano Sonatas, Book 4. Allans, Melbourne.