The Mystery of Beethoven's Late Period
Pianist Fidel Leal in Concert, Tues. Nov. 20

by Fredric Dannen

Can you think of any composer as beloved and yet, paradoxically, as underappreciated as Ludwig van Beethoven? The public adores his music, but I am guessing that if you took a poll, his wide popularity is based on works such as his Fifth Symphony, the piano sonatas nicknamed “Moonlight” and “Pathétique,” his violin concerto, and even trifles like the bagatelle for piano called “Für Elise.”

If, instead, you polled classical musicians and scholars regarding their favorite compositions by Beethoven, the works that touch them most deeply, the list would be almost entirely different. It would be filled with music from the composer’s late period, from roughly 1816 until his death in 1827. Those works include the Missa Solemnis, an enormous sacred work for chorus, soloists, and orchestra; his Diabelli Variations, a set of 33 piano variations on a waltz; the five final piano sonatas; and the late string quartets. The Grosse Fuge, an immense double fugue for string quartet, composed in 1825, was heralded by Igor Stravinsky as “an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever.” The general public does not dislike these works, but does not know them all that well. The single composition from Beethoven’s late period that is widely popular is his Ninth Symphony.

It was pretty much the same in Beethoven’s own lifetime, although then the public was downright hostile to some of the late compositions, which were adjudged the mad offspring of a man who had become stone deaf. There is no doubt that Beethoven turned inward when he wrote his introspective final works, but his deafness is likely only part of the explanation. He was also acutely aware that he did not have long to live, and this, too, must have had a powerful effect on his music, just as impending death informed the final compositions of his near contemporary, Franz Schubert. Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132, composed in 1825, includes a long movement called the Heiliger Dankesang, or Song of Thanksgiving, a paean of gratitude built on a church-like hymn, commemorating his recovery from a life-threatening illness.

Beethoven’s late period is marked by his persistent use of the fugue, a form of contrapuntal writing perfected by J.S. Bach, which Beethoven had used infrequently in his early and middle periods. Beethoven also drew on another form for which he had exhibited a lifelong mastery – the theme and variations. From his youth, Beethoven was a prodigious improviser at the piano; he could take a melody and redecorate it countless inventive ways. For one of his early compositions, the Piano Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 11, nicknamed the “Gassenhauer” Trio, he wrote nine variations on a contemporary pop song that was being whistled in the streets of Vienna. By his late period, Beethoven’s variations reached a level of profundity never equaled before or since. In 1819, the music publisher Anton Diabelli sent Beethoven a waltz of his own composition, a work so trite that Beethoven dismissed it as Schusterfleck, or “cobbler’s patch.” Yet, for reasons that may forever remain unknown, Beethoven wrote 33 variations on that trite little waltz, deconstructing its core elements and reflecting them through prisms of sound.

For me, the composition from Beethoven’s late period that has the deepest meaning is his final piano sonata, the Sonata in C minor, Op. 111, composed around 1820. The work consists of a restless, dramatic Allegro, followed by the famous and magnificent Arietta – a twenty-minute set of variations on a songlike theme in C major, so far-reaching that it seems to envelop all music written before, and gaze into the future. Unlike the Diabelli waltz, the Arietta theme is a simple, lovely melody composed by Beethoven himself, and what he draws from it is nothing short of miraculous. In his novel Doctor Faustus, Thomas Mann devotes a long section to analyzing the Op. 111, and considers why Beethoven never wrote a third movement to follow the Arietta. He deduces that a third movement was an impossibility, because with the Arietta, the piano sonata itself “had fulfilled its destiny, reached it goal, beyond which there was no going.”

Musicians hold Beethoven’s Op. 111 in reverent awe; the pianist András Schiff calls it “one of the wonders of mankind.” Even accomplished pianists approach the work with the greatest of caution, and public performances of the sonata, if the musician is up to the task, can create an almost religious bond between the audience and performer.

One of the finest performances of the Op. 111 can be seen and heard in this YouTube video, from a 1970 concert in Paris by pianist Claudio Arrau.

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Pianist Fidel Leal in Concert, Tuesday, November 20, 7pm

Beethoven’s Op. 111 will be the centerpiece of a concert at the Bellas Artes on Tuesday, November 20, at 7pm, given by the young Cuban-born pianist Fidel Leal, who today lives in the United States. When Leal made his debut appearance in San Miguel at the Bellas Artes last July, in a concert that featured Serge Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7 in B-flat Major, even the most jaded classical music fans realized they were hearing an artist very likely on the brink of international fame. At the November 20 concert, Leal will also be performing Latin American repertoire and a work by J.S. Bach. The concert is a benefit for Libros para Todos, a nonprofit organization dedicated to getting young people, particularly Mexican children in rural areas, to read more. Tickets for Leal’s concert are on sale at Boleto City, the ticket office on the second floor of the Mercado Sano; and online at www.boletocity.com and www.steinwayseries.com.

More on the concert

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Fredric Dan­nen is a jour­nal­ist and author with a spe­cial­ty in crim­i­nal jus­tice. He has been a staff writer for the New York­er and Van­i­ty Fair.

In 1990, Hit Men, his book about the Amer­i­can music indus­try and the influ­ence of orga­nized crime, spent a mon­th on the New York Times best­seller list. The book is #2 on Billboard's list of 100 Greatest Music Books of All Time. One of his Van­i­ty Fair arti­cles prompt­ed the Six­th Cir­cuit Court of Appeals to rebuke the U.S. Jus­tice Dept. for fraud­u­lent­ly with­hold­ing excul­pa­to­ry evi­dence in the case of Cleve­land auto work­er John Dem­jan­juk, who was extra­dit­ed, wrong­ly con­vict­ed, and sen­tenced to hang in Israel as the Nazi war-criminal “Ivan the Ter­ri­ble.” He secured the only inter­view given by Los Ange­les police chief Daryl Gates on the heels of the infa­mous Rod­ney King beat­ing, and the only inter­view ever given by crime boss Loren­zo Nichols, the crack king­pin of New York City.

While con­duct­ing research for a forth­com­ing book, Dan­nen uncov­ered lost evi­dence in the case of Calv­in Wash­ing­ton, a Tex­an wrong­ly con­vict­ed of homi­cide. As the direct result of Dannen’s efforts, Calv­in Wash­ing­ton won a full par­don for inno­cence, the first ever grant­ed by Tex­as gov­er­nor Rick Per­ry under the state’s DNA statute.

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