A Few Thoughts about the Last Sonatas of Beethoven, Schubert and More...

I'm excited to be performing this wonderful repertoire in Washington's National Gallery next week. Here are my program notes:


Today’s program brings together two of the greatest masterpieces in the piano repertoire: the very last piano sonatas of Beethoven and Schubert.

Beethoven’s Sonata in c minor Op. 111 and Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat Major D.960 share several similarities.  Most important among these is the uncanny ability of both to transport us into a spiritual realm; they are works that succeed in expressing through music the truth and depth of human experience.

These works have other things in common as well: both were written in Vienna only 6 years apart (Beethoven’s in 1822 and Schubert’s in 1828), and each is the final work in a trilogy of its composer’s late-period sonatas.

It is possible to say that these two monumental works are both studies in silences, and that silence is indeed one of the crucial elements that lead us to the otherworldly, to the sublime. The second and final movement of Beethoven’s Sonata, titled “Arietta”, surrenders itself to silence. It is, as pianist Alfred Brendel has put it a “prelude to silence”. Hans von Bülow, one of the first 19th century pianists to perform Beethoven’s works extensively, referred to it as “Nirvana”, thereby emphasizing the essential contrast with its counterpart, the “Samsara” first movement.   The two movements of Beethoven’s final sonata paint a picture of earth and heaven, of struggle followed by complete and eternal serenity.

In Schubert’s sonata silences abound – there are long fermatas that suspend time, and on many occasions the music simply stops, the dramatic silences allowing us to reflect on where we are.  Schubert also makes generous use of the unusual dynamic marking pianississimo (ppp), creating an unreal world that is neither quite here nor there, hovering above earth and stopping the movement of time.

In the same way that silence, or emptiness, can be so meaningful and powerful, another element - the trill, normally a secondary and merely decorative device, is brought to the foreground of the musical experience in both sonatas.

Schubert’s trill, first appearing immediately following the opening melody of the first movement, is a low murmur – trembling, dark, mysterious and unsettling. The pianist Andras Schiff calls it “the most extraordinary trill in the history of music”!  All appearances of this trill are to be played very softly, pp or even ppp – with one startling exception: the trill makes an unexpected appearance during the measures leading to a repeat of the opening section of the movement, and this time we hear it in full force, fortissimo (ff).  In a recent New Yorker magazine article Alex Ross refers to this as “ the trill of doom”.  Many musicians debate whether or not this repeat should be performed.   Without the repeat, we do not play the ff statement of the trill, and some eliminate the repeat precisely to maintain the otherwise serene quality of the whole; however, others do play the repeat, feeling that, despite the movement’s unusual length, the trill in its loud version is essential to conveying Schubert’s complete emotional range.

In the second movement of Beethoven’s Sonata, the long continuous trills that gradually take over are a key element in giving the work its sense of stillness. In exact opposition to Schubert’s use of the trill, Beethoven’s trills are in high register, shining, shimmering and weightless. They are a symbol of infinity.

Beethoven and Schubert had quite different approaches to their final sonatas when it comes to the organization of the musical material. Beethoven’s is a motivically concise two-movement work whereas Schubert’s is a large four-movement structure of symphonic scope. While Beethoven’s sonata emphasizes the tonal center of C throughout (c minor for the first movement, C Major in the second), Schubert’s sonata traverses a wide range of keys, enjoying a wealth of modulations and colors without any hurry to let the gravity of harmony pull the music in any one decisive direction. Here we have a great example of what Schumann referred to as Schubert’s “Heavenly Length”.

Strikingly, while Beethoven challenges life in the first movement and

transcends it in the second, Schubert on the other hand, after two otherworldly movements, decides to return to the joys of the real world in the third and fourth movements, offering an affirmation oflife here and now.


Opening the program is a short composition by Russian-American composer Lera Auerbach, “Ludwig’s Alptraum” (“Ludwig’s Nighmare”). I’ve enjoyed working with Lera while commissioning and recording her piano trio “Triptych”, and this solo piano work has a similarly arresting power and expressivity.

Written for the Second International Beethoven Competition for Piano Bonn in 2007, it uses as a departure point the opening measures of Beethoven’s Sonata in E-flat Major Op. 27 no. 1.

Lera said about the piece:

“When I finished the work it didn’t yet have a title. ‘Prelude, Toccata and Postlude’ was my first thought, which I immediately discarded as conservative and boring. But what should I call the piece?

As often happens in dreams, the most random elements suddenly reveal common characteristics in ‘Ludwigs Alptraum.’ They seem to belong together in a strange, distorted reality which has its own proportions, its own feeling of time and its own timelessness. All art arises from dreams and it is perhaps only in dreams that fate can reveal its hidden threads to us, the threads that connect each day with the next. Dreams are full of symbols, even if they can only be found again in memories.”