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Beethoven’s “Les Adieux” Sonata: Saying Goodbye in Three Chords

Listen carefully to the three opening chords of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 26 in E-flat Major, Op. 81a. For Beethoven, these chords outlined the three broken syllables of the word “Le-be-wohl,” or “Fare-thee-well,” which he inscribed in the manuscript. If the music from Monday’s post is still in your ears, you’ll notice the tantalizing similarity between this opening and the three chords which open Brahms’ choral lamentation, Nänie -another “farewell” piece. Beethoven’s opening chords suggest the wide-open intervals of horns, the instrument of the hunt, while Nänie ventures into the tranquillity of the pasture with the oboe. As with the Brahms, the first two chords set up our expectations for something fairly predictable, while the third chord delivers a surprise, taking us to a completely new place.

Beethoven’s “Les Adieux” (“Fairwell”) Piano Sonata was completed on May 4, 1809 as Napoleon’s army invaded Vienna. Among the fleeing aristocrats was Beethoven’s sponsor and composition and piano student, Archduke Rudolf (1788-1831). In addition to this Sonata, Beethoven dedicated a handful of other significant works to the Archduke, including the “Emperor” Piano Concerto, the Op. 97 Piano Trio, the Tenth (and last) Violin Sonata, and the monumental choral work, Missa solemnis. A year earlier in 1808, Napoleon’s brother, the King of Westphalia, granted Beethoven an offer of employment. Determined to keep Beethoven in Vienna, Archduke Rudolf promised to provide the composer with income for the rest of his life, apparently remaining good to his word.

This is Beethoven’s only sonata to include a program- in this case, a reference to the Archduke’s forced evacuation. The first movement is titled, Das Lebewohl (“The Farewell”). The second movement, Abwesenheit (“The Absence”) is filled with melancholy solitude. The third, Das Wiedersehen (“The Return”) sparkles with joyful exuberance, including Haydnesque jokes in the form of sudden, jolting fortes. Just before the close of the final movement, there is an intimate moment of quiet reflection, perhaps gratitude, in which hints of the first movement’s “lebewohl” motive return.

Listen to the way the opening chords are transformed throughout the first movement. This motive is so infused in the DNA of the music that it seems to be the seed for the entire movement. In the exposition, you’ll hear the originally descending melodic line in contrary motion between the bass and top voice (around 2:12). In the development section, the motive searches for a way forward. In the final bars, it fades into the distance.

Recordings

  • Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 26 in E-flat Major, Op. 81a, “Les Adieux,” Daniel Barenboim iTunes
  • Beethoven: The Piano Sonatas, Vol. VI, András Schiff iTunes
  • Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 8, 14, 23, and 26, Alfred Brendel iTunes

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