Ludwig van Beethoven's Opus 31 is an amazing collection of inspirations.
- The first sonata is a running joke on the excesses of Italian opera.
- The second - the "Tempest Sonata" in d minor - contains all the fury and despair of the composer as he gives up on having a regular life because of his increasing deafness.
- The third sonata in E-flat major is the last in several ways. It is the last of his three sonatas grouped together in one opus listing and it is his last sonata to contain four movements until Beethoven composed his mighty "Hammerklavier."
So how does one characterize the third sonata in the Opus 31 collection?
Beethoven, on the cutting edge of new music, finds inspiration in the sonatas of old Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach. The music (in sonata-form) starts with a germ that seems to ask a question, the question is repeated and the answer is contained in the music that follows.
Beethoven enjoys teasing us with weighty pauses and murmured answers, then surprising us with explosive retorts. While the composer fools us by keeping the sonata out of the expected home key of E-flat, the second theme surprises us by being the expected key of B-flat.
The horn calls, which give this sonata the nickname "Hunting," plus additional jokes and japes lead you to the genial and traditional ending.
The second movement is also in sonata form and should be a scherzo, but it is not in the expected three-quarter time; Beethoven gets us again. The tune is reminiscent of the old fight song of Yale, "Boola-Boola."
The composer keeps the pianist busy with fast and quiet passages that are hard to play, then sharp and loud accents that also include leaps for the hands - increasing the danger that the player will hit a wrong note. Add to this a self-satisfied swagger to the music, and we know that Beethoven enjoys putting the player through the wringer.
One of the rules that Haydn set up with his four movement sonata form is if you have a scherzo you can't have a minuet.
So Beethoven gives us - after his mock-scherzo - a minuet! Here he shows us that he can still write a beautiful and graceful movement, getting us again by doing the unexpected and not having a slow movement.
The finale is like the last movement of the previous "Tempest Sonata" with a tarantella-like quality.
Marked "fast and with fire," the humor and the notes never stop. It gets its energy with eighth notes in the bass and again Beethoven has the performer playing explosive accents and tunes in and around the rollicking bass accompaniment.
The music questions, stops, then jumpstarts itself to a grand finish.
Hear this joke-jammed sonata Thursday morning in the 6 o'clock hour on your Classical Oasis, KPAC.