Ultimate, a word that originally meant last in Latin has become a description of finest or best in English or ne plus ultra in French. It can be argued that Beethoven's last or ultimate sonata fits both definitions.
Coming near the end of a life of breaking barriers and exercising his considerable will, the composer's last sonatas are artistic works that have earned their immortality.
It is scary to realize that some of our planet's great art is there for what at the time was an accidental circumstance.
In 1819 Moritz Schlesinger, a music publisher, met with Beethoven and bargained for 60 songs and 3 piano sonatas. These were his last three piano sonatas - the pinnacle of his Late period - and took longer because of illness and other work.
Because of these circumstances there was talk of dropping the sonatas from the contract. The Piano Sonata No. 31 was finished Christmas Day 1821.
My piano teacher told me about the story of Ludwig van Beethoven's creation of his biggest Piano Sonata the "Hammerklavier."
It goes back to John Broadwood sending him his best and biggest piano, and Beethoven's reply was this groundbreaking work. When I looked up to confirm what I was told, I found out the story was even more amazing.
What is a musical genius to do? Ludwig van Beethoven had been composing piano sonatas with his own technical prowess in mind since he was eleven years old, and thirty five years later he hits a brick wall.
The new ideas and experimentation that stimulated so much of his music wasn't happening. This was the situation Beethoven found himself in 1816. The composer was a crotchety and difficult man at the best of times and after 1815 his physical problems and lack of energy brought his compositional growth to a standstill.
Context is everything. Ludwig van Beethoven dedicated his 26th piano sonata to Archduke Rudolph of Austria. The nickname of the sonata is "Les Adieux" or "Farewell," and I've heard speculation on the supposed relationship between the composer and his patron and friend.
Just knowing the title page on the first edition helps clarify some facts: "On the departure of his imperial highness, for the Archduke Rudolph, in admiration."