The Creation History of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 111

Decker drawing

At the beginning of 1821, Beethoven still lived in his aparment in the Landstraßen suburb and, as far as his health allowed, he worked on his compositions.  However, already on January 10, 1821, the Viennese Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung reported that Beethoven suffered from an infection. This illness would last up to March (Thayer: 775-776).

His friend Josephine von Stackelberg, nee von Brunsvik and widowed von Deym that, at least during the years 1804 – 1807, he appeared to have had a passion for, died on March 31, 1821.

When Beethoven moved to Unterdöbling for the warm season, he became ill with jaundice. In September, he went to Baden to recuperate. On July 18, 1821, he wrote to Archduke Rudolph and apologized that, due to health reasons, he was not yet able to complete the Missa solemnis.

For the remainder of the year, Beethoven worked on the completion of his last Piano Sonatas, Op. 110 and Op. 111, which he was able to complete on January 13, 1822.
From our creation history of Op. 110 we know that Beethoven had worked on this sonata from September 1821 until the end of 1821, until December 25, to be more precise. What information do we have as to when Beethoven began to work on Op. 111?

With respect to this, unfortunately, we do not have any precise biographical data. What we can rely on is one or the other indication by serious Beethoven researchers and biographers.

Thus, Barry Cooper (p. 288 ff.) reports that during the composition of his 31st Piano Sonata, Op. 110, which he began in September, 1821, Beethoven already thought of the composition of his next sonata. One idea for it was that of a sonata in h minor, the main theme of which he later used in his String Quartet, Op. 130, in the same key. A further idea, writes Cooper, was that of a c minor sonata that was to begin with a movement in 6/8 tempo, and he also refers to an idea for the third movement of such a sonata which then, however, was used as the main theme of the first movement, still in c minor. In this context, he also refers to a C-Major Adagio that was to consist of a theme and variations and which was intended to form the second and last movement.

Cooper further reports that the main sketches to this sonata immediately follow those of Op. 110 and that the original manuscript bears the 13th of January, 1822, as completion date. As Cooper writes, this points more towards when Beethoven began with this work than when he finished it, since Op. 110 had been completed only less than three weeks before. As the manuscript of Op. 110, also this manuscript had become so illegible that he had to write out a clean copy for both movements, and, after he had sent a version to Schlesinger in the middle of February, 1822, he found that he had to send him a revised copy of the last movement, with the request that the version he had sent him before should be destroyed.

However, as Cooper suspects, the printer might have used the first version.Also Thayer (p. 783, p. 816) lists the beginning of 1822 with January 13th as the date of the completion of Op. 111.

“In “Dr. Faustus,” Thomas Mann asserts that Op. 111 is the farewell to the piano sonata as a genre, that after the medium was exhausted and obsolete. Others feel Beethoven might eventually have written more sonatas, and that any of the last five sonatas would have made a fitting and memorable conclusion to this extraordinary chronicle. For there is simply no way, in dealing with these pinnacles of musical art, to say which is the highest, as their blinding summits defy triangulation.

Op. 111 stands on only two colossal legs, each with a single-minded continuity that contrasts with the many changes of tempo and mood and the shorter movements found in its siblings.

The contrast between these movements could not be greater. The first is passionate, strident, angular, and complex in its moody key of C minor; the last, in the untroubled key of C major, is smooth, resigned, and transcendentally sweet. Some see here portrayed first the strive and terror of the world, and then the peace and spirituality of the hereafter. Let us, perhaps, conclude with Thomas Mann’s comment on the conclusion of this sonata, in his novel, Doctor Faustus:

“But when it ends and while it ends, something comes, after so much rage, persistence, obstinacy, extravagance; something entirely unexpected and touching in its mildness and goodness. With the motif passed through many vicissitudes, which takes leave and so doing becomes itself entirely leave-taking, a parting wave and call, with this D G G occurs a slight change, it experiences a small melodic expansion. After an introductory C, it puts a C sharp before the D . . .and this added C Sharp is the most moving, consolatory, pathetically reconciling thing in the world. It is like having one’s hair or cheek stroked, lovingly, understandingly, like a deep and silent farewell look.. . . ” (Mann: 55)

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