This year marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven, one of music's most enduring and influential composers. An innovator in many respects, Beethoven was the first to more fully explore human emotion in musical terms. This is particularly true of his later works. His slow movements became darker, describing grief, sadness and despair with gut-wrenching musicality. Just as the listener is convinced all is lost with no hope for humanity, Beethoven invariably follows with a movement of absolute joy and triumph, reaching heights of glory that are totally exhilarating to listen to. Beethoven's music always has the message that no matter how horrible things may appear to be: humanity will triumph; YOU will triumph.
Perhaps the most familiar example of this is the glorious "Ode to Joy", the final choral movement of the 9th Symphony. It is impossible to listen to this without feeling uplifted. Putting this in perspective, when Beethoven wrote this he was profoundly deaf, and ill. He had never married or had a family, and despite his fame he had never been accepted into the class-based Viennese society, which was probably one of his greatest regrets.
I have been working on Beethoven's Piano Sonata in A flat, Op 110 for years. It is also a late work of a similar vintage as the 9th Symphony. Unlike many of his later sonatas, it is not exceptionally difficult in the technical sense. Instead it is the meaning and interpretation that is ever-changing and elusive. Some describe it as biographical: the first movement describing a childhood somewhat tinged with melancholy, the second movement represents a misspent and rowdy youth. It is the final movement that is epic in scope and emotion. Opening with a a slow, sad adagio, it somehow describes either physical or mental anguish. This is followed by a much faster fugue, where the illness seems to subside until the adagio returns again. This time it is sadder, making the listener believe the end is near. especially when the funeral bells toll ten times.
The fugue then reappears, this time inverted or upside down and almost ethereal sounding, gradually building to a glorious and triumphant ending. Some people feel that Beethoven is describing the life of Christ and the final movement describes the crucifixion and resurrection. Beethoven didn't leave any clues as to the inspiration or meaning of this sonata, so it is all left up to the listener and the performer to interpret, making this a very personal work.
This sonata is not frequently performed, but you can listen and watch Sviatoslav Richter perform it here....