Ludwig van Beethoven wrote his 26th sonata, Op. 81a between the years 1809-1810. Along with his Waldstein Sonata No. 21 in C major and his Appassionata Sonata No. 23 in F minor, the Les Adieux is a sonata written in Beethoven’s middle period of composition, a collection of masterworks which ushered in the Romantic era.
This sonata was published with a sextet in Eb minor (Op. 81b), however, the sextet was written in 1795, predating its counterpart by 15 years. In the years 1909 and 1910 Beethoven also wrote two other piano sonatas (Op. 78, Op. 79) and several art songs. Additionally, he wrote his Piano Concerto No. 5 in Eb major (“Emporer”), and his 10th string quartet (“Harp”), also in the key of Eb major. This was a significant tonality for Beethoven, considered to be of a heroic affect. His “Eroica” symphony, also part of the middle period (but written in 1903), is also in Eb.
Though the Eroica was originally dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte, Beethoven’s opinion of the French ruler had soured by 1909, and the dedication of the Les Adieux to Beethoven’s patron Archduke Rudolph was prompted by the Archduke being forced to leave the city because of a French attack on Vienna. The three movements of the sonata are titled “Lebewohl” (farewell), “Abwesenheit” (absence), and “Wiedersehen” (roughly translates to “return”, literally, to “seeing again”). Beethoven wrote in the word “Lebewohl” over the three chord motive that opens the work:
The sonata has three movements:
Das Lebewohl (Adagio – Allegro)
The opening adagio section is so heavily chromatic, and really points to quite a shocking departure from the Classical period. After the first third interval, Beethoven never returns to Eb major, cadencing to a G major chord and – even more shockingly – Cb major chord, before flowing attaca into the allegro section:
The second movement is marked andante and has very typical left hand patterns seen in Beethoven where the bottom two voices of the harmony are alternated with the top voice. These patterns are in 32nd notes, as is much of the melody. Such fast rhythmic values are very challenging to coordinate in both hands simultaneously.
This movement is marked Vivacissimamente, an instruction that is even faster than vivace. It begins with an extremely difficult two-handed flourish up the keyboard (below) and continues in this blistering pace for most of the movement.
There is a slower poco andante section in the last page, but it changes back to vivacissimamente for the end of the piece.
Editions and recordings:
Some editions of Beethoven’s sonatas include:
- Breitkopf & Härtel
- Henle Verlag
- Peters (edited by Claudio Arrau)
Some notable performers with recordings of this piece include:
- Claudio Arrau
- Daniel Barenboim
Captain Thaddius’ Hot Take:
The Les Adieux, Waldstein, and Appassionata make up a trio of really difficult Beethoven middle-period sonatas. Neither of the three are for the faint of heart, and only graduate or advanced undergraduate students should attempt them. That said, it really is a must for a pianist to play at least one of the three eventually. The piece packs so much punch, with varying technical passages of extreme difficulty, as well as shock-and-awe changes in emotion and character. A wide range of dynamics and complex harmonic language are also challenges to face in playing these Beethoven sonatas.