Archduke Rudolph of Austria
(1788-1832) was a pupil, a friend and a generous patron of Beethoven. Their
association began around 1804 and lasted until the composer's death in 1827.
During the 1809 occupation of Vienna
by the French, Beethoven was too distracted to compose seriously, so he
diligently prepared composition teaching material for the Archduke, who was his
only composition student. The first movement of Das Lebewohl Sonata was presented to the Archduke, dedicated and written from the heart to His
Imperial Highness, when he fled Vienna
ahead of the advancing French. Rudolf was the only one of his royal patrons who
stuck by the composer to the end, and who sufficiently appreciated his
greatness to win his sincere friendship. The list of works that Beethoven
dedicated to him is formidable: this work and the Op.81 Piano Sonata, the
Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos, the Op.96 Violin Sonata, Fidelio and the Missa
The Archduke was the youngest brother of the
Emperor so it is fitting that the work that bears his name should be such
majestic and bountiful music. It is written in Beethoven's Olympian manner with
a nobility of expression that transports you to that instantly recognisable
world of his greatest works. The opening bars tell you this immediately as the
piano sets off with that broad undulating melody. The two strings then
interrupt the flow for a moment before all three resume the majestic procession
together. Reminders of the theme persist through the transition to the second
subject, where we find ourselves unexpectedly in G major. This has various
elements, the most important being the slightly hesitant, staccato motif based on the descending scale with which it begins.
After the repeat, the massive development section begins as a continuation of
the end of the exposition, a pattern of octave triplet figures on all three
instruments, but before long the main theme is recalled, while the triplets
persist in the piano's right hand imparting a dream-like quality to these bars.
The strings then have a fascinating dialogue, with the piano's right hand using
just three notes of the theme, before the full melody is unfolded again in the
cello. The last part of the development gives the opening phrase of the theme
to the violin and cello in a delicious pizzicato
duet with accompanying trills on the piano. This is then transformed into a
succession of scale passages leading back into the recapitulation. The coda
looks at the theme one last time.
The main theme of the Scherzo is a jaunty tune played first by the cello and violin
alone. The piano creates an equally cheerful subsidiary theme to dance along
beside it. The Trio begins with a
mysterious chromatic passage led by the cello, which is then treated as a
strange fugato in B flat minor. This
is then opposed by a dashing waltz-like tune, which keeps interrupting in the
rudest way. The whole movement has a manic and surreal feel to it, as though
each of the various themes had managed to escape their composer and had taken
on a life of their own.
The D major Andante really needs no description. As with some of the late piano
sonatas and the late E flat quartet he uses the variation form for some of his
most sublime meditations. The theme is presented in the traditional two
eight-bar sections, each section heard twice with different instrumentation.
The fourth variation poco più adagio sees
time disintegrate and we are allowed to glimpse eternity. The coda takes you
back there again. Such beauty is actually unbearable.
The Finale is reached without a break,
rudely breaking in on our meditations in that typically boisterous Beethoven
manner. The theme is deliberately playful reminding us that laughter is the
essential antidote to high seriousness. The movement begins as a Rondo but Beethoven's need to complicate
takes us a long way from such careless simplicities. The beginning is
straightforward enough, but he then starts mixing styles in the wildest manner
concluding with a Presto coda of
enormous and disconcerting length, leaving us so battered that the wonders of
the slow movement are entirely erased.