Beethoven’s Piano Sonata 32 in C Minor, Opus 111, II Arietta: Adagio molto semplice


There’s a perverse sort of irony, cheek and reverse-snobbery behind composing serious music in C Major, which is just what Beethoven did in the second movement of the last piano sonata he wrote, the Arietta of Piano Sonata 32. Anyone who learnt piano will have a little soft spot for the C major scale. Well, I do. I still remember the small relief I felt when prompted by my teacher, who managed to stage the theatre of an exam in each of her lessons, to play something in C major –  scales with both hands; in contrary motion; in arpeggio. Look at me – no black keys! There was Middle C, splitting the centre of the keyboard. From that North Star, every key made sense in what as a novice seemed an identical constellation of black and white. It was the key in which I first played by ear Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, with my left hand playing its first supporting harmony. And later, it was the key in which I foolishly invented my own variations to that song – with broken inverted chords and strange jazz rhythms. Good old C – saving my kid arse as I sight-read pieces I should have been practicing the week before. Good old C, all the barbarism of that key signature hiding in plain sight.

This is completely beyond my realm of expertise, but I suspect that somewhere, someone has codified the affect of each key signature of the Western diatonic scale. In its most brutal form, such a code could suggest that A major was hypocritical; A flat major lackadaisical. A little while ago I noticed my favourite Romantic pieces were generally composed in D flat major, a deeply nostalgic-feeling, or perhaps a wildly manipulative, nostalgia-inducing key. C major is the sound of childhood, the key of naivety. Yet at the same time it is the key of modernity – the exemplar of the diatonic scale emerging out of the Renaissance to become the foundation of Western harmony. The C major scale, tapped out on the keyboard, is just as good as any sound signature for the Age of Reason. In fact at this moment I’m convinced there is no better sonic metaphor for Positivism. It is a prohibition on introspection – there is nothing in music less intuitive than the idea of the C major scale.

Yet the Arietta is to be played slowly and simply (adagio e semplice) – that is, in such a way as to invoke introspection and intuition. The time signatures, 9/16 and 12/22, are not to be trifled with but in their way denote a removal from strict tempo. The temporality is – weird. Amazingly weird.  The first phrase, written to be played in repeat,  is only 8 bars long (16 with the repeat), but feels longer as it moves hypnotically in dominant to tonic chords. The harmonies are very basic and, in the post-classical moment in which they were written, movingly simple. Paired with the odd, glacial time signature and tempo, the effect recalls a choral scene of an earlier era. Those consecutive 5ths and 8ths could even be construed as a reference to the organum of very early sacred music.

Then things move along. Dreamily, the register shifts, after another glacial passage of more organum but with a minor inflection, to a flurry of 16th notes, reminiscent of a courtly dance (Allemande? Courante?) that maintains the logic of strict harmony in what are essentially arpeggiated chords. This is probably a good time to mention that the first time I heard this piece in its entirety was during the dance of Sylvie Guillem, a contemporary prima. What she danced was not ballet as such – but it was not divorced from the ballet tradition. The performance deserves an entry of its own.


So intrinsic to the piece is the sense of deconstruction Guillem embodied in her dance. She would occasionally flick a foot out in a mock ballerina gesture that actually, very casually, displayed the incredible power and form she maintains as a real-deal prima. In this way she was very truthful to ballet. In the Arietta Beethoven is truthful to the history of Western art music. The piece is relatively short, but contains history, immense history – all condensed, and confessed to the listener in the equivalent of one of Guillem’s flip gestures. The crazy aspect of Beethoven’s historicity is that he quite strangely anticipates what sounds like ragtime. This happens somewhere one third of the way into the piece and if you’re like me – generally cynical and therefore easily duped – you’d probably assume that someone got jazzy with the recording and spliced something contemporary into that first third mark for kicks.

But they didn’t. It is remarkable that in what appears to be a historical account of musical forms, the composer somehow intuited a major form that at the time was still very much yet-to-be. Was the form immanent, self-evident given what had come before it? Only a genius could speculate. What a fine piece of speculation. I watched Slavoj Zizek’s new film, Pervert’s Guide to Ideology recently and enjoyed the claim he made about Beethoven’s Ninth. The relatively ignored coda to the Ode to Joy contains Beethoven’s critique of ideology, Zizek argues. It suggests an ’empty container’ embodied by the very famous piece of music that precedes it. Was Beethoven also operating in critique in this movement of the Piano Sonata 32? What could it mean, that this prophetic pastiche could function as a parody but is nonetheless so beautiful? Is there in fact any contradiction here?

I think what moves me about this second movement is its use of history to speak of freedom. The music is cynical in the sense that it does not accept that music is ahistorical or universal. Yet it also refuses to remain at this point – at the same time as it speaks through history, it refuses to accept history. It is speculative and superficial, gliding across centuries and into the future. I think such a freedom – fleetingly won here – is a difficult freedom and all the more moving to fleetingly witness.

This was the last sonata Beethoven wrote for piano. The music is giving way to a wilderness of sympathy for life in all its absurd forms. Death knocks at the door. Mortality shrugs off form. There is joy in parody. Parody annihilates  pathos. Parody is beautiful.