Sonata No. 32, Op. 111 in c minor

A retrospective of recordings made between 1966 and 2009
at Janet Wallace Concert Hall, Macalester College, St. Paul, Minnesota
Copyright © 2012 Donald Betts

Piano Donald Betts     
Viola Tim Betts     
Recording and Mastering Greg Reierson and Russ Borud
Ray Becoskie Cover design

Don’s Inner Voice  |  More Music

Ludwig van Beethoven
1. Maestoso - Allegro con brio ed appassionato 9:39 / 13.6M
2. Arietta: Adagio molto, semplice e cantabile 20:23 / 28.6M
Soundings XI: Invocation for Piano 6:18 / 8.8M
Donald Betts
Mephisto Waltz No. 1 10:57 / 15.4M
Franz Liszt
Ballade No. 3 in A flat major 9:08 / 12.9M
Frédéric Chopin
Soundings XIII: Courting the Timeless Within Time 12:12 / 17.0M
Donald Betts

"...[an] awareness of the gigantic spiritual as well as physical force of the music..."
— New York Times
"...tremendous technique and bravura style..."
— Musical America
"Betts speaks in an original and arresting voice that should be heard by the musically intrepid."
— Peter Burwasser, Fanfare Magazine

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 32, Op. 111

A Psychological Descriptive Analysis

Pianist Arthur Schnabel (1882-1951) purportedly once remarked that the late piano sonatas of Beethoven are “better than they can be performed.” There is little doubt today that the five last piano sonatas (Opp. 101, 106, 109, 110, 111) are generally regarded as being a very special part of the piano literature. They are held in particular esteem for their rigorous architectural craftsmanship and for the expressive depth of their humanity. Each blends a high degree of musical abstraction with a discrete and compelling immediacy. Each gains musical momentum as it proceeds to unfold, placing the greatest psychological weight and impact in the final movement. One is not, therefore, sent home happy, but rather moved, sometimes deeply so, or even changed. This was brought home to me in a very personal way in 1964 when I was in my mid thirties as an assistant professor in the Music Department at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. The poet James Wright was also teaching there at that time in the English Department. Wright, already well known, was destined later to become one of the most distinguished American poets of the mid twentieth century. A mutual friend introduced us and when, a week or so later, I played a piano recital at the college he brought Wright to the concert. The program ended with the Beethoven Sonata No. 31, Op. 110. A few days later Wright sent me a somewhat lengthy letter that focused on the Beethoven Sonata. A few sentences will suffice to make the point:

… but the Beethoven -̶ I don’t know what to say, it was appalling. I am shaken, really shaken… I don’t know what to make of it. In any event, I know I will never be the same. I want to thank you, really thank you.

The Op. 111 is a two movement sonata. The first movement opens dramatically, followed by soft brooding chords leading to a rather condensed, brilliant, and assertive sonata form whose energy is spent relatively soon, inviting a quiet, subdued close.

The second, and also final movement, consists of an Arietta in two sections, one in C Major and repeated, and the other in A Minor, also repeated. The Arietta leads directly to a series of variations, the first three of which are also in two parts repeated. It is in this movement, through the Arietta and ensuing variations, that the Sonata speaks to us in timeless ways, near to the heart of what is often referred to as “the human condition.”

The Arietta is a highly condensed and compacted musical statement reduced to an unusual degree of simplicity. It sings and captures us through its opening rhythmically falling intervals of a fourth and then a fifth, followed by its contrastingly smooth melodic lines, all derived from the most basic harmonic progressions.

An unusually large space between the left hand low voices and the right hand upper voices, endows the Arietta with an extra-dimensional depth. If, for instance, Beethoven had placed the left hand tenor and bass an octave higher, close to the right hand producing traditionally “good” choral writing, the mystery and spiritual depth of the Arietta would simply vanish and one would be left listening to a rather undistinguished, non-descript musical fragment. As Beethoven wrote the Arietta, the extraordinary space between the hands is an indispensible musical aspect of the Arietta’s overall reductive simplicity, an integral part of its architecture, and thus, in itself deeply organic.

Moreover, the movement is far more than a theme and variations. The uniqueness, depth, and fragility of the Arietta, being the result of extensive reduction, invites an equally intensive effort to make tangible its musical content: that is the musical implications and ramifications from which the Arietta was deduced---thus, if you will, the music that lies silently within. In a sense this is somewhat akin to Michelangelo’s reply when asked about sculpting his statue of David from a single block of marble. He said something to the effect that he simply released that which was already there.

The Arietta leads directly into the first three variations with free flowing lyrical lines in both hands and continues with no pauses, but rather as a continuum into the second and third variations. As the music proceeds, it becomes more and more syncopated and gathers quicker notes, while nevertheless maintaining the original pulse.

The third, truly extraordinary, variation erupts into dramatic, exceedingly syncopated arpeggios, hurling downward and upward creating a nearly explosive sense of primal energy, passionate and ecstatically exorbitant.

The energy suddenly lessens and the movement morphs into a calm, quiet C Major section (variation 4) the purpose of which is to regroup and redefine the Arietta with quiet chords separated by rests and supported by a hushed, steady, unbroken, murmuring bass line in alternating fifths. As part of this section the music moves upwards in quiet scales and proceeds to create a steady, very quiet, cosmic-like dance in the treble. The music is formal, controlled, quiet and removed, with soft repeated chords and little melodic movement and dynamic shading. The whole C Major section is then done again quite similarly in the A Minor section.

Then without pause, the music gradually awakens and, as it were, returns back to earth and gathers new energy. The left hand in octaves strikes the rhythmic falling intervals which open the Arietta, and while the right hand trills, the music modulates into E-flat Major. There it is surrounded by trills in the alto. While softly lingering on a B-flat dominant seventh chord, the music turns into triple trills, creating a very active unresolved sense of a continuous unbroken sound, highly abstract and near to a perfect stasis. Closely beneath, in mid-range, a bell-like B-flat is struck six times creating a hypnotic affect.

The trills resolve into a single trill in the upper voice climbing chromatically and crescendoing where it is joined by a low bass B-flat struck forte. The right hand trill resolves softly into discrete notes and continues to rise and crescendo to a high B-flat while the left hand descends chromatically to a low F. Here again, we experience that extraordinary space, dramatic and compelling, in which the music is reduced to two notes five and a half octaves apart, seemingly teetering on an abyss.

Almost immediately the upper voice responds emotionally by moving a half step downward and dropping a full octave, diminuendoing and continuing downward, scale-wise, while the left hand moves upward in half-steps, also diminuendoing.

They meet midway, and together in E-flat Major sing a variant of the Arietta continuing to diminuendo while they do so. The alto plays steady and probing repeated notes. The soprano plays the Arietta melodic variant in single, compacted notes separated by rests. The tenor and bass together in octaves answer by playing cogent fragments of the Arietta, also separated by rests. All is very quiet as the alto then assumes the lead, and in deeply probing two-note chords, begins a somewhat lengthy modulation chromatically downward to the home base of C Major.

Throughout this section, the alto consists of slow, compacted, repeated 16th-note chords. These chords are combined with the melodic line, itself reduced to single 16th notes surrounded by a 16th rest on either side. This reduces the Arietta melody to a fragmented memory of the melodic line. Thus, while anticipating the next melodic note, we are also left listening to the constant, steadily probing alto chords beneath and in between each melodic note as the music chromatically descends, slowly, softly and sorrowfully. Such slow chromatically descending notes create an acknowledged musical figure denoting sorrow, deliberately used by composers of Western music from the beginning of the 17th century to this very day. Yet, since the music also modulates and descends into the home base of C Major, we feel relief and renewed hope.

As the movement continues into the penultimate variation in C Major, the Arietta is sung in its complete and smooth form in layers of sound, with a supporting, sweeping bass line throughout, and with unrelenting and determined repeated notes and chords in the alto. The two together drive the Arietta melody forward. As the music proceeds, it gathers energy and momentum resulting in a kind of cathartic genesis of self-sustaining propulsion, rising to a sublime musical affirmation and illuminating a profound spiritual sense of human empathy and connectedness.

The final section continues in ethereal trills both above and below statements of the Arietta supported by the lower voices in soft and calm alternating notes. The music becomes softer and less distinct leading into scales in sixths and thirds upward and downward while crescendoing and striking, in the right hand, the opening falling interval of a fourth from middle C to the lower G, forte. This is answered in the bass, two octaves below (low C to the lower G), also forte. While the bass G is being held the right hand strikes an interval of a diminished fifth, again forte, an octave above, and once more an octave above that. With the low G still sounding in the bass, we again experience that dynamic space in single notes five and a half octaves apart. Immediately the space is quietly closed and with the outline of the space still lingering, a final C Major chord is ever so gently placed quietly within.

The ending of this unique sonata, brings to mind another unique work, the last lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem, God’s Grandeur:

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Soundings VI: Invocation

Donald Betts, composer

The work consists of sound layers, ranging from very low to high, with enormous dynamic contrasts, all creating large spaces in which a melodic fragment consisting of two phrases is heard over and over in various keys and with a variety of pianistic surroundings.

Chopin’s Ballade No. 3 in A-flat Major

Of Chopin’s four great Ballades, perhaps this is the least challenging technically, and yet it well might be the most demanding architecturally.

Though there are dramatic moments, particularly the ending, the work is essentially lyrical throughout. Its themes and its various pianistic figurations sing and dance smoothly from one section to another while never breaking the ongoing narrative with overdone virtuosic force. The rhythmic pulse throughout is the result of the lyrical flexibility of the phrases, and therefore lies within; for the Ballade, like so many Romantic works, resists the more pedantic attempt to place the pulse as a strict beat directing the work from the outer musical edges. Like so many Romantic piano works, the Ballade invites places where inner voices sing out to become an integral part of the work’s poetic affect.

Soundings XIII: Courting the Timeless within Time

Donald Betts, composer/pianist; Tim Betts, violist

The work was written for my son in 2009 and recorded the same year. It represents a departure from the contemporary challenges of many of my previous works. Even so, the work does contain a number of contemporary stylistic aspects, particularly in the spatial relationships between the piano and the viola. Nevertheless, the work as it is designed, essentially promotes an atmosphere of Romantic nostalgia.

Notes by Donald Betts, September 2011

Donald Betts made his New York piano debut at the age of twenty-one playing his own music and works by Prokofiev, Liszt, and Schumann. Musical America cited his “tremendous technique and bravura style,” and the New York Times called him a pianist of “imagination and poetic feeling.”He was at the time a student of Hedwig Rosenthal. A month later he was drafted into the army and ended up in Japan in the 289th Yokohama army band as piano soloist playing Rhapsody In Blue, and first movements of the Grieg concerto and Beethoven’s Emperor concerto, all arranged for band. Returning to civilian life, he won the Concert Artist Guild Award in NYC, and while studying with Clarence Adler, played two more recitals at Town Hall and Carnegie Recital Hall. In relation to his performance of Beethoven’s 32nd sonata, Op. 111, at that time, the New York Times wrote “There was lots of excitement in his playing and awareness of the gigantic spiritual as well as physical force of the music.” Soon after, he received an assistantship to do graduate work at Indiana University School of Music as an assistant to pianist Joseph Battista. A year later as a professor of music at Macalester College, he soloed in nine different concerti with members of the Minneapolis Symphony, known since and now, as the Minnesota Orchestra. He also co-founded The Macalester Trio with violinist Joseph Roche. Along with cellist, Camilla Heller, the group performed virtually the entire repertoire of piano trios and piano quartets and commissioned and recorded several new works. Their recording of “Chamber Works by Women Composers” was hailed by Newsweek in 1980 as one of the ten most important recordings of that year. Betts is a composer of somewhere around a hundred and fifty compositions, many of which have been performed nationally and internationally. He has recorded for a number of different labels, including Vox, Centaur, MMC, CRI, Golden Crest, Navona, Inscape and Ampria. His latest recording, “Perspectives Piano Works Vol. 2”, for the Centaur label, was just released in July of 2011; his first recording for Centaur, “Soundings Selected Piano Works of Donald Betts”, was highly recommended by the American Record Guide as “seductively dreamlike and sensuous, filled with mystery and rapture.” It was also reviewed by Fanfare Magazine’s Peter Burwasser, writing that “Betts creates his music in big, hungry handfuls of notes, and his passion and imagination are inspiring…..the main impact is made by direct, deeply emotional, broad gestures. Betts speaks in an original and arresting voice that should be heard by the musically intrepid.” Composer Henry Brant has said of his piano music, “Donald Betts’ proven abilities and long experience as a soloist enable him as a composer to speak the piano’s language with a natural expressiveness and intensity and to develop the instrument’s idioms imaginatively along 20th century lines … In my view these compositions occupy a place of their own in the repertory of 20th century keyboard music.” Colleagues, critics, former teachers and his own former students have characterized Betts’ music making as probing, personal, nuanced and poetic. He is a professor Emeritus at Macalester College, where he taught for 47 years.

Tim Betts joined the Faculty of Central Washington University in the Fall of 2005. At present he is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Music and Douglas Honors College, teaching viola performance, chamber music performance, and courses in the history and literature of music. Mr. Betts is violist of the Kairos String Quartet, ensemble-in-residence at CWU. Known as a sensitive performer and collaborator and an enthusiastic teacher and clinician, his frequent performances and educational activities with the Kairos String Quartet and numerous regional orchestras, ensembles, summer festivals, and youth symphonies, have made him a fixture of string performance and education throughout the Northwest. Mr. Betts serves as Artistic Director of Chamber Music Madness, a unique Seattle-based program for high school students to explore the masterworks of the string chamber music repertoire. In the summer Mr. Betts directs a collaborative effort between the Kairos Quartet and Chamber Music Madness, a ten-day advanced chamber music institute for high school and college-aged pianists and string players. Prior to his appointment at CWU, Mr. Betts was active as a musician in New York where he earned a Masters Degree in Viola Performance and served as teaching assistant to Debra Moree at Ithaca College and as teaching assistant to Patricia McCarty at the Meadowmount School of Music. He also holds a B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Minnesota where he pursued performance studies with Korey Konkol. His recordings of chamber music can be found on the MMC, Inscape, and Navona labels and have been aired on WNYC and radio stations nationally. His playing can also be heard on the soundtracks of several major motion pictures. His most recent release on the Navona label features a collaboration with world-renowned clarinetist Richard Stoltzman.