Beethoven’s Triumph’

In response to:

Beethoven's Triumph from the September 21, 1995 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of my book Beethoven [“Beethoven’s Triumph,” NYR, September 21], Charles Rosen writes at length concerning the issue of “double diminution” in the final fugue of the Sonata for Piano in A flat Major, opus 110. Rosen claims that “the ‘double diminution’ is a misunderstanding of the scenario a misunderstanding shared, it might be said, by many pianists.” I can agree with Rosen that the rhythmic compression in this remarkable fugue acts together with other aspects of the music “to enforce the idea of an absolutely continuous process,” provided the word “absolutely” is deleted from his description; I too try to perform the passage as a continuous process.

As the Meno Allegro passage unfolds, the further compression of rhythm generates, in Rosen’s words, “an energetic accompanying figure.” Donald Francis Tovey, who used the term under discussion in his Companion to Beethoven’s Piano-forte Sonatas (London, 1931, p. 270), wrote that “the double diminution is a means of bursting into flame”—this formulation stresses how the rapid accompanying figuration in the sonata’s closing passages arises out of the rhythmic telescoping of the fugue subject itself. Rosen does not mention how Beethoven alters the fugue subject structurally at this point by deleting the second of its three ascending fourths, thereby surrounding the inverted version of the original subject with shortened thematic variants which are each only one eighth as long. This highly original procedure creates a distinct level of rhythmic compression which is not “only on paper” but clearly audible and which can be described as “double diminution” even if the larger musical process is a continuous one. Related issues including the tempo relations and symbolic import of this fascinating work are discussed in more detail in my study “Integration and Narrative Design in Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in A flat Major, Opus 110,” in Beethoven Forum (University of Nebraska Press, 1992), Vol. 1, pp. 111–145.

William Kinderman
Victoria, British Columbia