♫ More transcendence follows. Of course it does. We are in this E flat major, this foreign territory – and Beethoven conveys, with amazing tenderness, the feeling of being a stranger in a strange land, of not knowing one’s way or one’s place. This music is based on the theme’s falling intervals, ♫ but it is now in a two voice dialogue – all questions, questions answered with more questions. ♫ And finally, after so much trial and error, we find our way home, to C Major, to the womb of the theme, to the fifth and (sort of) final variation. ♫ There is something so singular about the way this variation begins. It's a major moment in the piece – when the music in a variation movement stops being actual variations, the moment when the variations, the material and tonality that convey a sense of home, return, is obviously loaded with significance. But Beethoven almost masks the return. Rather than have it come at the dynamic low point, or, conversely, at the apex, the beginning of the variation comes one bar into a very long crescendo. What Beethoven is conveying through this dynamic scheme is that this variation might represent a kind of arrival, but there remains an extraordinary journey ahead. ♫ I referred to this as a variation – and in any analysis of the piece, you’ll hear it described as Variation 5 – but you’ll notice that the melodic line itself is identical to the theme. In that sense, it is a bit reminiscent of Op. 109’s variations, which are truly cyclical, the movement ending with a nearly literal reiteration of the theme itself, without repeats. This “5th variation” is also a repeat-less re-airing of the theme, but unlike in op. 109, the music is still dramatically transformed, on account of the way the melody is underpinned by the left hand. In the hymn-like theme, the left hand is as solemn and deliberate as the theme itself. ♫ In this quasi-return, however, the left hand moves with the calm yet insistent – inexorable – force of an ocean. ♫ What a transformation! This music, which at first, seemed like an infinitely calm antidote to the turmoil of the first movement, has acquired a phenomenal sense of determination – an example of Beethoven’s force of will to match any other. I think that somehow – because this variation is a kind of return, making the movement cyclical, because the preceding, non-variation events were so staggering – we instinctively understand that this has to be the final variation. But this raises a new question, or even problem, one that is all the more moving because we know that this is Beethoven’s final piano sonata: he does not know how to end, how to say goodbye. This problem is, in a sense, built into the theme itself: its ending is not particularly conclusive. There is a cadence, but it comes on a weak beat – the second beat – and it has an E (which is the third), rather than a C (the root), at the top of the chord. ♫ Listen to this truly horrid recomposition to imagine what a more conclusive version would sound like. ♫ Forgive me! But the actual music ♫ invites a continuation, which is why there aren’t hard stops between any of the variations… …and which is why now, at the end of the ostensibly final variation, Beethoven needs to continue. The music has come full-circle, it has given layers and context to this theme beyond what any listener ever could have imagined, it has departed the world of variation and, indeed, the physical world – but it still needs to find a way to end. And so, it goes on: referencing the theme, but again abandoning pure variation, in an effort to convey an impossible depth of feeling, and in an effort to END. ♫ And again. ♫ And this, now, with this G pedal in the bass, ♫ with this huge separation of the hands, with this unbelievable, almost metaphysical sense of expansion, this is surely headed to a massive cadence – an outpouring of C Major, like the ones that ended the Waldstein Sonata, or the 5th Symphony. ♫ No. The music yet again becomes more recklessly euphoric, more a manifestation of pure spirit… and yet again fails to end. And so again, it goes on. The fifth variation was a variation without repeats; what comes now is more stripped down still, just the first half of the theme, in a celestial re-composition. ♫ And there, finally, seems to be the catalyst for a conclusion. Whereas in the theme, Beethoven masked that cadence, delaying it until a weak beat, ♫ here we finally land on the C where we really ought to. ♫ It is surely one of music’s great exhalations. After everything we’ve endured – the rageful agony of the first movement, the almost out-of-control euphoria of some of these variations, the sense of utter rootlessness in other moments – absolute peace now seems to be coming. And it does come. In a way. The subsequent passage recapitulates many moments from the movement – the trills of the move into E flat major, the angel babble of the fourth variation – without in any way compromising this hard-won calm. ♫ And finally – finally – the conclusion. ♫ Only, this is NOT a conclusion. It is…the absence of a continuation. This last phrase has a heartbeat – the same pulse that has persisted through this longest of Beethoven’s movements for the piano – and eventually, the heartbeat simply stops. ♫ We wait for the next one, which never comes. The end of op. 111 is a death.