About this work
Ludwig van Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 26 in E flat major ("Les Adieux"), Op. 81a, would seem to be a programmatic or semi-programmatic piece of music, but there is some disagreement over the authenticity of that program -- or at least over the degree to which Beethoven desired that program to be publicly known. In the spring of 1809, the French army attacked Vienna, and Beethoven's friend, patron, and pupil Archduke Rudolph was forced to flee the city for many months. It is known that on May 21, 1809, Beethoven inscribed the words "On the departure of His Majesty the revered Archduke Rudolph" (originally in French) at the head of the score of his latest project, Op. 81a; but the first published edition of the sonata (1811) goes a step further, assigning to the sonata's three movements the titles "Les adieux," "l'absence," "et le retour" (the farewell, the absence, and the return), respectively. According to some, this assignment of a movement-by-movement program was at Beethoven's express directions; but other sources maintain that Beethoven was absolutely beside himself with fury that his publisher took such a liberty with his music. Whatever the case may be, there can be no doubt that Les Adieux is real and touching evidence of one friend's care for another, and it comes as no real surprise that the piece is far better known for its titles than for its superb music.
If the programmatic titles of the three movements are authentic, then it must be said that the idea of focusing the sorrow of farewell (the first movement, Adagio-Allegro) into an E flat major vessel is a brilliant one; for, against so warm a tonal background, the resigned falling chromaticisms introduced in the slow, 16-bar introduction and then taken up with a vengeance at the start of the symphonically-conceived Allegro pull the heartstrings far better and more believably than a melodramatic, minor-mode dirge could. The central movement is a slender Andante espressivo through the cracks of whose grim, dissonant C minor occasionally bursts a glimmer of brightness (the hope for reunion, or perhaps a warm memory, if one is following the program): twice a shimmering left-hand figuration provides the right hand with enough courage to come up with a lovely cantabile melody, first in G major, then later in F. A transition passage makes the way directly into the rousing third movement, Vivacissimamente.