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The “Otherwordly” Greatness of Beethoven’s Final Piano Sonata


By Fredric Dannen

In Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus, a character named Wendell Kretzschmar, the town’s organist and music teacher, delivers a lecture on the last of Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas, his Sonata Op 111 in C minor. Kretzschmar starts with a question: Why is the sonata in two movements instead of the usual three? The work consists of a restless, dramatic allegro, followed by the famous and magnificent arietta.

Kretzschmar notes, “The theme of this movement goes through a hundred vicissitudes, a hundred worlds of rhythmic contrasts, at length outgrows itself, and is finally lost in giddy heights that one might call otherworldly or abstract. And in just that very way, Beethoven’s art had overgrown itself, risen out of the habitable regions of tradition, even before the startled gaze of human eyes.”

Kretzschmar deduces that it was impossible for Beethoven to write a third movement to his Opus 111, because with the arietta, the piano sonata itself “had fulfilled its destiny, reached it goal, beyond which there was no going.”

Musicians hold Beethoven’s Op 111 in reverent awe; the pianist András Schiff calls it “one of the wonders of mankind.” Even accomplished pianists approach the work with the greatest of caution. Public performances of the sonata, if the musician is up to the task, can create an almost religious bond between the audience and performer.

This past July, the Cuban pianist Fidel Leal visited San Miguel de Allende and gave a piano recital at Bellas Artes, featuring the fiendishly difficult Sonata No 7 in B-flat by Sergei Prokofiev. The critic for The Music Salon called it “the best piano recital I have heard [in San Miguel] in quite a while.” The reviewer, Canadian composer Bryan Townsend, is notoriously difficult to please.

Leal is returning to San Miguel for a single concert at the Bellas Artes on Tuesday, November 20, at 7pm, and the featured work on the program will be Beethoven’s Op. 111, the Sonata No. 32 in C minor. Leal’s recital will also include music by Bach, along with Latin American repertoire. The concert is the November offering of the Steinway Series, a benefit series for Libros para Todos, a nonprofit organization that seeks to inspire children in México to read more (visit

Advance tickets are 200 pesos, on sale at Boleto City, Mercado Sano, second floor, Ancha de San Antonio 123, open every day except Sunday, 9am–1pm, and 3pm–5pm. Tickets can also be purchased online via Tickets at the door, starting one hour before the performance, are 250 pesos.



Steinway Series presents

Cuban concert pianist Fidel Leal

Tue, Nov 20, 7pm

Bellas Artes

Hernández Macías 75, Centro

Advance tickets:

200 pesos at Boleto City, Mercado Sano, Mon–Sat, 9am­1pm, 3pm–5pm

250 pesos at the door one hour before the concert

Online sales:

Proceeds benefit Libros para Todos



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