The Archduke Rudolph of Austria was one of Beethoven’s closest friends and patrons. A younger man than the composer, Beethoven began tutoring Rudolph when he was in his thirties and the Archduke was in his mid-teens. Beethoven developed a strong bond with Rudolph – since he had no children himself, it seems likely that his fondness for his student had a fatherly quality. The Archduke became an accomplished musician and was a generous patron of the arts. Dedications can communicate endearment – many of Beethoven’s do. But they can also be pragmatic; composers often dedicate their work to patrons and to the living famous out of calculation for gaining traction. The fourteen compositions Beethoven dedicated to Rudolph indicate a bond stronger than pragmatism; the two were tight.
As Napoleon’s armies ranged across the Germanic territories of the Hapsburg dynasty during the politically turbulent early 19th century, Vienna became unsafe for the aristocracy. The Archduke fled Vienna in 1809, and in 1811 Beethoven published a composition he’d written in the ensuing years, “On the departure of his Imperial Highness, for the Archduke Rudolph in admiration.” The piece is Opus 81a, Piano Sonata number 26. Its popular title, “Les Adieux,” was appended over the years, as popular titles have been for many of Beethoven’s works. Beethoven himself wrote the score mostly in German, labeling its three movements, “Das Lebewohl” (The Farewell), Abwesenheit (The Absence), and Das Wiedersehen (The Return).
Program music, compositions which attempt to convey a story rooted in reality, became popular mostly after Beethoven’s time, but the concept was not unknown to him. Famously, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and others in the centuries leading up to the Romantic era were prominent enough. But Beethoven did not like program music, and despite the seemingly transparent nature of the label’s applicability in this instance, he resisted applying the term to the work.
The great composer and pianist Andras Schiff, in a lecture hosted by Wikipedia and the news organization The Guardian, walks through the sonata as he plays from it, pointing to, quite concretely, elements such as percussive horse’s hooves, the regal bell towers of Vienna, and emotional qualities like melancholy. Sometimes if it looks like and walks and quacks, it’s a duck. The only other piece of music Beethoven wrote to which the label Program Music is often applied is the Sixth Symphony, labeled “Pastoral.” Beethoven loved spending time in the country, walking and exploring, and the symphony is an homage to the pastime.
Whether or not Sonata Number 26 is a literal musical rendering of the departure and return of Beethoven’s friend, student, and patron, it’s clear that the two shared an extremely close relationship. I’m personally delighted by close fraternal bonds forged amongst men that become expressed publicly in emotional terms. There’s a beautiful integrity to these kinds of relationships; to me they simultaneously convey a great security and a great vulnerability. To the extent that masculinity has been conceived of as eliding the emotional part of humanity – perhaps the most human part of the human organism – these deep platonic relationships offer a redemption. To see them expressed in both words (Beethoven also penned many letters to Rudolph) and music is touching.
And, in case it doesn’t go without saying, the sonata is magnificent.
Thanks for reading.