In November of 1808 Beethoven received a tempting offer of employment from Napoleon’s brother, who then was King of Westphalia. Learning of this, three of Beethoven’s loyal Viennese supporters were not about to let that happen. Archduke Rudolph, Prince Lobkowitz, and Prince Kinsky proffered to their favorite composer an offer he couldn’t resist: a guarantee of a substantial income for life if he stayed in Vienna. The offer was apparently rock solid, for Beethoven stayed in Vienna and indeed received the contracted income until the end of his life.
The Opus 81a Sonata (yes, there is an Opus 81b – a sextet for horns and string quartet) is the most personal of Beethoven’s piano sonatas in that the composer supplied all of the extra-musical notations that he wanted to appear in the published score. First he named it Lebewohl (Farewell), and then placed each syllable of the word in succession over the first three notes of the opening motif, which reappear in the main Allegro in various guises. As evocative as the Farewell motif is, that main Allegro bounds along with vital energy, including consecutive thirds and staccato chords but just a slight touch of the opening motif’s sadness.
The second movement Abwesenheit (Absence) is filled with a dotted-note sadness (Ludwig really missed the Archduke) and a somewhat gushing show of affection, which, without missing a beat, goes directly into Das Wiedersehn (the Return). Here Beethoven’s exuberance knows no bounds, and the pianist joins the celebration with handfuls of unrestrained notes.