Through the ten years of his illness Father worked steadily on a long study of Beethoven's sonatas. He wrote somewhat better than he spoke, but even while writing he would suffer more and more memory lapses until finally no one could understand the text—it was made up of words that did not exist.Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.
Once he called me into his room. The variations from the Opus 111 sonata were open on the piano. "Look," he said, pointing to the music (he had also lost the ability to play the piano), "look." Then, after a prolonged effort, he managed to add, "Now I know!" He kept trying to explain something important to me, but the words he used were completely unintelligible, and seeing that I didn't understand him, he looked at me in amazement and said, "That's strange."
I knew what he wanted to talk about, of course. He had been involved with the topic a long time. Beethoven had felt a sudden attachment to the variation form toward the end of his life. At first glance it might seem the most superficial of forms, a showcase for technique, the type of work better suited to a lacemaker than to Beethoven. But Beethoven made it one of the most distinguished forms (for the first time in the history of music) and imbued it with some of his finest meditations.
True, all that is well known. But what Father wanted to know was what we are to make of it. Why did he choose variations? What lay behind his choice?