Welcome to blog post No. 2! This one will dive into another facet of music I am fascinated with, which is classical music theory. If you don’t have much of a background in music theory the analysis portion of this might be a bit unintelligible, but I think everyone can enjoy the introduction and philosophy segments of this post. Below is an audio file of the piece I’ll be discussing, along with a score you can download to follow along.
I often oscillate between two extreme views of composers. One is that composers are no different than anyone else, they just possess a specific artistic output. Thus, they are prone to mistakes, open to interpretation, and are fallible beings like the rest of us. The opposite of this view rears its head when I examine some of the masterpieces of the musical literature: That composers are geniuses, brilliant and visionary. Obviously, the answer is somewhere in between the two, that there are individuals who manage to produce work of divine proportions while still coping with day-to-day struggles along with all the other restless masses of the world. Beethoven is a fantastic example of this duality. You can read many letters he wrote about financial situations, family difficulties, and other such doldrums of life. His otherworldly artistry is humanized by our understanding of his day to day life, and the truth of who he is lies in the summation of those parts. The truth lies in the whole. In the following words, I will mostly be praising the genius of Beethoven, a praise that I believe is well earned. His music deserves to be picked apart to understand its different microcosms of worth. But even then, his no frills, down-to-earth humanity peeks through quite often.
The subject of adoration is in this case, broadly, the late music of Beethoven. The medium that will be used to discuss this large topic is the first movement of his last piano sonata: Opus. 111 in C minor. This movement is important due to the more specific nature of what this paper seeks to discuss. For although the second movement of this sonata is transcendent in a number of ways (including a strange foreshadowing into the development of ragtime), the first movement offers in advancement in form.
I became increasingly interested in the advancing ideas of form through my studies of music theory and history in university. Learning more form classifications, knowing more chord functions, understanding more applications of periods and sentences, and becoming faster at roman numeral analysis have all been priorities for me. The definition of form that I will be adhering to is as follows: “Form is the manner in which a work’s content is made intelligible to its audience.” An evolution in my understanding of form came when I read Janet Schmalfeldt’s In the Process of Becoming, which is where that definition came from, a book outlining a philosophy towards form that I had never encountered before. I will attempt to provide a summary of that philosophy in the following pages, using Opus. 111 as an example.
The following symbol of an equation, developed by Janet Schmalfeldt, represents the center of what intrigues me about her approach:
Introduction => Main Theme(MT)
My love of this symbol requires a large amount of context that ultimately leads to a new attitude towards analysis, so let us begin.
GWF Hegel (1770-1831) was a German philosopher, and a divisive one at that. The idea that has the most relevance to our subject is his supposition that truth lies in the whole. First, a thesis is formed, and it is incomplete in its infancy. In response to this, an antithesis is formed to rectify the wrongs of the thesis. Yet this antithesis has wrongs of its own, and so the thesis, now strengthened by the criticism it has received, is stronger, yet invites another antithesis against itself. The alternation between thesis and antithesis is only rectified by seeing them as not two but one, a synthesis that the truth lies in. Hegel thought that this alternation was behind all societal changes, a series of responses that eventually lead to balance. Hegel’s concept of this point is an area of import for the understanding of Introduction =>MT.
Another area of significance is a discussion of the temporal nature of music. Music, more than any other art, is an activity that operates in a different dimension than all else. It relies not on brick, paint, or marble, does not use color, height, or depth, nor does it even rely exclusively on sound: Music is created through memory, and created through time. The management of these two elements is the foundation of musical form. Music moving through time may of course seem obvious, after all we are all moving through time together. The addition of memory is what allows music to not merely operate in time, but to transcend it. Our memory of the music that came before allows it to break the shackles of being understood moment to moment and be instead understood as a whole. The truth of music lies in the whole.
In Beethoven’s era, the role of memory was even greater, stretching beyond one piece and into a history of knowledge. At the beginning of Beethoven’s life music was undergoing a wonderful renaissance. Music was becoming more and more available to an increasingly interested, and an increasingly educated, public. Copyright laws came into effect, sheet music printing took off, the availability of the piano was at an all-time high, and the public had more access to musical performance than ever before. This led to the audience being an intelligent one, which granted the composer power beyond belief. The audience now understood musical convention, and so that convention could now be played with. Deceptive cadences and false recapitulations are symptoms of an era where an audience knew enough to expect an authentic cadence and knew to expect a recap. By alternating the fulfillment and denial of these expectations composers were able to make pieces that were more interesting and more rewarding to the educated listener. Beethoven understood this both musically and socially: he of course used every “trick” in the book (and invented a hundred new ones) in addition to a marketing sense aimed at giving those tricks maximum public exposure (incredible artistic vision but with a little bit of realism-he at times made musical choices that were simply aimed at making more money. Artistic sacrifice for public success, what is more depressingly real than that?).
For these expectations I have described, the normal conventions of musical form during the turn of the 18th to the 19th century, are simply puzzle pieces. One could flip a coin to decide if something should be a deceptive or authentic cadence, if you should add an additional theme to the exposition, how many false endings you have, and so on. This can lead to incredible results, but it is not why we remember Beethoven, he of course accomplished far more than mere tricks. He advanced to previously unimaginable heights, so much so that people like Schumann and Brahms were affected their entire lives by the artistic whole he left behind, and indeed here we are discussing him today.
In true Hegelian fashion, Beethoven created a synthesis of all these different sections. He combined all their contrasting material into a single idea spun out over the canvas of time. In the ultimate “trick,” he created material that lives in no single category, is at once understandable but indefinable, unpredictable but somehow expected. I have felt this from my earliest interactions with Beethoven’s advanced works. I could feel the different permutations of the material but could not grasp specific starting and ending points. This symbol Introduction=>MT is so striking to me because it solves this gracefully.
It addresses a specific phenomenon of Beethoven’s where it is not clear what role the material of the introduction is fulfilling. The symbol offers the solution that the role of the material is a process, and thus the form of the piece is process. This combines all that we have been discussing. In Hegelian terms, when facing the problem of analysis, to find the truth we must seek to separate one part from another and see it as a synthesis of material. In temporal discussion, we remember the introduction as coming first, but Beethoven is playing with this to force us to reevaluate exactly what the introduction was as we hear more of the piece, we are living in the past, present, and future as we struggle to figure out how what happened relates to what is happening, while forming continually updated hypotheses on what will come next. Finally, all of this is done with a deeply ingrained expectation of formal structure that Beethoven is both elevating yet refusing to fulfill.
It is time to look at our selected example to provide more clarity for the matter: Opus. 111 in C minor, Mvt. 1. The last of Beethoven’s pianos sonatas, written around 1822, represent the height of formal accomplishment on piano. The advancement they portray is I believe not again reached until Debussy’s Images. The example Schmaldfelt uses in her book is Beethoven’s Tempest sonata, which is a magnificent and perfect example of the legitimacy of her approach. Opus. 111 does not provide the exquisite Introduction =>(MT) interaction that the Tempest sonata does, but it has a number of intricacies and extended applications of that equation that make it a riveting candidate for analysis. But since it does not adhere to the Introduction =>(MT) formula, I have instead modified that terminology to Introduction=>Material, which is more applicable to this particular work.
This sonata opens with a striking jump from Eb to F#. For just a moment, we know nothing about this. As the piece goes on, however, it has an ever-growing significance. This is a miniature of what the piece does overall, ideas become gradually more and more developed as they gain weight through repetition, familiarity, and extension. We quickly find out that this F# is serving as scale degree 7 of V in the key of C minor, as we head towards a quick resolution to establish key. This is then repeated down a 5th in the key of F minor, then once again jumps down a fifth to Bb minor to start a series of double dotted and extremely unstable fully diminished chords resolving to, at best, 6/4 chords. This eventually leads us back to the dominant of C minor in an extended stand on G major that ultimately leads to the striking reveal of the main thematic material in measure 19. I have this introduction labeled as Introduction=>Material, which is justified in materials that we encounter as we move along in the work. In a fascinating manner, the opening bars serve not exactly as a development to the main theme, but as an introduction to different types of techniques and materials that we will be exposed to throughout the piece. In a way it is an operatic overture, offering sneak peaks at what is to come. This starts to be revealed in very first notes of the theme starting in bar 19. The main theme opens on scale degree 1->3->7, something not present in the introduction. However, it does not sound out of place or unfamiliar. The octave jump that opens the piece is the reason for this. Firstly, the register is an octave doubling in the bass for both. Second, there is a focus on scale degree 7. In the opening it was scale degree 7 of dominant, in the theme it is of the tonic, but despite that difference it sticks in mind as a familiar use of the leading tone. Third, the dynamic is at least forte for both, and played in a heavy marcato fashion. Through these similarities, one can see that despite the rhythm and notes not being the same, the harmony, dynamic, register, and technique are similar enough to establish connections in the listener’s mind.
After a dramatic false start of the main theme in measure 19, in measure 21 we are off to the races with our new, yet familiar, material. I have this marked as Theme=>Transition. This is accomplished through a dramatic extension of the 16th note turn found in the main theme. Without warning, that figure is ferociously swept up and continues for 5 measures before dropping us off at a restatement of the theme. That 16th note passage once again sweeps us up to great heights before it drops us off at a statement of the theme once again. Right before this next statement of the theme, however, we have a brief moment of recollection. In measure 35 we have a trill that is a match to one in the opening measure, with the right harmony to boot. It has only a mellow appoggiatura to differentiate itself. In the statement of the theme that is now upon us, Beethoven introduces new material that counteracts the swirling 16th notes with heavy octaves in the bass. This is now the 3rd time we have seen these powerful octaves so regardless of what the notes are the listener passively knows they belong texturally.
Measures 48 through 57 introduce to us “new” material, a secondary theme. Once again, the introduction made sure we are familiar with it. The Db major chord that switches to a CT°7 chord is set-up by the diminished sonorities that start at bar 6 of the piece. The dotted rhythms and slow resolution to Ab has also already been explored in bars 8 and 9. Bar 54 presents us with a more normal “trick” for Beethoven, a deceptive cadence on F minor, but that is quickly rectified by a landing on Ab major. This being a 3rd presentation of the main theme, and it has only developed further through its repetition. Now in Ab major, it falls in major seconds twice and then hints at the beginning of a tag that we will not see until measure 75. The accompaniment takes on an interesting color, for while the theme seems to be operating in Ab, the 6th scale degree (F) is added to the triad on top, making an ambiguous falling figure that implies Fm7 as much as it does Ab major with an added 6th. After a bright trill figure (not substantial enough to consider as anything significant) that alternates between V6/4 and V 5/3, this Ab C Eb F configuration appears in a blur of rising 16th notes as we resolve mightily on Ab before the repeat restarts us in C minor. The second ending introduces a sputtering restart to the theme, as the piece unceremoniously modulates from Ab to G by just playing a G, playing a D major chord, and then onwards to G minor. The stilted nature of the modulation matches up with the uncomfortable Ab/G trill in measure 16 of the introduction. It also serves as a kind of wind-up, where we know the powerful scale degree 1,3, 7 will come back but aren’t sure when.
It comes back in stunning fashion, a stroke of genius that elevates the work to a new level of complexity: The theme becomes a fugue for the development section in G minor. A thrilling device to use for development, Beethoven writes a beautiful and perfect fugue for 14 bars, a strikingly short development section but a worthy one. The fugue opens with an extended fugue subject that was setup by the thematic development of measure 58, a counter subject is poised against an answer, irregularly two beats offset from each other, creating a small degree of elision. A bass line is then added that is an inverted theme, exploring the idea of invertible counterpoint and cementing this as a three-voice fugue. The countersubject is then used as the seed for a quick episode that leads into an unstable retransition.
The retransition is based upon the diminished chords we have seen so often thus far. Creatively, the top voice of these dd7 chords is hammering out the scale degree 1,3,7 that we are familiar with, only there are no stable tonicizations over this. It does this in the “key” of G, then C, F, G, and C. The key is surmised from only the three notes, as they are placed over fully diminished 7th chords.
We have now arrived at the Recapitulation, heralded by a powerful statement of the original variation of the theme in C minor. The 16th notes are not as emphasized this time, and lead to a staggered series of octaves approaching each other from different tessituras that most closely resembles measures 32-33. The recap goes off without a hitch until measure 116. What we find here is a development of the secondary theme we hear in measures 50-56. A stunning example of breaking out of form, Beethoven barely teases this material in the introduction, quickly uses it in the exposition, and waits all of the way until the recap to develop it. Obviously by rights this should have happened in the development section, but that being occupied by the fugue, Beethoven puts it in the recapitulation. This adds a spark of newness and intrigue to a portion of the piece that can otherwise feel too predictable. Rather than an easily foreseeable direct repeat of the exposition, Beethoven spends 16 bars developing this theme to its full potential. After this, the recap picks right back up and heads towards the finish line.
In measure 146 we conclude the recap and arrive at a coda. Blocked diminished chords play out over a pedal C, and the soprano outlines the scale degrees 1,3, and 7, along with a 2. This then repeats a step lower. All of those elements are now very familiar to us, and despite creating a new density of texture, feel at home in the piece. An extended predominant then follows in an alternation between V/iv and iv. The dominant, as a listener should now sensibly come to expect, is not a V chord, but is a viiº7 chord instead that neatly ties back to previous usages of the dd7 chord. The piece ends meekly on a Picardy third, a non-threatening close that makes room for the second and final movement of Beethoven’s pianistic output.
There is one final matter of form to be settled in the discussion of this work. Should it be analyzed as a Sonata or as a type of fugue? The answer lies in between the two, but to answer in short, I believe the piece is a monothematic version of sonata form. There are elements of both theme/variations and of a strange fugato, but the overall structure of the movement does lie within the sonata form. My reason for this answer goes back to the German philosopher Hegel. He was a promoter of the concept of Organicism, an idea that can be traced all the way back to Plato. Organicism sees objects as a whole that is alive in some way. This is obviously closely related to the Hegelian philosophy we discussed earlier, that the truth is in the whole. Seeing the piece as a whole living being means that the different iterations of the theme we see are natural outcroppings of the music. Combined with the ABA structure made obvious by the repeats in the score, we can see an organic, evolving sonata form that culminates in a perfect fugue in the B section, but is not defined by it. I am sympathetic to the fugal view of this piece, for I almost want it to be a fugue. The ~14 bars we get aren’t enough for a theme that seems to be begging J.S Bach to turn it into a piece. However, the relative lack of fulfillment of a normal fugal theme is but another tool in Beethoven’s arsenal. Just as we discussed earlier, the audience knows what to expect. Beethoven knows that they know and uses this as an opportunity to create a musical form so organic that we cannot decide on its true form even 200 years later! However, if we are to be true Hegelians, the end result of a piece should not be prioritized to be black and white. The temporal experience of listening to the music from beginning to end reveals a form that is its own process, and a process that is its own form. I am grateful to Janet Schmalfeldt and her work, as it provides a means of expressing what was previously inexpressible. Looking at the music through such a rich lens of philosophy offers a deep look at truly incredible artisanship from centuries past. Beethoven’s late music often seems as though it is from another planet, but through a re-framing of our mentalities we can bring it down to earth.
Cheng, Ya-Hui. “Class Notes from 18th/19th Century Analysis.”
Hoffman, ETA. “Beethoven’s Instrumental Music.” 1813. jstor.org. Document.
Knox, T. Malcolm. Encyclopedia Britannica: Hegel. n.d.
Schmalfeldt, Janet. In the Process of Becoming. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Tambiah, Dharshi. “Class Notes from Music History: Classical/Romantic Period.”
Recording and sheet music obtained from IMSLP: