Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 31 Dissertation

Excerpt from Dissertation :

In this movement he uses antiphonal, or equal bars of forte and equal bars of piano as the movement opens with a six note falling scale motif for this harmony. Finally there is a trio in D major, side by side, taking abrupt leaps and descents and which ends quietly with a modified recurrence of the scherzo. The first "repeat" was written out to allow an extra ritardando. There are then some syncopated chords and the movement soon rests with a short coda in F major by way of a long broken arpeggio in the bass.

The third and final movement alternates two slow ariosos and two faster fugues. The movement starts by using the final ritardando bass arpeggio in F major and then moving to B flat minor. This Beethoven has written it this way to form a bridge from the rough humor of the scherzo to the doleful sounds of the arioso in a flat minor.

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Here, like Beethoven, and certainly influenced by the Classical Period, we have traditional chording as would be found in any traditional employment of harmony. However, there is a blurring of the theme as it moves away from the central theme in an almost tangential event. The preoccupation with 'feel' or 'emotive-free improvisation,' is the order of the day. And while certainly Beethoven was not immune to this temptation to move in such a direction, he certainly helped to reinforce this. Consider one author's perspective.

"We cannot even claim that Beethoven's harmonic license within the classical style was a step towards the greater freedom of the romantic generation, or that his magnificent stretching of the tonic-dominant polarity made it possible for those who followed to supersede it, or at least to bypass it (Rosen, 384)."

Accordingly, the harmonic employment of Beethoven's while certainly seeing a break from his predecessors, was clearly distinct from those in the Romantic Period. For his insistence on resolving on thirds or more 'westernized' tonic chords, which to the western ear is more pleasing than the dischordant legacy of the Romantics; and particularly the atonal scales and chords of the Twentieth-Century composers. For even to the late Baroque, Beethoven's usage of scale modulation and harmony would be as foreign as Beethoven as up against a Dvorak or Chopin. However, in reference to this stark contrast let us look at an example of a piece by Bach, as a retrospect of harmony in contrast to the Romantic legacy as compared to Beethoven.

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Here we have an F. over C. In the very first bar accompanied by nimble runs and brisk scales; so characteristic of the time. And unlike Beethoven, the strict adherence to structure and tonal preservation is the order of the day here. For accidentals are almost unheard of in the employment of harmony in the Baroque period. This is yet another example of this. For although the key signature, which is comprised of an a, B and E flat, it is immune from deviation from this. Beethoven is quite fluid with not only frequent modulation but the changing of tonic and note naturalization without any change to the key signature.

With this piece by Bach, like the fugue-like theme in Beethoven's sonata, the manipulation of harmonic treatment is contrived but nonetheless accomplished as if with a natural feel. Consider in the fifth bar of the example of Bach's Little figure as shown above, the C. over top the a flat, coupled with the a flat in the bass clef, is immediately followed by fluid runs intermittently spaced with a other chords and double stops. The structure suggests a commitment to tonal integrity. As such, the presence of accidentals or irregular tonal harmony is altogether absent. As mentioned earlier, although some late Baroque composers were comfortable with including, which was at the time altogether foreign, accidentals, the general schematic was one of keeping to the tonal pattern and strict adherence to key signature. Rarely were naturals employed, or flats and sharps not included originally in the key signature. However, as we see in the works of Beethoven, some rebellion against this principle is employed. Clearly, not as much as what one would expect from later periods, but it is enough to set it apart as unique and innovative.

But this is not to say that Beethoven's employment of harmony was revolutionary. For the force behind Beethoven's compelling style was its passion and triumphal expressions and meaningful passages. His cannot be considered avante garde or significantly out of step with current trends in music notation. Indeed, if this were the case, treatment of his scoring...
...Rather, what we find is a manipulation of traditional harmony in austere settings and what it means to be Germanic. One can not compare, obviously, Beethoven's interpretations as anything like subsequent heroic composers, such as Wagner, whose epic works verged on nationalism: For although the setting of Beethoven's works were on the heels of the French occupation of Austria. Clearly there was reason for Beethoven to include this sentiment in his works. Indeed, at times he did, but not to the extent to which many had after him. And so, although several works were dedicated to Germanic princes and royalty that employed him, his dedications to them clearly suggested a disdain for the French occupation, Beethoven's inspiration of heroic themes and harmonic greatness reflected more of an attitude towards life and nature, not so much political fervor.

In fact, one could interpret his treatment of harmony as a reflection of his associations with the likes of greats such as Goethe and other Germanic writers. Indeed, these giants of literature were not so much interested in reaffirming Germanic culture, but rather of what would be called now a transcendentalism of Nature and Reality. The grandeur of beautiful vistas as spotted from the Brocken, or dark forested paths twisting and turning through the Black Forest are more likely truer to the feel Beethoven was trying to achieve. It was larger than life. But of course, avante garde harmonic structures and revolutionary forms of composition were hardly attractive to Beethoven. These served very little purpose in achieving the sense in which he sought to imbue his works with. The fact was, western styles of harmony, though at times restricting, were in a sense liberating. It is the idea of the picture frame which allows freedom, not constraint, for the painting. It is the grandest of all paradoxes and Beethoven clearly recognized this and felt he should exploit it. He was in an ocean of orchestral harmonies all of which found their uniqueness not in atonality or bizarre harmonic structures, but rather in modulation, expression and play between major and minor keys.

And as any good teacher of music will tell you, the success of any great piece, in terms of harmonic treatment, is not in its bizarre harmonies or obscure chording, but rather in expression. This is especially true of Beethoven's 31st piano sonata, as it treats harmony. One author puts it this way.

"In the beginning, the melody of the two opening bars of the sonata, at the original pitch, is first reharmonized over a dominant pedal in the key of the relative minor and then repeated over and over, descending stepwise until all the notes of the a flat scale from C. To C. have been played (Rosen, 490)."

In reference to his 31st sonata, as is the focus of this paper, we find a variety of examples of the appeal of expression and dynamics as serving as the force behind the power of this work. For its appeal is in 'how' the work is played, not so much in how it incorporates innovative and new methods of harmonic treatment. This is especially true of his latter works. In the sense that Beethoven ironically returns to his earlier method of harmonic employment, this is the charm of the later works. It is strange indeed that his works as early as when he was sixteen, would be in the same style as those he produced late in his life. And though he died only in his fifties, a common fate of many great composers of his time, one could only speculate as to whether he would have continued this trend of returning to earlier sentiments of composition. Needless to say, the similarities and differences between earlier periods of harmonic treatment and Beethoven's are at times striking and at others almost facile. And this is the uniqueness of Beethoven's force of harmony. For it always keeps the listener, and the critic, wondering, "What is the primary motivation of his treatment of harmony?" Perhaps no one will ever be able to ask this question. Perhaps there is really no reason save the idiosyncratic nature of the composer. It could be a mixture of his tragic beginnings, his disillusionment with current trends in compositional styles and many other reasons. With this in mind, any attempt to address his motivations…

Sources Used in Documents:

Works Cited

Czerny, Carl. A Systematic Introduction to Improvisation on the Pianoforte. Trans. Alice Levine Mitchell. Longman Music Series. New York, NY. 1983.

Drake, Kenneth. The Sonatas of Beethoven. Music Teachers National Association. Cincinnati, OH. 1972.

Kostka, Stefan. Tonal Harmony: With an Introduction to Twentieth-Century Music. McGraw-Hill, Inc. New York, NY. 1989.

Lockwood, Lewis. Beethoven: The Music and the Life W.W. Norton and Company. New York, NY. 2002.

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