The Tyranny of the Formula in Beethoven

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Though presented almost as an afterthought in his Unconscious Beethoven, Ernest Newman's thesis regarding the tyranny of the formula over the musician's imagination offers an attractive point of departure for investigation into the precise nature of that composer's melodic invention. In fact, Newman himself made significant strides in the direction of just such a study when he called attention to the three-note rising figure as a constant feature of Beethoven's melodic language. But all too often in this study did the author allow analytical insights of a musical nature to be clouded over by interpretations bordering on the psychoanalytical.

Nonetheless, applied in a pragmatic fashion and rigorously limited to musical contexts alone, Newman's postulated theories regarding formulas and "fingerprints"—those stylistic characteristics that he claimed might be found on page after page of a given composer's writing—hold promise of yielding valuable insights into the various problems associated with the process of musical creativity. At the very least, a musical analysis carried out along these lines should serve to highlight certain stylistic features that may hitherto have been completely ignored, or simply taken for granted without recognition of their full import. And while analysis of this sort can hardly be expected to define once and for all the exact dividing line between the composer's conscious intent and subconscious (or unconscious) response in dealing with a particular set of circumstances, it may surely contribute to the elucidation of the gray area that surrounds that line.

For one thing, Newman's thesis serves to underline the fact that the composer is by no means a completely free agent. Even the most radical creative genius, like Beethoven himself, is bound to accept and respect certain conventions of his time while rejecting others. But Newman's idea suggests, too, that the mysterious workings of the composer's mind itself impose still further restrictions over and above those conferred by his environment. Like the laboratory animal who comes to display a preference for one path over another in finding his way out of a maze, so too does the composer arrive at solutions that imply a reliance on one given response over any number of other possibilities that might lie open.

Perhaps these points are best illustrated by reference to a concrete example. For instance, it is reasonable to assume that a composer of the Classical period—Beethoven as well as another—would be inclined, by virtue of his training and conditioning, to follow the tonic harmony with that of the dominant. In like fashion would he be prone to resolve the dominant harmony by a return to the tonic. The question then arises: what effect would this routine, almost automatic, response have on his faculties of melodic invention? By limiting himself to tonic-dominant harmonic choices in the first place (as would certainly be the case here in a large number of instances), the composer must certainly operate within a definite frame of reference that places limits on his freedom of imagination in matters pertaining to melody as well as in other directions. In fact, it is the manner in which he copes with these limitations—the manner in which he maneuvers within the small area of free choice remaining—that will determine the style he exhibits to the world.

Beethoven exemplifies this problem beautifully when, in a work like the Fifteen Variations and Fugue, Op. 35, he opens his composition by stating the bass of his theme-to-be first of all in isolation. Just as in the finale of the Eroica Symphony for which the Variations served as sketch, it is only after he has explored various alternatives with the addition of different counterpoints that he finally discloses the melodic idea of the theme proper. Of course, in actual fact he had conceived and used the same melody some years earlier in his Prometheus ballet music. But in its effect here nevertheless, it appears almost as though the composer himself were searching for the ideal melody with which to match the initial inspiration suggested by the idea in the bass.

Now, the opening bars of the bass outline imply precisely those harmonic progressions under discussion, namely, I-V-V-I; and the solution the composer will achieve in constructing an appropriate melodic counterpart must therefore take on an added significance for the purposes of our present inquiry. It is worthy of note in passing, too, that even prior to disclosure of the Variations theme proper Beethoven actually anticipates the problem's final resolution in several of the fragmentary contrapuntal elements injected along the way. But it is with the emergence of the theme itself that he realizes the most logical and concise ordering of those elements. Indeed, it might be argued that this particular formulation of the tonic-dominant relationship constitutes one of Beethoven's characteristic solutions to a problem of this nature and epitomizes his typical melodic response—whether conscious or otherwise—to a predetermined harmonic environment.

The principles underlying the construction of a theme such as this are worthy of closer scrutiny before going on to examine how they appear to have influenced the composer's thought from first to last and, indeed, permeate every aspect of his art:


Ex. 1. Beethoven: Fifteen Variations and Fugue, Op. 35. Main theme idea and fragments from preceding counterpoints.



First of all there is the prominent position accorded the mediant degree tone within this melody. This is the tone that Berlioz was subsequently to characterize (in connection with an evaluation of Bellini's melody) as being especially sensitive by virtue of its close proximity to the fourth degree. It is worthy of note that Beethoven often avoids just this proximity of third and. fourth degrees by his use of the tone within melodic outlines that imply a chordal derivation. For instance, in the present example the mediant is both approached and departed by skip; the outline of the melody in the subsequent phrase likewise proceeds by skip and simply spells out the uppermost tones of the dominant seventh chord.

A crucial point in this type of construction is to be seen in the relationship that is effected between the three tones of the initial phrase: G, E-flat, and D. By an arrangement of this sort the composer achieves an especially sharp contrast between conjunct and disjunct motion—between chordal outline and scalar progression. The interval of the third, centered around mediant and tonic, forms the melodic nucleus before resolving stepwise down to the leading tone (this is likewise the key shape suggested in the contrapuntal excerpts quoted in Example 1); and the same process simply repeats itself up one degree higher in the sequence that follows with stepwise resolution, this time, to the tonic keynote.

Perhaps it is this fine sense of contrast—a distinguishing mark of Beethoven's melody generally—that provides the key to the subsequent unfolding of the line in the present example under consideration, too. In the first phase of the theme's development a similarly drawn outline informs both the tonic-to-dominant progression and the reverse of that progression back to tonic: the ideas are altogether chordal in concept and simply redefine the various elements of the difference and diversity between tonic and dominant in melodic terms. But in the subsequent phase of development the resolution to the fifth degree on the repeated common tone B-flats highlights a diametrically opposite perspective with attention focused on the single element of unity between the two polarities of the tonality.

Another prominent feature of the Variations theme relates to the area of expansion allowed the melodic phrase as it unfolds: in general, the contours of the melody are kept within bounds defined by the interval of a fourth. In fact, one might venture a broad generalization that while Baroque melody appears to be conceived largely within the framework of the hexachord, Beethoven's typical line unfolds more likely within the confines of the tetrachord. One could even advance the claim that it is the tetrachord that comprises Beethoven's ideal compositional building block. And while the Baroque composers treated the hexachord as a fixed entity in relation to an established key center, Beethoven has more freedom of action at his disposal in that he can avail himself of any and all of the various tetrachords to be constructed along the different degrees of the scale.

The importance of the tetrachord as a constructive device in Beethoven's art manifests itself in a variety of ways. For the sake of convenience in analysis one might distinguish two main categories in its usage: one might distinguish complete and incomplete tetrachords. In the first category one would consider those melodic formulas which comprise all of the diatonic tones within the interval of the fourth, whether arranged in ascending or descending order. Here, too, it will be seen later on that the formula may easily be extended to include contrapuntal combinations with tetrachords proceeding in reverse directions: in other words, an ascending version may be combined with a descending one, or vice versa.

The next category of possibilities would include all those variants—like the prototype figure of Example 1 itself—which employ an admixture of step and skip, thereby eliminating one of the four members of the original tetrachord. The choice in this instance as to which tone will be omitted is influenced both by the direction of the melodic line and by the degree of the scale on which it is to commence; and, of course, whatever the tone omitted, there still remains the sharp contrast between conjunct and disjunct motion referred to earlier. A series of hypothetical versions of the incomplete tetrachord, starting with and including the prototype figure, might be illustrated as follows:


Ex. 2. Variants derived from incomplete tetrachord figure.



Returning to a consideration of the prototype alone, one is immediately struck by the insistence with which it asserts itself as a permanent fixture of the melodic style throughout Beethoven's composition. There can be little doubt that this particular construction must have held a peculiar fascination over his imagination, for he falls back on its use practically whenever there is a question of having to devise a melodic structure over the typical tonic-dominant progression. Evidence of its constant usage is everywhere at hand and one need hardly look past the piano sonatas alone to find more than ample material to illustrate the point.

In fact, just because of the wealth of material available in this connection it might be advantageous to narrow down the area of search even further. For instance, by way of introduction the investigation might be limited, initially at least, to a brief survey of pertinent matter from the so-called second subjects alone: and these, in turn, will be culled from first and last movements only, of the sonatas spanning the various periods of the composer's creative activity.

The second theme of the Allegro movement of an early sonata like that of the A Major, Op. 2, No. 2, may serve as a first case in point. Here the composer is concerned primarily with moving from tonic to dominant without rounding the circle by way of return. Instead, various modulations are effected and the initial phrase is propelled to its climactic peak through a rising series of sequences. But the core of the melodic shape, though enlarged with the insertion of suspension figures and other decorative tones, still harks directly back to the basic line that the composer formulated—perhaps with a somewhat finer economy of material—in the Variations theme.


Ex. 3. Beethoven: Sonata, Op. 2, No. 2. Excerpt from first movement, second theme.



Or one might look at the second subject from the Pathetique, likewise dating from the composer's early period, to see the same underlying melodic concept in operation. Here one notes a restatement of the idea featuring the skip of a third before its resolution to the leading tone; and the return from the dominant harmony to the tonic is embellished to cover more ground than is the case within the simpler outlines of the prototype melody of the Variations. For the rest, the overall melodic outline is extended in its breadth and assumes a six-four shape by inclusion of the introductory pick-up figure leading from the dominant degree.


Ex. 4. Beethoven: Sonata (Pathetique), Op. 13. Excerpt from first movement, second theme.



Turning to the works from the so-called middle period, one could cite themes from such compositions as the G Major Sonata, Op. 31, No. 1, or the "Appassionata," Op. 57. Unlike the example from the Pathetique, the second theme of the G Major is distinctive in its Schubertian ring—a feature that is perhaps ascribable as much as anything else to the light-hearted dance-like quality of the repeated chordal figure of its accompaniment. But melodically, at least, a close relationship exists between this theme and that of the Pathetique both with regard to overall outline (the upward skip of a sixth from the dominant tone is featured here, too), and the repetition of motif that takes place within the initial phrase. The characteristic emphasis on the mediant—highlighted by syncopation in this particular instance—is succeeded by a resolution paralleling that of the Variations theme. On the other hand, the return of the dominant to the tonic that follows features an embellished version of the corresponding idea from that same theme.


Ex. 5. Beethoven: Sonata, Op. 31, No. 1. Excerpt from first movement, second theme.



The familiar melody of the "Appassionata" second theme exhibits a different tenor altogether in its gravity and portentousness; but it is noteworthy that not only the crest of the melodic line should outline the same shape as that of the Variations tune, but the characteristic skip of a third in combination with stepwise descent is also used here at different pitch levels to mold the entire length of the line.


Ex. 6. Beethoven: Sonata (Appassionata), Op. 57. First movement, second theme.



Moving on to the later works, there is still no dearth of examples featuring similarities of construction to our prototype idea. The second theme of the finale of the Lebewohl Sonata, Op. 81a, comes to mind. One might mention, too, the relationship between the figure as used here and its diminished reflection that lies concealed within the root-position triad shape of the opening statement of the same movement. Perhaps, given the prevailing harmonic orientation, analysis should simply accept a relationship of this sort as an everyday occurrence without attempting to read a hidden significance into it. On the other hand, the relationship may well hold a specific significance for the aware performer who might choose to deliver the main theme idea in a slightly different manner than otherwise. The passage would not be slurred over carelessly but would rather be articulated in such wise as to give due prominence to the mediant tone G on the second eighth-note beat.


Ex. 7. Beethoven: Sonata, Op. 81a Excerpts from first and second themes of the Finale.



The incorporation of the motive under consideration within the outline of the complete triad, as is to be noted in the opening theme of the Op. 81a finale, is hardly unusual and should come as no surprise. It simply reflects a further extension of the same chordal frame of reference that dominates so much of the composer's melodic thinking. An example in illustration lies at hand in the second theme of the early C Major Sonata, Op. 2, No. 3, first movement; or, from the opposite end of the composer's career, one might refer to the theme from the Allegro movement of the last Sonata in C Minor, Op. 111. The distance from the rather trite expression of the former to the profound eloquence of the latter may be great, indeed; but it is still the same melodic language that is being spoken and it is the contrast between skip and stepwise motion that remains the keystone of the particular idiom being used. (The second idea of the finale of the C-Sharp Minor Sonata—the "Moonlight"—comes to mind, too, in connection with the Op. 111 example).


Ex. 8. Beethoven: Sonata, Op. 2, No. 3, and Op. 111. Comparison of second themes.



The preceding capsule review of second themes merely touches upon one limited aspect of the whole problem. As the area of investigation broadens to include themes other than just secondary—and material from slow movements as well as fast—one quickly becomes aware of an even wider field of possibilities. An important consideration here, perhaps, is the fact that whereas a broad expanse of line seems to dominate in the construction of so many of the secondary ideas, the primary theme structures (of the Allegro movements especially) often tend, on the contrary, to be built around shorter, more fragmentary motives. In any case, a close observation of the variants of the prototype figure to be found within these primary groups should yield important clues concerning the precise nature of Beethoven's compositional techniques.

For instance, in the Allegro of the very first Sonata in F Minor the characteristic figure is turned inside out to reaffirm the tonic chord rather than depart from it. As the upward thrust of the rocket figure attains the mediant, the ensuing triplet sixteenths merely embellish the resolution to the tonic by way of the leading tone rather than the other way around as in our previous examples. The resulting modification of the original figure is reduced to its simplest terms in the skeleton outline accompanying the literal quote below (cf. Ex. 9).

Now, those analysts who attempt to show the close relationships that are cultivated by the composer in the interest of a greater unity between the various ideas of a given movement, or even between movements, will lose no time in pointing out that the triplet figure likewise forms the basis for the closing theme of the exposition of this same movement. Or they may go even further and proclaim relationships to exist between this figure and the opening theme of the second movement, or between the same figure and various other ideas from both second and third movements.

The existence of these bonds cannot be denied, but perhaps their significance could be argued. Some possible thematic links are quoted below from the various movements of the Sonata in question and they are likewise reduced to basic outlines that should clarify the possible underlying influence of our prototype figure. The decision as to whether the relation is consciously intended, or merely represents another manifestation of the dominance over the composer's imagination of the prototype (or its variants), is a fine one at best.


Ex. 9. Beethoven: Sonata, Op. 2, No. 1. Excerpts of thematic ideas from first, second, and third movements.



A similar example of the problems one encounters in analysis of this type may be drawn from the opening movement of the C Minor Sonata, Op. 10, No. 1. The relationship of the opening motive to the prototype is patently clear even though the range of the octave is exceeded and the characteristic interval of a third becomes that of a tenth. The initial phrase of the second theme may likewise be related to a slightly different version of the archetypal figure, this time involving an inversion of sorts that leads up from the mediant to tonic rather than in the downward direction more typical of our model. But perhaps it would be stretching a point, somewhat, to presume an intended link between these two motives on the basis of an indirect kinship such as this.

On the other hand, one might maintain that the repeated use of the appoggiatura figure in many of the motivic ideas developed within the exposition of this movement does constitute a conscious attempt on the part of the composer to infuse a sense of unity into his work. But it could also signify nothing further than a spontaneous reaction on his part in freely availing himself of an accepted mannerism of the day.


Ex. 10. Beethoven: Sonata, Op. 10, No. 1. Comparison of first and second themes from first movement.



Turning to the later works, a revealing thematic comparison may be cited in the case of the last Sonata, Op. 111. It almost seems as if the composer is actively searching here for new methods to exploit lifelong old materials. The very first motive of the Maestoso introduction boldly proclaims the essential outline of the prototype figure, but fresh textures, rhythms, and harmonies (the diminished seventh chord of the dominant) combine to effect a strange transformation in its use. The novelty of the treatment is consistently maintained as the composer further brushes aside the more customary arrangement of his material in the main theme of the Allegro and elides the resolution to the leading tone, thereby setting the extraordinarily jarring interval of the diminished fourth in bold relief.

One might be tempted to interpret these proceedings as an outright rejection by the composer of a thought sequence that had served him well up until now. One might speculate that only now, at the end of a long career, did he succeed in escaping a tyranny of the formula by destroying the formula itself. But on the other hand a contrary argument could be developed with equal efficacy: he was so bound by the formula that even in this last desperate attempt to destroy it he could not escape it!


Ex. 11. Beethoven: Sonata, Op. 111. First movement themes.



At any rate, the fact that he reverts to normal practice with the inclusion of the figure (within the full triad outline) in the case of the second theme from this same movement was already pointed out in Example 8 above.

The dangers of lending too much credence to purported inner relationships of this sort are even more convincingly demonstrated by a comparison of thematic ideas that do not necessarily stem from one and the same work. For instance, reference was made in Example 7 to the second theme of the Sonata, Op. 81a, a work of the composer's middle period. But one has only to turn back to the early years to find almost the exact same thought fully formulated in a sonata exposition like that of Op. 7. And it is the same idea—bandied about this time between major and minor—that shapes the consequent portion of the opening theme of the finale of the Waldstein. Finally, from the work of a still later period one sees the germ of the same idea subjected to even further transformation in chromatic coloring in the closing theme of the first movement of the Hammerklavier Sonata, Op. 106.


Ex. 12. Beethoven: Sonatas, Op. 7, Op. 53, and Op. 106. Excerpts relating to second theme from Op. 81a, Finale (cf. Ex. 7).



As further illustration of the links that may occur between different works dating from widely different periods, one might trace the constant reappearance of a figure like that noted in connection with the themes from the Pathetique and the G Major Sonata quoted in Examples 4 and 5, respectively. This figure, describing a full six-four outline before reaching the leading tone, seems to have attracted our composer's fancy early in life and remained with him throughout his career. To mention but a few examples: an early work like the little Sonatina in G Minor, Op. 49, No. 1, opens with its use. It serves as a transitional idea in the slow movement of the Op. 2, No. 2; it rounds off a melodic line in the introductory section of the Lebewohl; and finally, it serves to crown the initial phrase of the Arietta theme in the finale of Op. 111. Actually, the main theme of the Adagio of Op. 2, No. 1, quoted in Example 9, has its derivation in the roots of this very same idea, too.


Ex. 13. Beethoven: Sonatas, Op. 49, No. 1; Op. 2, No. 2; Op. 81a; and Op. 111. Thematic excerpts.



One last feature to be remarked upon in connection with the prototype figure is its extreme flexibility in the purposes it may serve. It may function equally well in the initial shaping, or in the concluding tapering of a melodic line; it may do service just as effectively in matters of fashioning a texture as in the problems involved in devising a pattern of figuration. Consider, for example, the following: the first illustration (cf. Example 14 below) refers to an idea developed in the finale of the Op. 7 Sonata; the second shows the practicality of the figure in modeling a variation over the perennial I-V connection (from the first Variation of the Op. 26 Sonata set); the third and fourth examples show a usage in the conclusion of a broad melodic line (from the second, and Arioso, movements of the Sonatas, Op. 81a, and Op. 110, respectively); the next quotation shows how the same figure that serves in the Arioso melody of Op. 110 is incorporated into the texture by the shaping of the line of the counter-subject in the succeeding Fugue; lastly, the examples from the opening movement of the Sonata, Op. 81a and finale of Op. 78 are included to illustrate the uses of the figure in devising decorative passage work.


Ex. 14. Beethoven: Sonatas, (a) Op. 7; (b) Op. 26; (c) Op. 81a; (d and e) Op. 110; (f) Op. 81a; (g) Op. 78. Manifestations of the influence of the prototype idea.



As was mentioned earlier, the prototype figure under consideration up to this point is only one of a large number of related constructions. These constructions were categorized as belonging either to complete, or incomplete, tetrachord groups and certain shapes deriving from the latter category were illustrated in Example 2 above. Concerning the full tetrachord figure of the first category it must be owned that if certain of the foregoing examples have encompassed all of the tones within the interval of the fourth, this was primarily due to the inclusion of a passing tone here or decorative tone there (the reader is referred especially to the musical ideas from the F Minor Sonata quoted in Example 9). The present portion of this article will be devoted to an examination of other uses of this particular figure.

First of all one may return to a reconsideration of features previously noted in the discussion of the F Minor Sonata itself: namely, the inner relations between primary and closing theme material within the first movement exposition, as well as the links between those themes and certain others from succeeding movements. To this collection of related figures might also be added that of the transitional theme idea that serves as bridge between first and second subjects in the first movement exposition. But now, as one proceeds to examine other Sonatas, one finds this same idea serving in a similar capacity and in a like position within other expositions as well. For instance, one has only to compare the F Minor bridge idea to a similar passage in the C Minor exposition (Op. 10, No. 1) whose main function is likewise to introduce the second subject. In both instances the tetrachord serves as a melodic bond to confirm a new tonality and set the stage for the presentation of a new idea.


Ex. 15. Beethoven: Sonatas, Op. 2, No. 1, and Op. 10, No. 1. Comparison of transitional ideas.



But the same idea of the tetrachord may be used just as effectively in forming the harmonic bases for modulatory sequences that will move away from a given tonality. The examples below, from first movement expositions of still the same C Minor Sonata, Op. 10, No. 1, and of the D Major Sonata, Op. 28, may be understood precisely in this light.


Ex. 16. Beethoven: Sonatas, Op. 10, No. 1, and Op. 28. Comparison of ideas.



The same general principles underlie the bustling thirty-second note activity that forms the central "C" section idea of the Rondo Finale from the Sonata in B flat Major, Op. 22. Here, too, a mirror reflection of sorts is to be observed in the contrapuntal combinations effected between ascending and descending forms of the tetrachord.


Ex. 17. Beethoven: Sonata, Op. 22. Idea from Finale.



Occasionally one finds an elaborated version of the basic figure, adjusted to fit a metrical setting other than duple. The example is taken from a movement in 6/8 meter.


Ex. 18. Beethoven: Sonata, Op. 7. Transitional passage, First Movement.



Besides seeking out or confirming new tonalities, the tetrachord idea may inspire passages that go nowhere in particular, but simply impart a sense of harmonic stability and repose as, for example, in the closing section of an exposition or in a coda. The examples below, from the "Moonlight" finale and the first movement of the "Appassionata," exemplify such a purpose.


Ex. 19. Beethoven: Sonatas, Op. 27, No. 2 and Op. 57. Closing themes.



Again, the tetrachord may serve as constructive device in building up and extending the material within a development section. The efficacy of the device remains unaffected as it guides either the unfolding of a melodic line in the soprano


Ex. 20. Beethoven: Sonatas, Op. 109 and Op. 110. First movement development sections.



or the flow of harmonic progressions determined by an outline in the bass.


Ex. 21. Beethoven: Sonata (Waldstein), Op. 53. First movement development section.



The uses of the idea in the formulation of running passage figuration should not be ignored either. Here it may serve most effectively in the construction of a specific thematic idea as well as in giving shape to passage work of a more general nature. The fugue subject from the Hammerklavier or the opening passages of the "Appassionata" finale may be referred to in this connection.

On the other hand, there is no rule that says that primary motives themselves may not be based on this same tetrachordal concept. The main theme of the D Minor Sonata, Op. 31, No. 2, provides an ideal example of just such a usage with its lightly slurred eighth-note version of the descending line pitted against the unadorned ascending bass progression.


Ex. 22. Beethoven: Sonata, Op. 31, No. 2. Main theme, first movement.



Finally, as if in summary of all these possible uses of the tetrachord figure, one may turn to the score of the Presto from the D major Sonata, Op. 10, No. 3, where the initial four-note motive assumes proportions of a monothematic character—in a sense both looking backwards to the example of Frescobaldi's Ricercari and anticipating Berlioz' idee fixe—so persistently does it control the construction of the first movement ideas from beginning to end: the figure appears within first and second theme groups as well as in closing themes and coda; it is used not only in augmentation but in diminution as well, in melodic contexts and in harmonic underpinnings, and in parallel chordal combinations as well as in contrary-motion contrapuntal settings.

Of course it would be far-fetched to assert that Beethoven was responding to unconscious impulses in organizing his materials here in the particular fashion that he did. On the other hand, the constant recourse to the tetrachord formula under totally unrelated circumstances and within the context of completely different compositions certainly bespeaks a powerful influence over his creative imagination, to say the least.

It would be redundant at this point to attempt an exhaustive listing of instances in which Beethoven has recourse to those figures from the incomplete tetrachord (other than the prototype) hypothesized in our Example 2. Two pertinent examples that come to mind in this connection must suffice to give some idea of their significance.

The first, derived from the finale of the same D Major Sonata under discussion just now, exemplifies a treatment in which the whole movement centers around this one germinal idea—set off in splendid isolation by the surrounding silences. And of course, combination of the motive with its inversion will also be noted in the quotation below. (Incorporation of the same motive in this same combination could be cited in numerous other instances: in the second theme idea of the finale of Op. 7 and in the contrasting period of the Variation movement theme of Op. 26, to mention but two. This should suffice to discourage those analysts who presume to find a unifying figure here, too, that extends to ideas developed in the other movements of the D Major Sonata as well.)


Ex. 23. Beethoven: Sonata, Op. 10, No. 3. Theme from Finale.



The second example to which reference will be made comes from the pen of a composer other than Beethoven: namely, Diabelli. Several points are of significance here. First of all, this example will show that Beethoven himself had no exclusive hold on this particular property. Secondly, it will emphasize his abiding attraction to models that exploit the possibilities inherent in its uses. And finally, one might see here a challenge, again, for the composer to break away from the lifelong assumptions under which he normally operated.

The reference, of course, is to the Diabelli Waltz that gave Beethoven the theme for his monumental set of Thirty-three Variations. The section alluded to is that which develops the sequences (in both halves of the theme) based on exactly the same figure as was quoted in Example 23 above. An analysis of the manner in which Beethoven faces—or evades—the stereotype figure within each one of his Variations should provide an interesting study, indeed, and might well serve as a worthwhile point of departure for the performer assaying that work. As example, two striking "evasions" of the figure are included below from the Variations together with its original setting in Diabelli's Theme.


Ex. 24. Beethoven: Thirty-three Variations on a Theme of Diabelli. Sequences from inner portions of theme, and variations XV and XX.



As one approaches the end of a review devoted to typical figurations that were found to recur time and again in Beethoven's work one cannot avoid the question whether, in fact, the composer did allow these formulas to exert a true tyranny over his imagination, or rather whether he was able—more often than not—to exert his independence from such a tyranny. One might be led to conclude with Newman, on the basis of the evidence presented, that Beethoven represents the perfect example of a composer

. . . who can most clearly be seen at almost every point to be obeying a voice of which he was unconscious, but whose commands were imperative.

and of a composer in whose work

. . . it is astonishing to what a small number of formulae—melodic, rhythmic, and so on—his apparently so varied procedure can be reduced.

But one could just as easily conclude that the wealth of his imagination in treating just these formulae—the continually fresh variation with which he imbues them—negates the possibility that he was wholly unconscious in following the mysterious voice that Newman postulates. And indeed, perhaps the use of the formula for the composer constitutes little more than does an idiomatic usage of words or special choice of imagery for the writer or poet.

One would hardly expect a Shakespeare or a Milton to express his thoughts in a language other than English—or to express them in the language of a Keats or Shelley—just in order to avoid a repetition of the same phrase or imagery the second time around in treating a given thought or topic. In similar fashion one would hardly hope for Beethoven to write like Bach one day, and Stravinsky the next. In fact, one might have serious misgivings about the composer who did so, as well as grave doubts about the integrity and validity of his language.

Perhaps one should accept the fact without further question, then, that the consistency of any language—musical or otherwise—depends upon the reliability and reusability of a certain number of tried and true patterns. To the patterns of a general nature bequeathed by the times in which he lives, the writer or composer adds his own peculiar refinements and personal idiosyncrasies. As was noted at the outset of this paper, the tonic-dominant relationship comprised one such inherited pattern for Beethoven and it was to the common harmonic language based thereon that he was to add the refinements and peculiarities of a personal melodic idiom.

In sum, the debate as to whether the formula constitutes a tyranny over the musician's imagination, a tyranny within his musical language, or even a tyranny at all . . . probably involves little more than semantic quibbling and will not be resolved here. For the present investigation the primary interest centers around the fact of the formula itself rather than around any idle speculation concerning its possible origins within the dark recesses of a troubled psyche. And it was to the end of furthering our knowledge concerning how the formula might serve in the organization of a composer's musical thought that the present inquiry was directed.

Starting with an idealized version of a Beethoven setting of the common harmonic I-V progression hypothesized in the Theme of the Eroica Variations, the uses of the formula derived therefrom were traced in their various manifestations throughout the Piano Sonatas of the early, middle, and late periods. It was suggested, too, that the full line of the tetrachord likewise plays an important role in Beethoven's constructive processes and that role was subjected to similar review. Certain other related figures were briefly touched upon.

Though the material reviewed was derived exclusively from the piano literature, it may be asserted with confidence that the results would not vary significantly were the Symphonies or Quartets to have been used as the primary source instead. For one is dealing here not with an isolated phenomenon determined by medium, but rather with a phenomenon that affects and controls the very essence of a total style. Just as the formula may be found anywhere and everywhere within a certain texture—at any point along the way of development within a given phrase, period, or even whole movement—within fast compositions and slow; happy and sad—so too will the formula surface in the fulfillment of its mission wherever one looks, whether in Symphony, Song, or Sonata.

An analytical study of the sort just completed does not hold forth the promise of immediate hard and fast conclusions. On the contrary, it serves sooner to introduce an element of skepticism concerning the validity of that analysis which does offer such conclusions. But on the other hand, analysis of the type expounded here should add a new dimension to our familiarity with—and understanding of—Beethoven's compositional procedures in general. It may well introduce an element of conscious awareness, too, regarding certain matters which previously had been only vaguely comprehended or barely recognized. The performer, especially, may find here a practical key in dealing with many a thorny problem that defies easy solution.

Finally, though it may be possible to reduce much of Beethoven's "so varied procedure" to dry abstraction or mechanical formula as was seen during the course of the present paper, the spiritual intensity of the master's thought and expression transcends even the most diabolically brilliant formulation that can be devised by the analytical mind in the effort to probe the innermost secrets of that expression. And the magic of his touch will forever preclude the possibility of even his use of the most blatant formula from ever being perceived as such—in the actual flesh and blood of the music itself—by the intelligent and sympathetic listener for whom that music was intended in the first place.

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Last modified on Monday, 12/11/2018

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