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Beethoven: Sonata op. 57 ("Appassionata")

Discovering "L'altro Rossini": Young Meyerbeer's Semiramide

40 to the minim - a study of tempo in Puccini's "Turandot"

Revisiting Senta

How fast does the Dutchman fly?

The Descent from Mount Sinai

Slow movement in Rondo-Sonata form?

Beethoven: Sonata op. 2 no. 2

The Interrupted Feast

Slow movement in Rondo-Sonata form?

The Adagio of Beethoven's fourth symphony 

"As for the adagio, it defies analysis… So pure are the forms, so angelic the expression of the melody and so irresistibly tender, that the prodigious skill of the craftsmanship is completely hidden from view. From the very first bars one is gripped by emotion which by the end has reached an unbearable pitch of intensity. It is only among one of the giants of poetry that it is possible to find something to compare to this sublime movement from the giant of music." (Hector Berlioz, A travers chant) 

While it is difficult not to share Berlioz' overwhelmed and overwhelming reaction to the slow movement of one of the most modern and original works of Beethoven, one must admit that it does subdue itself to analysis, with a much simpler result than what is usually stated.
Barry Cooper, one of the greatest scholars of Beethoven in our time, writes in his preface to the Baerenreiter edition of the fourth symphony: "The second movement is a rare but celebrated example of a slow movement in sonata-rondo form (slightly modified).". This view is shared by many commentators and I would like to propose in the present article a different analysis which seems to me much more accurate. 

Rondo-sonata form is characterized – like the usual sonata form – by having three major sections (exposition, development and recapitulation) with a possible less or more extended coda as a final section. The unique feature of the rondo-sonata is that each section opens with a statement of the first theme. In Beethoven's style each one of these statements consists of a slight variation of the theme. This can be seen from the very early works such as the piano sonata op. 2 no. 2 in A major (last movement). 

The movement in question, in my opinion, consists only of two major sections (not including the coda) - exposition and recapitulation - as is usually the case in slow movement sonata forms, since the slow tempo doesn’t allow the mechanisms of the development to work efficiently. 

Let us first look at the exposition. The first theme is presented twice in two consecutive sections of eight bars. This feature will prove extremely important when we get to the recapitulation, in order to define the form of the movement. The two presentations of the theme differ in orchestration, and their opening bar also differs in dynamics, as is shown below: 


                                        1st eight bars          2nd eight bars
Bar 1 Introductory rhythm   Vn. II, piano            Tutti, forte
Bars 2-8 Theme                  Vn. I                       Flute & Clarinet 
              Accompaniment    Strings only, arco    Ww., hrns., vns. arco, Vla. Vcl. & Db. Pizz


Cooper and the supporters of his view sustain that at the end of the exposition starts the development (letter C) – with a presentation of the theme, since it is a rondo-sonata form. This is based on the fact that bars 50-64 have an apparently modulating character. 

If we cut these fifteen bars altogether, we will find two consecutive presentations of the first theme, just like at the beginning of the movement: eight bars and again eight bars, corresponding in every aspect to the table above. The only difference between the presentation of the theme at the beginning of the movement and here, is a rhythmical elaboration – first of the melody (in the first eight bars), and then in the accompaniment (in the second eight bars), which is derived from the variation form, and is also a feature of the rondo-sonata, but has no effect whatsoever on the form of the movement. Beethoven very often brings his theme back in the recapitulation with some kind of change. Examples are numerous, such as the first movement of the piano sonata op.57, or the expansion in the first movement of the Ninth symphony. The fact that some change – smaller or bigger - is made in the theme has no effect on the form. 

Now let us take a look at the fifteen bars which we "cut" between the two presentations of the theme. Though they may appear to be a modulating section, thus drawing on the basic character of a development, from the tonality point of view they could not possibly be more static. They move from E-flat minor to G-flat minor arriving at B-flat major as the dominant of E-flat major. This forms a simple minor triad of the tonic of the piece and takes us nowhere from the structural point of view of the harmony. The relatively long passage on the dominant of G-flat major only emphasizes this vision. What Beethoven does here is putting "brackets" which dramatize the recapitulation by underlining the minor tonic and expanding the original 8+8 phrase of the first theme to something longer. As far as the form is concerned, this cannot be a development section, since it appears in the middle of two phrases which are the recapitulation of the first theme, as I showed above. Beethoven very cleverly puts the "brackets" in an asymmetrical point, i.e.: after the 1st bar of the second group of eight notes, forming thus the phrase 8+1 / brackets 15 bars / 7. 

Of course the "brackets" consist of elements which recall a development section of sonata form, and the slight variation of the theme in the recapitulation recalls rondo sonata form. But to let these ornamenting elements determine the form of the movement would be as much a mistake as calling a rondo-sonata form "Variations", because the theme appears each time with some modifications. 

Actually, much more than that of a development, this passage has the character of a bridge. Many sonata-forms employ in their recapitulation a bridge which seems to be modulating, but in fact remains static around the tonic and often uses minorization - as in the present movement. This addition to the already existing "bridge" is of course put in the "wrong" place by Beethoven, for a reason which I will show below.

The question which comes to mind is:  why did Beethoven introduce this passage in the middle of the recapitulation before even ending the representation of the first theme? The answer – as very often with Beethoven – lies in the first bar of the movement. The opening rhythmic figure in piano, which is obviously an accompaniment, appearing in the second violins, gets its first transition into forte in the ninth bar, as we saw earlier. It is followed by the presentation of the main theme in piano subito. The incredible amount of tension accumulated by this forte figure remains therefore repressed and must find its way out at some point of the movement. It happens in the recapitulation, where following that same bar is not an immediate representation of the theme, but a dramatic passage in E flat minor, inserted - as I showed above – as musical "brackets", thus releasing the enormous tension generated in the exposition at the parallel point. The second presentation of the theme appears now in a piano which - rather than being subito  like in the exposition - is a natural result of the intermediate passage.

To conclude, I would therefore like to suggest that this extraordinary movement is written in  sonata form without development, which is traditionally used for slow movements. It incorporates an introduction of musical "brackets" so to speak during the recapitulation of the first theme. These few bars recall procedures typical of development section of sonata form giving the recapitulation a dramatic and expansive character, releasing the tension accumulated in the exposition and eventually contribute to the affirmation of the tonic.


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(c) 2012 Rani Calderon


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