Beethoven and the Turbulence of C Minor

BeethovenThe key of C minor held special significance for Beethoven. Emotionally intense and stormy, C minor evoked the turbulence of an age of revolution. It embodied a sense of heroic struggle, which would form the bedrock of Romaticism.

In Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas: A Short Companion, American pianist and musicologist Charles Rosen suggests that Beethoven’s C minor compositions are closely linked to the Romantic idea of the artist as hero:

[quote]Beethoven in C minor has come to symbolize his artistic character. In every case, it reveals Beethoven as Hero. C minor does not show Beethoven at his most subtle, but it does give him to us in his most extrovert form, where he seems to be most impatient of any compromise.[/quote]

Let’s sample the unique, ferocious energy of Beethoven’s music in C minor:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Sonata Pathétique[/typography]

We’ll start with the Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13, commonly known as the Sonata Pathétique. It was written in 1798, when Beethoven was 27 years old. The first movement’s structure follows traditional Sonata form (exposition, development, recapitulation). Many listeners hear the influence of Haydn and Mozart, but Beethoven’s unique voice is apparent. As you listen, consider the drama that a single chord can create.

This is a performance by Daniel Barenboim:

  1. Grave — Allegro di molto e con brio 0:19
  2. Adagio cantabile 9:46
  3.  Rondo: Allegro 15:11

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The ferocious opening C minor chord tells us everything we need to know about the piece which follows. Throughout the first movement’s introduction, notice the way Beethoven plays with tension and resolution. Just as we’re lulled into complacency, we get hit with another jarring surprise. Romanticism is about the drama of the moment and this introduction draws us into each moment, chord by chord. In the passage at 1:04, notice the musical conversation which is taking place. What do you think each voice is saying?

Beethoven returns to this haunting introduction at the beginning of the development section, but this time we hear it in G minor (5:35). This is a technique Haydn used frequently, but here it seems more ominous and unsettling. Notice how unstable the music feels throughout this section and listen for the return of C minor at the recapitulation (7:13).

At the beginning of the coda (8:35), we’re once again haunted by the opening C minor introduction. Regardless of the movement’s many harmonic adventures (which include E-flat minor and major and F minor), the stern final chord tells us that nothing has changed. C minor remains inevitable and all-powerful.

The second movement demonstrates the unique expressive qualities of individual keys. Here we’re in A-flat major, a world away from the storm and stress of C minor, which returns in the final movement.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Violin Sonata No. 7[/typography]

Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 7 in C minor, Op. 30, No.2 was published in 1803. Again, the music is consumed with the stormy turbulence of C minor and maybe even the terror of the French Revolution.

Here is Anne-Sophie Mutter and pianist Lambert Orkis:

  1. Allegro con brio (0:00)
  2. Adagio con cantabile (9:20)
  3. Scherzo: Allegro (18:50)
  4. Finale: Allegro; Presto (22:25)

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Contrast the mood of this music to Sonata No. 6 in A major or  Sonata No. 8 in G major. Violinist Leonidas Kavakos suggests there is something almost symphonic about this piece’s emotional power. At times the violin seems to be fighting the piano (the chords at 1:33 for example). The dotted rhythm of the first movement’s second theme (1:46) suggests military music from the French Revolution. As in the Pathétique Sonata, the second movement moves to A-flat major.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Coriolan Overture[/typography]

Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, Op. 62, written in 1807, was inspired by the tragic play by Heinrich Joseph von Collin (1771-1811). Here is a recording of the Berlin Philharmonic and Herbert von Karajan:

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In the play, Coriolanus is about to invade Rome, despite his mother’s desperate attempts to convince him to abandon the campaign. Beethoven’s C minor theme represents Coriolanus, while the E-flat major theme evokes the pleading of Coriolanus’s mother (1:22). Coriolanus doesn’t realize his folly until he has led his army to the gates of Rome. His suicide is depicted at the end of the overture (7:32). Listen to the way the Coriolanus motive is stretched into a painful dissonance at the end (8:14).

Another great recording of this piece is Wilhelm Furtwängler’s with the Berlin Philharmonic. It was recorded in the final days of the Third Reich. You can draw your own conclusions regarding the extent to which the tragic events of the times influenced the unique spirit of this performance.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Symphony No. 5[/typography]

The most famous of Beethoven’s C minor compositions is the Fifth Symphony. Unlike the preceding music, this piece is about transformation…stormy C minor turns into the ultimate heroism of C major. I’ll offer a few thoughts on this piece in my next post on Friday. In the meantime, here is a great 1967 recording by George Szell and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra:

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Mozart’s Wordless Operas

MozartListening to Mozart’s symphonies, concertos and chamber music, you might get the sense that you’re hearing wordless operas. Even without a libretto, we can sense distinct characters, musical conversations and dramatic situations unfolding in the music. It’s as if the innovative and prolific composer of The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and The Magic Flute couldn’t shut off the flood of opera arias and duets entering his mind. As a musician I have found that approaching Mozart this way makes the music come to life in exciting ways. As Tchaikovsky can be experienced through ballet and Beethoven through the symphony, Mozart’s music is rooted in opera.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]The Marriage of Figaro[/typography]

To get a sense of Mozart’s genius as an opera composer, let’s start by listening to a few excerpts from a 1999 Metropolitan Opera production of The Marriage of Figaro. We’ll begin with the opening of Act 1. Here as Figaro takes measurements for a bridal bed and Susanna, his bride-to-be, tries on her wedding bonnet, there is a hint at the comic troubles which will ensue. The somewhat clueless Figaro is delighted with their room in the palace while Susanna is troubled by its proximity to the Count, who has been making advances towards her. Consider how the overture sets the stage for this complex comedy and true “day of madness.” How does Mozart’s music provide us with insight into the characters and dramatic situation?

In his book, The Classical Style, Charles Rosen suggests that with The Marriage of Figaro Mozart begins to break down the typical aria-recitative structure in favor of something more sophisticated and closer to sonata form. Mozart’s music not only captures the inner thoughts and feelings of the characters, but also provides a sense of the arch of the drama. Here is the climactic end of the Finale of Act 2:

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Sinfonia Concertante[/typography]

Now let’s hear the wordless but operatic duets of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra in E-Flat Major, K. 364. Here is a great recording with Itzhak Perlman playing the violin, Pinchas Zukerman on viola and the Israel Philharmonic conducted by Zubin Mehta. Let’s start with the second movement (Andante). What kind of a conversation is taking place here between the violin and viola? We don’t have anything literal to go on, but we still have an idea of what is being said.

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Go back and listen a few times to this emotionally powerful music. Then listen to the first and third movements. How is the tone of the conversation different in these outer movements? Pay attention to the way one voice imitates another in the back and forth dialogue.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Violin Concerto No. 5[/typography]

[quote]My Violin has just been restrung, and I`ve been playing on it every day. I`m telling you this only because Mama once wanted to know if I was still playing the violin. On at least 6 occasions I`ve had the honour of going on my own to church or to some other important function. In the meantime I`ve written 4 Italian symphonies footnote5 in addition to the arias, footnote6 of which I`ve already written 5 or 6, as well as a motet.[/quote]

-An excerpt from a letter Mozart wrote to his sister, dated August 4, 1770 

Mozart was an excellent violinist but, as the letter above suggests, he considered the violin to be a second instrument. Mozart’s violin concertos, written when he was 19, generally seem lighter and more carefree than his piano concertos. But here in the first movement of Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major, K. 219, again we hear opera. What kinds of characters would be singing this music? What dramatic situations might be involved? Listen for a dialogue between voices within the single violin line.

Here is a performance by the legendary French violinist, Arthur Grumiaux with the London Symphony and Sir Colin Davis. The recording showcases Grumiaux’s elegant style of playing and golden tone. Every note seems to ring with a bell-like purity:

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Clarinet Concerto in A Major[/typography]

Here is Sabine Meyer playing the second movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Concert in A-major, K. 622. Imagine this as an aria in one of Mozart’s operas:

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