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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Chopin’s Fourth Ballade

The manuscript of Chopin's Fourth Ballade
The manuscript of Chopin’s Ballade No. 4

Frederic Chopin didn’t need to write monumental symphonies. His Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52 reveals a universe of musical expression in just over ten minutes. Written between 1835 and 1842, Chopin’s four harmonically adventurous Ballades for solo piano inspired both Liszt and Brahms. Robert Schumann said that Chopin’s inspiration for the Fourth Ballade was Adam Mickiewicz’s poem, The Three Budrys.

Let’s listen to a spectacular performance of Ballade No. 4 by pianist Krystian Zimerman. The piece evolves from a distinctive five note motive. Does the music go where you expect or does it deliver surprises? Notice the drama Chopin achieves from a single chord or a sudden key change. As full blown Romanticism, this music is all about savoring the expression of the moment. Each harmony and key has emotional meaning, although we would have a hard time describing it in words. Although there is a formal structure at work, it’s easy to hear one episode spinning from another in a musical stream of consciousness.

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[quote][it is] the most exalted, intense and sublimely powerful of all Chopin’s compositions … It is unbelievable that it lasts only twelve minutes, for it contains the experience of a lifetime.[/quote]

-composer and pianist John Ogdon

Did you notice the way the opening seems to come out of nowhere, as if finishing some imaginary, unheard preceding phrase? Here, and throughout the piece, Chopin subtly changes the inner voices in interesting ways. For a moment the music seems to be searching for a way forward (0:30) before finding its five note motive. At times this motive is hidden in inner voices (around 6:04 and in the coda from 10:22 to the end).

Another interesting aspect of the music is the way simplicity leads to increased complexity. At 1:29 we already begin to get ornamental embellishments. At 3:25 there is a competing contrapuntal voice which grows increasingly insistent. By 8:04 embellishment has taken over completely.

In September of 1939, as the Germans marched into Poland, radio stations continuously played Chopin’s music in defiance. Eventually radio was silenced in Poland, replaced with loudspeakers blaring Nazi propaganda, but the story is a reminder of the transcendent spiritual power of music.

Brahms’s Waltz in A-Flat Major

Here is a great 2011 concert performance of Brahms’s Waltz No. 15 in A-Flat Major, Op. 39. The pianist is Leopoldo Lipstein. Listen to Richter Haaser play the complete set of sixteen waltzes here.

Did you notice the way the melody reaches higher with each phrase, climaxing at 1:01 only to fall back? There are also some fun harmonic surprises as Brahms shifts briefly into minor (around 0:30) and sequences in the “B” section (0:52-1:06). It’s amazing how much drama and expression can be packed into two minutes and twenty seven seconds.

Suzuki violin students learn an arrangement of this waltz in Book 2. The piece is excellent for developing bow control. Varied bow speeds are required for the uneven bowing as well as the crescendo. It’s important that a long, singing musical line is created regardless of where we are in the bow or how much bow is required for a given note. Elbow and upper arm motion is developed as students push the bow to the frog throughout this piece.

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The Sunken Cathedral

Claude Monet - Rouen Cathedral, Facade (Morning effect)Last week Google celebrated the 151st birthday of French impressionist composer Claude Debussy with one of its clever Google Doodle logo animations. If you’re like me and you happened to see it, you probably clicked on the link expecting to linger for a few seconds and ended up watching all the way through, fascinated with its cinematic beauty. Accompanying the animation’s magical nighttime Parisian river scene is an excerpt of one of Debussy’s most popular pieces for piano, Clair de lune, or “Moonlight.” Google’s tribute received widespread media attention from The Huffington Post to The Washington Post.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Clair de lune[/typography]

As a composer, Debussy broke long-established rules. Germanic music from Beethoven to Wagner had been intensely goal oriented, driving towards an ultimate and often heroic resolution. By contrast, the music of Asia, like the philosophies of Buddhism, were more circular. Influenced by the Javanese gamelan music he heard at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris, Debussy became drawn to the pentatonic scale (the black keys of the piano), the whole tone scale and Asian sounds. The results were shocking new harmonies and music which had a different relationship with time, often seeming to float in a dream-like haze. You could say that Debussy wrote the first New Age or Ambient music. His music is about color and atmosphere, embracing the soft sensuality of a Monet painting.

With this in mind, let’s start off by listening to Clair de Lune, performed by pianist Claudio Arrau:

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Did you notice how often the music passionately builds, only to avoid resolution and move somewhere completely unexpected at the last moment? Listen to the way the tension at 3:12 dissolves into contentment at 3:34. Then after heightening our expectation, Debussy again avoids the resolution we might be expecting at 4:10. Finally, at 4:33 we quietly slip back into the “A” section. This is music which says, “Enjoy the moment. Enjoy where you are, even if it’s not where you expected to end up. Goals don’t really matter. Just float along…”

Clair de Lune is part of Debussy’s four movement Suite Bergamasque, written between 1890 and 1905. Listen to the entire suite here.

[quote style=”boxed”]In 1890 Debussy’s professor at the Paris Conservatory commented on Debussy’s use of parallel chords in the following way: “I am not saying that what you do isn’t beautiful, but it’s theoretically absurd.” Debussy simply replied: “There is no theory. You have merely to listen. Pleasure is the law.”[/quote] –Kamien Listening Outline

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]La cathédrale engloutie[/typography]

Debussy wrote La cathédrale engloutie, or “The Sunken Cathedral” in 1910 as part of a set of twelve Preludes for piano. Let’s listen to the piece once to get a sense of its harmony and tonal colors. What mood does the music create? What images are painted in your mind? As the music unfolds, can you perceive a large scale structure or musical shape? Here is a performance by François-Joël Thiollier:

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This piece was inspired by an ancient Breton legend about a cathedral submerged off the coast of the mythical island, Ys, near Brittany. On clear mornings the cathedral rises out of the ocean. Bells, chanting and the sound of a mighty organ can be heard. Then, it slowly sinks back into the water and disappears. Only distant bells are faintly audible as a memory. Was it real or only a dream?

Listen to the piece again. Can you hear the bells? Can you identify the moment in the music when the enormous cathedral begins to emerge? Notice the imitative canon between low and high voices as the music crescendos at 3:40. What elements in the music create tension and a sense of anticipation at this moment? Are you surprised by what happens at the climax of the crescendo? (4:02) Is there anything in the music which suggests the feeling of deep, dark, murky, cold ocean water? Consider the significance of the legend as a psychological metaphor.

Here is a quick analysis of La cathédrale engloutie. You can listen to more of Debussy’s Preludes here. I’ve shared a few of my ideas about what makes this music so interesting. Now, leave a comment in the thread below and tell us what you hear.

Developing Motives

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Like Beethoven, Johannes Brahms approached music motivically. Listen to Brahms’s Intermezzo in A Major, Op. 118, No. 2 and pay attention to the first three notes. The entire piece develops organically from this small, seemingly insignificant musical cell. These three notes and the underlying harmony set up a musical question in search of an answer…a problem to be resolved. The next three notes reach further, heightening expectation. Can you sense an evolving process working itself out as the music searches for just the right note? Where is each phrase, or musical sentence leading? Consider these questions and get a general sense of the piece as you listen to this performance by pianist, Radu Lupu:

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Think about the emotions you felt as you listened. Did you sense something majestic, dreamlike, maybe a touch of sadness? The power of this music lies in its ability to communicate all of these emotions and more, in a way that goes beyond words.

Now, let’s go back and listen again. Pay close attention to the harmony in the opening six notes. When these six notes return at 0:13, notice that Brahms gives us a completely new harmony. How does harmony effect the emotional meaning of the music? Why does it feel different the second time? You probably noticed other examples of this throughout the piece. (Listen at 0:46, 1:41-1:56 and 2:49-3:13). In each case, the same handful of notes are harmonized in different and unexpected ways, leading to different emotional connotations.

Focus on all voices within the texture. At 1:17 notice the opening motive popping up down in the lowest voice of the pianist’s left hand. Listen to the imitative counterpoint between voices at 2:15.

This piece is an example of Binary form, meaning that it has two distinct sections. The “B” section begins at 2:13. How does this section contrast what came before? Listen to the magical moment when the “A” section returns (3:41-3:58). It’s as if the music is trying to “remember” the opening motive after all of the adventures of the “B” section.

The more you listen to this piece, the more you’ll hear. I’ve started you off by pointing out a few details in the music, but I hope you will also listen freely and allow the music to wash over you. Have fun as you continue to listen and leave a comment in the thread below with your thoughts.