Monday, April 11, 2011

Listening to Beethoven's 3rd Symphony, Part Two: Themes and Structure

Here's a link to Part One.  You can also navigate through the series using the "Beethoven Project Posts" on the right bar of the blog.

In the opening movement of the Eroica Symphony, Beethoven introduces no less than three primary themes.  The third theme - which is really the most remarkable one - we're not going to talk about yet, except to mention that it will happen later on at a surprising place in the piece.  The first two, however, are fair game even at this early juncture in our listening, because that's where they occur.

A word, before we take a look at those two themes, about sonata form.  You've undoubtedly heard the word "sonata" before, but may have assumed it refers to those solo piano (or maybe piano with violin) pieces like the Moonlight, Tempest, or Hammerklavier sonatas by Beethoven.  The root of the word, however, refers not to instrumentation, but to formal structure within a piece.  That formal structure was, up to and beyond Beethoven's time - usually present in the first movement of a symphony.  Sometimes you may even hear an opening movement referred to as "the sonata," but this is rare except among musicologists because of the confusion it causes.

What is "sonata form?"  In short, it's an A-A-B-A structure.  That is, there's an introductory "A" section - called in classical music the "exposition" - in which themes are introduced and developed, and at least one initial modulation* occurs.  That A section is then repeated note-for-note, though some recordings of longer works like the Eroica skip this repeat (including, incidentally, the Dudamel recording in our first post).  After playing the A section twice, the B section, or "development," ensues.  This is not unlike a "bridge" in modern popular music, in that it usually differs substantially from the original A section, but is still related thematically.  Development sections (before Beethoven and the Eroica in particular) were often very short departures from the main ideas of the piece, designed to wedge apart the initial exposition from the recapitulation to follow.

* A modulation is a departure from the original key, accomplished by invoking a dominant feel relative to a key that is not the actual tonic.  As a result, modulations usually move around either the circle of fifths or the circle of fourths, because keys a fourth or fifth away are closely related (they share all but one note) with the original tonic, making it easy to suggest a movement to a new key.

The recapitulation, then, is what follows the development.  It is a restatement of the introductory A section, for a third time, but usually with modifications.  As we'll see in the Eroica, this means there will be a very different treatment of the opening theme.  Likewise, where an early modulation usually results in the exposition being played mostly in a key other than the tonic, the recapitulation usually is designed to allow the entire first section to appear in the original key.  The result - for a trained listener who can hear such large-scale harmonic motions - is that the recapitulation is the first time the piece really feels like it's in the "right" key.

Sonata form is often bracketed with an introduction and/or a coda.  The Eroica does not really have an introduction, per se, except for maybe the first two big Eb Major chords.  It does, however, have a lengthy coda that comes after the recapitulation.  Indeed, the coda might be the richest, most complex, and most engaging part of the entire piece, so we'll be spending some time there later.  The reason for this is that, traditionally, the coda was used as a place to wrap things up and bring a piece to a nice flourishing finish.  In the opening of the Eroica, the coda is actually used almost as a second development section.  Material is reworked and reintroduced, developed in new ways, and synthesized unexpectedly.

Before we get there, however, we have to understand Beethoven's use of thematic material.  As mentioned, the Eroica has three primary themes, two of which appear early in the piece.  The first you've already hear, because it appears at the very beginning.  I've left in the opening chords, but they aren't properly part of the theme:

The second theme occurs not that much further in, and it sounds like this:

In contrast to the opening theme, it is, well, melodic.  Rather than overwhelming the whole orchestra - as the opening theme does after its initial statement* - this theme actually employs a variety of instruments, including winds and strings.  It is not quite sweet, and it is followed by, of course, further intensity (including the "horse galloping motif shortly afterwards), but it is still a departure from the rough, militant opening.

* I encourage you to go back to the first post and re-listen to the movement as a whole.  You'll see that, shortly before the second theme is introduced, this first theme is played by basically the entire orchestra all at once.

Which calls to mind one of the inherent contradictions of this first movement.  These first two themes - introduced a mere minute apart from each other - are so vastly, wildly, different for a reason.  That reason is related, furthermore, to the time signature of the piece.  We're in 3/4, the tempo of waltzes and minuets.  Listen to that second theme again.  Doesn't it sound a little like a waltz?  What is a dance doing in our little military march?

But, really, what is our military march doing in 3/4 time?  Marches - like the second movement - are usually written in 2/4.  The Eroica, however, is somewhere in between war-march and courtly-dance, between chaotic battle and refined elegance.  There is no question that it comes down, in the end, further on the side of tumult than tranquility, but it nevertheless has these moments, these spontaneous outbursts of simple joy amidst such momentous, revolutionary conflict.

Perhaps some light is shed on this strange duality by the form of the piece.  Despite the stretching and bending that Beethoven makes the sonata form do in this movement - pushing each part to its limit - we're still in sonata form.  If we take up, once again, questions about meaning and narrative, we might ask what it means to have a revolution that, nevertheless, maintains at least a semblance of the old order.  We might also ask who our waltzes are, whether they're Viennese noblemen and noblewomen who simply don't see and won't acknowledge the battles raging outside their courtly walls, or whether they're, instead, maybe the revolutionaries themselves, joyful at the prospect of victory.

As in the first post, I won't commit myself to a single interpretation, but I do want to start to forward a psychological angle here.  Beethoven's hero - regardless of his political and social intent - is above all Beethoven himself.  The Eroica, famously, is one of the first major pieces Beethoven composed after he learned definitively of his oncoming deafness.  It is a piece he intended to write as an affront to musical sensibilities of his time.  The revolution, then, is a musical one.  It's hero is Beethoven.  The themes, the quirks, the tumult and battle, and the sweetness are Beethoven's own.

It is so easy to picture Beethoven as he is in movies like Immortal Beloved, a surly, overwrought archetype of human suffering.  Beethoven was not that.*  Beethoven was extremely intelligent and witty, fundamentally kind-hearted, if a bit short-tempered, and above all intensely hard-working and devoted to his art.  That he found joy in music is unquestionable, as the Ninth Symphony undoubtedly proves, but even here in the third the beginnings of that project are visible.  We'll see much more of Beethoven's joy as we move through the other movements (especially the finale), but even here it begins to be present.

* That was Chopin.

The second theme, in this listening, is the dance of Beethoven's spirit, a waltz that - under the oppressive weight of his oncoming deafness and the isolation that will inevitably bring - is brushed aside too easily.  While it appears again and again in this first movement, it always feels secondary, so much so that I recall many arguments in my music classes at St. John's as to whether it should really count as the "second theme" at all, it feels so weak and out of place.  But that, I suppose, is exactly the point.  Unassertive and transitory as it is, this second theme is a linchpin for the piece as a whole, an answer to the roaring questions the first theme asks about the purpose and meaning of human life.

Is it a satisfactory answer to those questions?  Maybe, maybe not.  Regardless, it certainly isn't acknowledged as such in this movement.  And yet it's still there, dancing along throughout the battle, in spite of the battle, or maybe even because of the battle.

And to think, this isn't even the interesting theme.

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