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"Catastrophe" is a Greek word, a combination of "strophe" - meaning turn - and "kata" - meaning down. "Strophe" was used primarily to describe the actions of the chorus in Greek plays, with each choral poem either a Strophe or an anti-strophe, a figurative motion in one direction, or in another. Catastrophe, then, is a total interruption of that process, a proverbial wrench in the works, a form-defying event in the course of the narrative.
In the development section of the first movement of Beethoven's 3rd Symphony, the listener confronts what can only be described as a catastrophe. The common name of this section is "the train wreck," and it shows Beethoven at his most intense, most devious, and most, well, catastrophic. Here's the development section of the opening movement, up to and including the "train wreck," but leaving out the resolution that follows (because that's the next post):
As you can hear, the beginning of the development is a tumultuous back and forth between the second theme (see part two) and the opening theme (see part one). I think it's fair to say the development starts out relatively cohesive, but each repeat of either theme adds further and further chaos. The opening theme starts to sway against itself, raising in pitch and intensity, the secondary theme finds itself beset by all kinds of strange counterpoint. New melodies are introduced, adding tension due to their dominant feel and the urgency of the violins playing them. Before long, the back-and-forth of strophe (the militant first theme) and anti-strophe (the pastoral second theme) collapses on itself in what can only be described as catastrophe. As the piece bucks and writhes, it reaches its climax in the "train wreck," separated from the development below:
All semblance of meaningful melody or rhythmic progress disappears from the piece here. While harmonically the progression still makes sense, that's hardly the point. This section is barely, by the classical definition, even music. So many of the chords are dissonant, the entire orchestra is blaring, and there is nothing to do but to push on from one horrible, full-voiced, dissonant chord to the next.
It's too easy to focus just on the train wreck itself, however, and that's why I've included the build-up to it, also. If the first and second themes truly are incompatible - as I suggested earlier in this series of posts - it's no wonder that, once they were really forced to reckon with each other in the development section, they created a kind of musical conflagration. A potentially helpful image, if an imperfect one, would be the Viennese elite at their dancing and partying (the second theme) suddenly beset by an invading revolutionary army. The result is chaos, the destruction of the court itself, and along with it the decomposition (so to speak) of the courtly music to which the nobles were dancing.
A particularly interesting part of this collapse, to my mind, comes not in the loud and flashy places that jump out even during a cursory listening to the development. No, there's a subtle trick Beethoven plays in the buildup to the train wreck, an inversion of the melodic and rhythmic quality of the second theme that says more about what's going on here than just about anything else. Listen again to the last statement of the second theme before the train wreck, and then the passage that follows it and leads into our catastrophe:
Can you hear the rhythmic inversion? Here again is a piece of the theme:
And here's the inversion:
The waltz is still there in the inverted version, but it's hidden behind a strange and different rhythmic emphasis. All that's really different, actually, is that strong beat of the melody used to fall on the first beat of the measure, in the original theme, but instead falls on the second beat of the measure in the "inverted" version. The result of this minor change, however, is a fundamental shift in the feel of the melody, a transformation from Viennese waltz to urgent escape from impending disaster.
That this variation of the second theme leads into the train wreck is telling. Rather than returning to the opening theme, which has found some measure of stability in its back-and-forth washing earlier in the development (perhaps it's not a satisfying kind of stability, but like a pendulum, at least it's not going anywhere), it's the second theme that leads us into catastrophe. And it does so by allowing itself to be broken, by succumbing to the chaos that surrounds it in the development section.
As for the train wreck itself, there's little to say except that it is completely different from anything in any symphony that comes before it. As I said earlier, it would hardly be considered music by Beethoven's contemporaries, chiefly because of its dissonance and lack of melody, but also because it plays more of a narrative role than a musical one. By pointing out the strange motions of the second theme, I hope I've helped you to see how the train wreck is not just a sudden and loud interruption, but rather an inevitable collapse after increasingly strained efforts to put the square peg of the second theme into the round hole of the symphony.
As a wrap-up to this post, I want to ask a couple of questions about meaning. Well, a question anyway. What, really, does all of this mean? In the first couple of posts of this series, I've talked some about potential narrative interpretations we might impose on the symphony, but at the same time I've been hesitant to pick one and stick with it. Even in this post, I've used the "Viennese nobles confront revolutionary army" idea, but I tell you know that it's only a crutch, a way to help getting at the music.
I suppose, as I listen more and more to the Eroica, as I dive deeper (and I'm diving deeper now than I did even when writing my thesis), I truly am starting to feel like the music has its own narrative, its own meaning, and its own mode of communication. I don't think that's purely emotional, because I can trace it with some semblance of literary objectivity. Nor do I think it's purely spiritual, because, while it's mysterious, I'm not sure how meta-physical it is (would, for example, I be able to follow the narrative in the same way were I deaf?).
No, I think the narrative of Beethoven's music is musical, and its meaning equally so. It's unfortunate that we're stuck using words like "meaning" to describe a meaning that is non-linguistic, but then again isn't that exactly the point of this effort, to find a way to bridge that gap? Ah, but the point is also to help bring myself (and my readers) closer to an understanding of that musical meaning, even if that understanding is fundamentally non-linguistic. What I mean is, I will not be able to write a sentence that says: this is what the Eroica means, but I hope that, by sharing the process of trying to understand and - inasmuch as it possible - translate it, we might all get a little better at our music comprehension.
It is no accident, either, that the train wreck raises this conundrum. I know of no moment in any other piece that is so direct an attack on the notion that music has no meaning, no narrative value on its own. Then again, it remains one of the most difficult-to-penetrate moments in Beethoven's oeuvre, precisely because its lack of melodic structure makes it less "musical." Perhaps, then, our next assay into the symphony will help, when we look at the third theme, the resolution of the catastrophe.