Studying Beethoven – Piano Sonata in F (Op.10)

Beethoven left his usual pattern once more when he composed his piano sonata in F (Op. 10); it is in three movements only and lacks a slow movement, usually the heart of the sonata and the crux that divides the large first movement from the lighter third and fourth movements. In later sonatas, Beethoven will fully exploit using the middle movement as a crux that contrasts and balances out other movements in emotion and form. Striking examples include the sonata in D (Op. 10), the sonata in Cm (Op. 13) (Pathetique), the sonata in Dm (Op. 31) (The Tempest).

Beethoven takes a slightly different approach in the sonata in C (Op. 53) (Waldstein), the sonata in Fm (Op. 57) (Appassionata), and the sonata in Eb (Op. 81) (Les Adieux); their middle movements blend into the final movements, acting as part of the counterweight to the weighty first movements as well as the dramatic crux of the whole piece. But these sonatas are for another time.

However, Beethoven uses other forms as central cruxes in his sonatas, such as minuets, which he does use in this sonata in F (Op. 10). Here the minuet acts a melancholic episode to contrast the bright and witty first and third movements. A more famous example is the sonata in C#m (Op. 27) (Moonlight) where the sweet minuet contrasts the dark and gloomy first and third movements. Franz Liszt compared it to a flower between an abyss on one side and an abyss on the other.

The first movement is in Sonata Form in F, mostly lyrical and funny but sometimes suffers from small bouts of angst. So how does Beethoven go about building such a movement? He establishes his main subject using two thick calls made of chords followed by a thin turn. Then he follows up this idea with a long and complex melodic arc, full of syncopated and dotted notes but in essence climbs up and down the F scale through turns, peaking at the high D6 note of the Bb (subdominant) harmony before falling back to F (tonic). Beethoven uses chords, an idea borrowed from the two calls before, to anchor the melody with a solid rhythm and flesh out the harmonies, and they move mostly parallel to the melody.

Beethoven makes a striking move by developing his main subject a little before going to the transition; he uses two chord calls to carry us to D#d, then uses loud triplets (borrowed from the thin turns before) to carry us to E, which D#d leads to. E is a nice distant harmony but is the median of C (dominant) and submediant of G (V/dom). Everything connects to everything else like a spider’s web in Beethoven’s world.

Beethoven constructs the transition melody as a simplified version of the main subject and in octaves, which heightens the emotion. He states a question and answer to establish us in this area, then develops it to lead us to the subordinate subject. He does this by using two phrases in the top voice over and over again to raise the tension in the music. He leads F# to G, then descends C to G; it’s all vii/G and IV/G, the usual tactic to “overshoot” at the V/dom before going to the dominant. Again Beethoven underscores his melody, with arpeggios in this case. At first it’s mostly C and G, with some Em and Dm7 to keep things interesting, then uses Gs4 and D7 over and over when he really wants to transition.

So far Beethoven created a lyrical tone to his music, now he brings humor into the work. The subordinate subject is a simple arpeggio in Bd7 resolving to C, a descending melodic arc to contrast the main subject’s rising melodic arc, and ending in a few block chords similar to calling chords at movement’s beginning. Then Beethoven jerks sharply into an angsty variation in Cm, the alto or viola voice continuing the subject while the soprano or violins are in wide triplets. The block chords seem to lead to Cm but ends in Ab instead! Here we see Beethoven’s humor; upon seeing his “mistake” he “corrects” himself with a meek chord in F#d. Beethoven designed his subordinate subject to be simple so he could have this kind of fun as complex melodies don’t have that much potential. I should know as I myself dug deep into simple music to find treasure hidden within.

Beethoven builds a bridge to the closing section by using more comedic phrases, a variation of the main subject; broken up into choppy woodwind parts that peaks on the G (dominant) harmony, then returns to the tonic in triplets. The joke is how the left and right hands cannot play together and it conjures the image of a clown wobbling on a ball. The closing subject has a murky tinge to it’s sound because Beethoven uses a D# note leading to an E note and an F# note leading to a G note, which he supports with harmonies of D#d7 and F#d7 respectively. But both harmonies lead to C, not Em or G as you would expect. The subjects reminds me of a skit with one man being tall and skinny and the man short and fat; Laurel and Hardy.

Beethoven uses two ideas for his precore in Dm; he expands the triplets he worked with from before into longer melodic turns while he uses phrases of three block chords from before, and both ideas swap registers with each other. For his first core, Beethoven uses broken 16th note octaves underscored with a conventional base; the treble is an expanded version of the turn while the baseline moves up or down a scale before dropping down a 4th or 5th. Beethoven travels through a rather tame route of relative harmonies, with nothing crazy; the progression goes from Dm to Gm to Bb back to Dm. The second core uses precore material, taking where it left off, and Beethoven now jumps to the distant key of Bbm. Beethoven then retransitions, preparing us for the first subject by going back to Dm and suspending us in A…

Which leads us to D, the wrong key. Again we see Beethoven’s humor; he begins the main subject in the wrong key, then “corrects” his “mistake” by returning to F, which he does by going from D to Gm, then holding us a while in C7. Beethoven deviates into a small variation during the transition so as not to repeat himself; he swaps treble and base while making a variation of the rising chord motif we saw from before. The closing subject has its usual properties, but Beethoven expands it while raising the dynamics to fortissimo to finish the movement on a strong note.

The second movement is in Minuet Form in Fm, but while the mood is not of deep tragedy it is melancholic to balance out the humor of the other two movements. The best comedies in plays, books, and film have dark moments, part of the real and serious aspects that underpin the work. This sonata is no different, and the painful Fm minuet functions to give it depth by grounding it with heavier human emotions. Keep in mind that 18th century artists saw Fm and Ab as distant and dark keys, meaning Beethoven turns the light minuet into serious music.

The music of the minuet itself is simple in rhythm and arc to contrast the complex and odd melody of the main subject from the last music. Beethoven basically ascends and descends the Fm chord with parallel arpeggios, while also using Ed7, which changes to Eb to take us to Ab, the relative major. Beethoven then uses new material; a melody that now ascends the Ab scale, then suddenly drops to C, dominant of Fm. The alto voice joins in imitation while the base delays timing in keeping up to allow less plain harmonies.

Beethoven resumes his subject but adds many new elements to heighten the drama. He returns with the subject but an octave higher in the woodwinds, and he plays a striking sighing phrase; the dissonant Eb7as4 chord (the seventh note, Dh, augmented and containing Ab, the root of the subdominant) resolves to Ed (iibd). Beethoven takes the music to its logical conclusion with the last phrase, a codetta of sorts, by having the melody ascent up the Fm chord to the high F6 note.

The Trio in the dark and rich Db, contrasts the Fm Minuet with low notes and thick chords, suggesting a string ensemble to contrast the thin woodwinds in the Minuet. Beethoven borrows from the Minuet, making the melodic arc a rise up the Db scale, but suddenly he makes a leap before resolving it by a step into the Eb7 (dominant) harmony. This is a common tactic for Beethoven; to break a step-by-step melody with leaps or break arpeggios with step-by-step climbs, and he even emphasizes his leap with a sforzando, before resolving his sentence with a gentle arc to Ab. He repeats the sentence to cement the Trio in your ear but he plays a variation of it; he uses falling staccato notes like in a cello part and he drifts into Bbm, Ed7, and Fm to give the Trio a darker feel.

He develops his Trio by exploring the diminished chords and progressions he touched on earlier, but he does subvert the chord progressions you would expect by using a chromatic descending base. His big example is Ebm to Ed7 to Ad7 to Ab, and finally to Db. He lets the chromatic base take him to whatever diminished harmonies they offer rather than quickly resolving to Ab as another composer may do. This idea, of letting a melodic or base line give you harmonies to choose from, is something Romantic composers take advantage of, such as Chopin. And later, rather than finishing off the segment with a V7-I phrase, he uses Ed7 to Db9a to Db to create an extra segment that suspends us at the end. As we saw before, Early Beethoven is fond of suspending us in this way in a Minuet before resolving.

He returns us to the Fm Minuet using Db to Cd (diminished vii of Db) to mutate to C7 (dominant of Fm), then to Fm. The Minuet repeats as before except now the treble and base are syncopated and the base is a little more active, which Beethoven does to develop his material further even when wrapping things up. What use is a journey if you haven’t changed or don’t see things in a new way?

Beethoven returns us to a happy F key to play a breezy Rondo, but it has some fugal traits to it and heavily uses counterpoint. The entire Rondo is based on a subject, first heard in the base, that Beethoven uses constantly to build the entire movement, around as compact and austere as his 5th Symphony or Bach’s fugue in D from the Well-Tempered Clavier. The movement is a gem the student of Euterpe should not carelessly pass by.

Beethoven begins the movement as if he was writing a fugue; he puts the subject in the tenor, then alto, then soprano registers, a countersubject singing below. His harmonies are F & C for the subject in the tenor and alto registers, then C & G (harmonies around C, the dominant) for the subject in the soprano registers. So far, so good. Now you would expect Beethoven to use some free counterpoint to take us to Dm, where he will play the subject again. But he doesn’t do that; he condenses the subject, repeats it in even higher registers, and makes the music homophonic. He takes the melodic line very high to the F6 note then races it all the way down to C4 with a flourish of 16th notes. With harmonies; he jumps to A (submediant of C), a striking move, and progresses with A to Dm (iv/A) to G7 to C to smoothly move to a quiet closing phrase in C. Beethoven does all this in 32 measures.

What does Beethoven do now? He decides to develop his subject in a development-like section you see in Sonata Form. He jumps far away to Ab (submediant of C), a striking move similar to how he jumped to A before, and builds tension; he does so by having his subject, now in unison, slowly rise to higher registers. Now he has the subject swap around many different ranges alongside some free counterpoint, meanwhile moving from Ab to Bbm. He then keeps swapping the subject among soprano ranges, to have the soprano lines constantly imitate each other, with a basso continuo underneath, now in Fm to A7. Then free counterpoint in the soprano that is like the basso continuo while the tenor and alto play the subject in thirds at the same time, now in A.

Beethoven returns to D, now in a kind of bridge, but now he takes a piece of the subject to make some new material. Two countersubjects are almost the same as the subject, and they play along just fine, while a basso continuo persists, as he modulates back to F by progressing D to G to C to F to Bb (notice the subdominant). But Beethoven takes us to a new development section instead, now in two voices; he once more uses the subject but has it swap roles with free counterpoint based on the 16th note flourishes from before. Thus he moves from F to Gm to Bbm; now to a variation of the fugue-like beginning with the subject and countersubject in 16th notes to raise the pressure. Beethoven progresses the melodic line as before while he guides us back to F by basically moving to Fm, the mutating to F.

We are at last back to the gentle closing phrase, but it is not over yet; now we enter a brief coda, built like the bridge in D two pages back. But a piece has to finish, and Beethoven does so by going down the F scale in octaves, in crescendo, finishing the movement in a confidant fortissimo. The Comedy of Errors comes to fulfilling end.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s