Studying Beethoven – Piano Sonata in E (Op. 14)

Beethoven’s next sonata, the Sonata in E (Op. 14), is a breath of fresh air following the dark and weighty Pathetique Sonata (In Cm, Op. 13), and it comes with a sibling; the Sonata in G (Op. 14). Both sonatas are lyrical and mild, but sophisticated as ever – Beethoven always has tricks up his sleeve – and are structured as the Pathetique, where a weighty first movement in sonata form is balanced by two other movements. The Sonata in E resembles a string quartet with its frequent four-part writing, counterpoint, and imitations, most easily found in the first movement but also present in the later movements.

Following the idea of a string quartet, Beethoven opens with a main subject in E, with violin parts sustaining long melodic notes high on the treble while the viola and cello parts play a knocking rhythmic motif. The melody rises in gentle open intervals of 4ths, 5ths, 6ths; in essence rising from dominant to tonic to dominant to tonic again. The little flurry at the end with the high tonic note is a frequent trope in violin solos. Yes, the phrase ends on E, the tonic, but it’s unresolved; a question waiting an answer. And Beethoven chooses to answer with a motif played in violin I, violin II, viola, and cello parts; this way he brings the melody back down to earth. In essence, the dominant note, B, leaps down an octave four times.

Now Beethoven is ready to bring all string quartet parts at once, and he once more makes the dominant note the crux of the music, repeating the same small phrases but in different registers, using them to travel from one B note to another to another. The harmony is basic V-I, not too special, but he does use a chromatic rising and falling line for the viola and cello parts in the latter parts of the first subject. It transforms the usual harmonies leading back to E; D#d7 becomes augmented to D#m and B7a becomes diminished to B7.

So how does Beethoven get us to the subordinate subject in B? His solution is to use a variation of the first four bars to carry us from E to Bm. The melody rises up the B scale (or E scale in Lydian mode, take your pick) to the new tonic note while the harmony plays F# but delays resolving it to Bm; instead progressing chromatically F#-E-Am-A#d-Bm. But Beethoven avoids the usual V7-I cadences, opting for F#-Bd instead, while his melody trades between B and Dh notes until finally touching F#, dominant of B. Again, Beethoven highlights the dominant note.

The subordinate subject in B acts as a subject for imitation and counterpoint, especially the descending pickup notes used to get your attention (as pickup notes starting a subject are common to most contrapuntal subjects). Beethoven uses the four voices in chords to spell out three harmonic progressions: D#s4-F#7, F#7-B, B#hd7-C#m-A#d7-B, which avoid a typical V7-I with a secondary dominant (D#s4) and a deceptive cadence (B#hd7-C#m). Beethoven uses an extra sentence as a bridge to take us to the closing theme so as to not make the transition awkward; the harmony is now pretty typical V7-I but the melody itself builds from an F#7 chord.

The closing subject mutates Em (subdominant) from minor to major many times; a technique also used by composers such as Schubert, and as such the melodic line changes from a rising half step (F#-Gh) to a rising whole step (F#-G#). Beethoven then builds a bridge to smoothly return to his main subject, which makes sense in this gentle sonata. Beethoven uses a B scale melody to rise to a climax; a deceptive cadence in C#m, before resolving us back to F#7-B with a leading tone melody. Beethoven then leads us back to the main subject with a bridge using IV-I where the cello part now takes the opening motif.

The development is smooth and straightforward, built on two cores, the second core also acting as a retransition. The precore, yet another version of the opening four bars, takes the melodic line up the E scale, from E as tonic to E as mediant, but the harmonies, the context the melody is in, drastically changes; Beethoven wanders into F7a (Neapolitan), then into diminished chords finally resolving G#d7-Am. Beethoven brings in new material of octaves (based in part from the opening motif and the movement’s obsession with dominant note octaves), and where Beethoven makes a poignant modulation from Am to C. He moves from Am to Dm7, which seems odd until it mutates to D7, becoming a secondary dominant; we now see a D7-G7-C progression as Beethoven modulates to C (relative major of Am). The subject develops; the melody rises to a high F note and cadences to C to mark this transition. The subject develops again; the melody starts in Em but shifts gears to A#d7 to leap up an E note octave in a lamenting call before resolving to B.

The second core, also the retransition, exchanges the opening motif in the base and treble, the new home key now Em. Beethoven slowly winds down with a V-i progression, with some A#d7-B and A-Em (a major subdominant), knocking with B notes the whole time, using this constant dominant to return us to E. The main subject returns in a loud and excited variation, then returns to normal. Now Beethoven uses a different transition to show growth and change in the music, now in C, which surprises us as the melody seems to lead to at Em. This new transition develops the knocking eight notes into a fast rising scale while the opening motif is exchanged between treble and base. Then Beethoven modulates to the subtonic through Chd7-B, using an A# leading note in the cello part to guide us to B. The remaining bars are similar to their exposition counterparts, albeit with a A#d7-B progression.

The subordinate subject remains the same, just in keys a 4th lower. The closing subject has a similar exchange as in the exposition with the melodic line rising a half step one moment (B-C) a rising whole step (B-C#) another, but the harmonies are slightly different; D# mutating between D#d7 and D#hd7. We enter the coda, where the opening motif returns low in the base, the knocking eight notes now in the middle, creating the warm, rich feeling of strings in the lower registers. Beethoven develops the motif with a downward phrase to resolve it, the harmonies and base shift between dissonant progressions, F7-E and F#d7-E (exchanging between Neapolitan and supertonic). The motif moves to the treble, now developing by rising to a high E; the movement makes a quiet return to the tonic.

The second movement is a minuet in Em and is based on a dotted swinging rhythm, leaps up a 3rd, and half steps, giving many accidentals. We see four-part writing throughout the movement, once more suggesting a string quartet. The subject builds around a broken Em chord, the melodic line rising to B (dominant) before resolving. Beethoven uses atypical harmonies, moving to C (submediant) very early, then using leading tones to progress A#hd7-Am and D#d-Em. The first sentence ends in B, hanging, the second, now an octave higher, resolves to Em. We enter a major section in C, the melodic line built on the 3rd (E to G) and repeating G (dominant). Andras Schiff mistakes the progressions here as Plagal cadences (IV-I) but Beethoven always uses D as the base note, making his harmonies Dm7-G (ii7-V). Beethoven then moves the melody through E to F#, the harmonies, A#d-B, hanging on the dominant.

Beethoven returns to his Em subject but develops it, highlighting Dm with drawn out block chords and frequenting on the eight note turn, progressing G#d-Am. He then uses a codetta to draw us to quiet, wistful finish in the high register, constantly using D#d7-E. The music now becomes very contrapuntal; the cello stubbornly on E (tonic), the violin I in leading notes D#-E, the violin II and viola in eight note turns in opposite directions.

The minore part of the minuet finished, we enter the maggiore part in C. Beethoven once again builds his material on the 3rd (E and G), but his melody is looser, moving around broken chords, and connects to the higher octave with a rising broken chord and chromatic notes. Now the melody is in sustained three quarter notes and drops by small intervals of a 4th and 3rd, whatever puts him in the tonic and dominant. The cello part is interesting as it makes a long chromatic descent. The violin II does a similar thing but in smaller phrases. The maggiore subjects resolves to the dominant through Dm7-G, once more the “Plagal” cadence.

Now Beethoven develops his subject in A, with extra counterpoint in opposite motion in the viola part; now the melodic line builds on the G and Fh notes, using what the downward whole step “naturally” suggests to move down a C scale. As surely as Beethoven developed the falling whole step, he develops the chromatic rising cell, taking it up high two octaves, then preparing us for the return to the minuet in Em; the melody falling from E (tonic of Em) to B (dominant of Em), the base subtly shifting like quicksand C-Em-B. The coda of the entire movement proceeds as the second half of the development, but softer, sweeter, sadder.

Allegro commodo
The third movement is a Rondo in E, exuberant and simpler, lacking most of the four-part string quartet writing from the first two movements. We enter the main subject, melody in octaves leaping up a dominant upbeat to E (tonic), climbing up the scale and settling on A (subdominant). The base comes in triplets, in essence broken 6ths, descending the E scale to a dominant pedal, the harmony moving from E to B7. So now the main subject is suspended in the dominant, how do we resolve it? Beethoven introduces a rapid descending scale and four-part counterpoint so the melody falls from A (subdominant) to G# (median), then resolves to E (tonic). Beethoven repeats his opening line again but this time develops his material to transition to B (dominant). He does so by exchanging the descending scale cell in different registers in imitation and expanding it so it so it drops low to D# (leading tone) and high to G (mediant). This lets melody build up to a climax trill A# (leading tone to B) and having it fall to B.

The subordinate subject is very brief, based on the same large open leaps at the climax of the transition, but this time the music is calm even though almost the exact same notes are being played. In a way the subordinate subject is a bit disappointing. The subject sounds like it will begin a counterpoint but the violin II, viola, and cello just fill in the harmony; but at least that harmony progresses as C#m-F#9-B, focusing on C#m (relative minor of E). A small variation follows, and the melody sits on B (dominant of E) as the harmonies modulate back to E through B-F#7s4-B#7, the sustained 4th at F# and 7th note in B signaling a descent back to E.

The main subject returns but repeats differently, leading us to a second subordinate subject that acts as a development section by leaving E to go to G (mediant). The melodic line now reaches higher to touch on Ch (submediant of E), and the harmony follows suite from Am-Gs4. Beethoven expands on his rapidly falling cell, repeating it, letting it drop to lower and lower registers, going G-D-G so we hit the development. Beethoven composes this paragraph to be pretty straightforward. The triplets take the front in the treble, the melodic arc rising and falling through broken chords, the base in octaves; no subject is borrowed from previous material except maybe a fragmented baseline early on, which makes sense as Beethoven quickly moves through many different chords. Regarding harmonic progressions, the development slowly leads us from G back to E, moving from D-G to E7-Am to C#hd7-F#m7-Bm to Dm7-G to B7-Em to B7-C to G#d7-Am to F#hd7-A#hd7-B7. The retransition is really simple; a E-B progression, the triplets rising up a chromatic scale to a high B, hanging on the dominant.

The main subject and transition return, almost the same as before, but modulating to A (subdominant) rather than E as usual. Beethoven takes the harmonies to an interesting route by modulating to F (submediant) through Bb (Neapolitan) with A-Bb-F-Ehd9-F. Now Beethoven takes the melody to D# (leading tone of E) so as to return the harmony to B (dominant), which he does through F7a-D#d7-B7; he moves the harmonies down by 3rds. Beethoven synchopates the main theme into a variation but he brings imitation back as the rising melody that distinguished the main subject now assumes a base role with a descending countersubject on top. Then the main subject (still in the base) becomes a variation moving from C to F# (dominant of B); the harmony starts in D#d7 but moves to B7 instead of E, delaying the leading tone. We resolve into a coda in E with a cell of chromatic notes. The rapid falling scales return, finishing the piece in a sentence similar to the transition. The last harmonies are A#d-B-E.


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