Beethoven’s Style


At this moment I have a strong grasp of Beethoven’s personal style with harmonies and overall music structure, at least the style of early Beethoven. He tries very hard to avoid the cliché I-IV-V harmonies in classical music to the point where it almost feels forced at times. He is fond of taking you to remote keys using otherwise ordinary intervals and builds many a harmonic structure on the 3rd interval. The whole idea is to make the music dense and weighty while also expanding the overall structure of the peace by delaying IV-V-I cadences in creative ways.

– The 5th interval normally takes you to V, the 4th to IV, but Beethoven may take you to v and iv instead, the minor versions of those keys. C to Gm is one example.

– The 3rd interval normally takes you to iii or vi, which usually comes before a IV or V and then I. Beethoven takes you to a major or a minor version of those keys that is very remote. He will go from Eb to G, or C to Ab. He may even do something crazier like take you from B to Abm.

– The whole step (M2nd interval) usually takes you to ii, which resolves into IV or V and then I. Beethoven instead takes you to II or VIIb such as C to D or C to Bb.

– The half step (m2nd interval) is often used to go to the Neopolitan (IIb) before going to IV or V then I. Beethoven does that but he also likes going down a half step to a remote harmony, such as Eb to D.

– Beethoven is fond of using diminished chords and the leading tone (especially a chromatic base) to lead to a chord in an interesting way, even if that chord is common in a certain key, like C to F#d to G. He will sometimes pull a twist where the diminished chord leads to the dominant of its intended target, like C to F#d to D. During these times he may leap by a tritone, the Devil’s interval.

– Beethoven sometimes likes to mutate a chord into many different forms; such as D to Da or D7a or Dd to Dm. In this sonata he sometimes goes from Dm to Eb instead of Dd to Eb. Sometimes he will simply he happy to turn a major to a minor chord and back again, something other composers like Schubert did well. Sometimes Beethoven will even play a minor version and major version of the harmony at the same time.

– Beethoven will blend two chords together or mismatch the melody and base. This often creates a chord, like one in Eb, which can be read as Ebs4, Eb9, or Eb11. (He is also fond of minor 7 chords.) Beethoven will sometimes delay a melody, usually to keep it in the dominant of a chord, while the base will play the intended chord itself on schedule. Baroque composers often used this technique but at the end of pieces, not in the middle.

– Another trick is to play an ordinary melody yet make the harmonies going with it to be anything but.

When it comes to creating music subjects, Beethoven builds them from small cells based on intervals; in fact he builds the entire piece from these cells. Some composers are painters as Debussy, others are poets as Chopin, others are miniaturists as Scarlatti. Beethoven is an architect and sculptor, and so he builds his music brick by brick, chiseling out the raw stone of his improvised ideas until they are concise, defined, and strong. Beethoven places intervals, counterpoint, and voice leading over typical harmonies more and more as he grows as an artist so by the time he composes the Great Fugue he writes “pure interval music” as Stravinsky described it.

As for melody, Beethoven is usually careful to balance close intervals such as the step with striking leaps up or down the keyboard. He will often create the most lyrical music out of simply going up or down a scale or chord. As for large intervals, he tends to save them to help craft a distinct form to the melody, highlight a key point in the melody, or simply to strike a strong emotion.

Beethoven Analysis – Piano Sonata in C (Op. 2)

I still feel sketchy when analyzing the melody or thematic material. Otherwise, my formal and harmonic analysis is fine. I may not analyze any more sonatas or only sonatas I really like since it may take a year to analyze them all and I would really like to compose my own music thank you very much. Improving my own skills is the reason I do such tedious work in the first place. Beethoven’s 3rd sonata is a brilliant finish to a unique triplet of works, each showing very different moods. The Fm sonata was tragic and brooding, the D sonata was lyrical, the C sonata is vivid and dazzling; it’s virtuoso score hints at piano concerto material.

As usual, a complete formal and harmonic analysis of the piano sonata is in the video above, an overview of the sonata’s overall form below.

Form of C (Op. 2)

0:00 The 1st movement, in sonata form, has the most distinct piano concerto feel to it, since the transitioning passages do look very much like a piano accompaniment to an orchestra. The main subject on the other hand is not that energetic by itself but does have enormous potential energy, which Beethoven exploits by setting it off like dynamite. Unlike with the earlier sonatas, Beethoven’s doesn’t focus so much on the main subject; most of the music in this movement sounds like stock set of riffs Beethoven used to improvise, which he did a lot early in his career.

9:30 The 2nd movement is far off in the mediant key of E, a relation we see for the first time. The movement itself is made of two very different characters; the first one is a rather complex lyrical melody Beethoven goes out of his way to leave unresolved, the second character devotes the left hand for a singing baseline with dotted rhythms lifted from the first character while the right hand plays arpeggios similar to those of a Baroque prelude.

16:40 The 3rd movement has cheeky scherzo that uses F# and starts the downbeat at A, which confuses the key of C major. The scherzo consists of a descending subject that changes registers (and hands) as it keeps going down the keyboard. Meanwhile, other voices join it in counterpoint, often based on the playful turn at the very beginning. The minor trio is more conventional; the right hand plays triplet arpeggios while the left hand plays a simple base. The coda is built on the Bdim-C cadence (vii/I) as opposed to the more usual G7-C cadence (V7/I). All this is subtle humor on Beethoven’s part but sadly most of the jokes are lost to us as we don’t understand the language of sonata form like Beethoven and friends did. It’s hard to get parodies and jokes when you don’t speak the language fluently.

19:57 The 4th movement is an extensive rondo as Beethoven returns to the main subject over and over again, changing it in many different ways, while departing from it afterward in a new direction almost each time. What you get is a pretty complicated rondo, so complicated you could even see sonata form elements in it, complete with two expositions, a long development section, two recapitulations, and a coda. Beethoven, as I said before, wanted to give the finale of a piece the most weight, and tried different ideas throughout his career. He often settled this problem in his early days by expanding the rondo by making it more like a sonata.

Beethoven Analysis – Piano Sonata in A (Op. 2)

This sonata gave me a real headache. Anyway, this is the second of three Beethoven piano sonatas in Op. 2. This work is light, lyrical, and witty, as opposed to the dark and tragic Fm sonata. But don’t be fooled! The A sonata is more complex and difficult as Beethoven plays with mediant (III) and submediant (VI) keys a lot, frequently leaping to them. He also likes to leap to the supertonic (ii) and flattened subtonic (VIIb), which are both a M2nd away.

A complete formal and harmonic analysis of the piano sonata is in the video above, an outline of the overall form below.

Form of A (Op. 2)

00:00 – The first movement plays a lot with downward triads and running up and down the scale, usually with a lot of counterpoint. Beethoven is fond of leaping by the III or VI in the subordinate subject, as well delaying the harmony from changing alongside the melody, which makes the keys more ambiguous. Beethoven leaps down the VI especially in the development and the subordinate subject in the recapitulation.

11:11 – The second movement suggests definite instruments; muted trombones and string bases in the main subject. Beethoven bases the whole melody of the main subject on peaking it at B4 and F#5, then taking it down. This is the basic structure to many classical melodies but Beethoven takes it to an extreme. The developments in Bm and D are in typical keys. The first development is based on the descending scale, a contrast to the main theme.

17:32 – The scherzo of the third movement is based on a rising arpeggio while the trio is based on a descending scale, like so much other material in this sonata in all the Op. 2 sonatas. Beethoven takes the development of the scherzo all the way to G#m (vii), an extreme place to go relative to A. The development of the trio is in C, a far less distant key relative to A.

22:18 – The last movement is very long and substantial for a rondo, showing that Beethoven is unhappy with the overall structure of sonatas. The minuet and rondo are usually short and light in content, which is lopsided considering how large and important the sonata form in the first movement is. The early Beethoven’s attempts to solve this problem involve making the last movement either sonata form or lengthy rondos, such as this movement. Save the best for last as the saying goes.

The main subject is an operatic dip from E6 all the way down to G4 or F#4, and is the most striking subject of the entire sonata. This movement may be the most gentle and lyrical of the entire sonata but it is the most complex and difficult as Beethoven leaps to the III and VI keys more than in any other movement. The “development” sections explore the dotted motif of the main subject while the “transition” turns the 16th note ascension of the main subject in all sorts of directions; descending down the scale, arpeggios, turns etc.