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Beethoven’s Musical Characters

Each sonata by Beethoven has its own particular character. But is this really anything more than a platitude? Should we still be clinging to such concepts as “character” and “atmosphere”? Aren’t the musical cognoscenti interested primarily in understanding “structure,” leaving something as vague as “poetic associations” to amateurs? And haven’t the poststructuralists long since exposed “character” as a mere illusion?

Arnold Schoenberg, whom no one would accuse of being an amateur, recommended that

in composing even the smallest exercises, the student should never fail to keep in mind a special character. A poem, a story, a play or a moving picture may provide the stimulus to express definite moods. The pieces which he composes should differ widely.1

When the concept of character first began to emerge in writings about music around 1795, it was intended as a corrective to Kant’s relative deprecation of instrumental music. In his Critique of Judgment (1790), Kant had declared that music took “the lowest place among the fine arts,” because “it plays merely with sensations.”2 Music, according to Kant, was an agreeable (angenehm) rather than a fine art. Writers like Christian Gottfried Körner and Christian Friedrich Michaelis subsequently came to the aid of music and in the process consistently drew on the sonata to support their arguments.

Eighteenth-century listeners perceived the sonata as a remarkably private genre, in comparison with the Baroque suite. In place of a succession of more or less formal dances, sonatas now appeared to be “like studies of the various attitudes and passions of man.”3 Even the minuet—the only one of the suite movements to find its way routinely into the symphony, string quartet, and sonata—was capable of taking on a variety of characters, whether gracious or impetuous, solemn or humorous. This distinctive element of what could be called the humane, the personal, or the individual characterizes the sonata more aptly than the presence of any so-called “sonata-form movement.” After all, there are plenty of sonatas without even a single such movement.

From works on aesthetics written just before 1800, we know that musical character was perceived as consisting of “psychological” and “moral” components, and as mediating between these two supposedly contrasting spheres. Körner’s essay “On the Representation of Character in Music,” which appeared in 1795 in Schiller’s journal, Die Horen, goes beyond this to speak of what amounts to a masculine and feminine Ideal.^4 Körner goes on to say that “the concept of character presupposes a moral life, diversity in the use of freedom, and in this diversity a unity, a rule within this arbitrariness.”6

Carl Czerny, Beethoven’s pupil, tells us that every one of Beethoven’s compositions “expresses some particular, consistently maintained mood or perspective to which the piece remains true, even in its smallest details.”7 This assertion would have found favor with Schoenberg. That Schoenberg himself adhered to this advice in his own compositions can scarcely be doubted. His String Quartet op. 7 is based on an amazingly detailed psychological program that he set down in the early stages of its composition. It lists “Rebellion; defiance; longing; rapture; depression; despair; apprehension of sinking; unfamiliar emotions of love, desire to be engrossed; solace; relief (she and he)”; and so on. And this is only part of the first movement.8 Like the titles for the movements of his Piano Concerto, this program remained unpublished during Schoenberg’s lifetime.9

In a radio broadcast, Schoenberg once remarked about his musical works: “I cannot disclose their spiritual background[s], and I would have to assert that I am inclined to be at some pains to disguise them.”10 This strangely twisted formulation reveals Schoenberg’s conflicting emotions, or, more precisely, the conflict of his emotions with a musical rationality that presupposes a work of music to be convincing without the aid of any descriptive device. Czerny’s comments on Beethoven’s Piano Sonata op. 81a—“Les Adieux”—are very much along these lines: “Moreover,” Czerny writes, “this sonata…may, and indeed should, be of interest even to those who are willing to enjoy it as pure music, without regard to the titles.”11 Yet Bee-thoven’s goal, in this sonata, had also been to set to music, as clearly as possible, feelings or sensibilities—Empfindungen—evoked by Farewell, Absence, and Return, the titles of the individual movements.

These titles provide clues toward understanding the music’s character, not only for the listener but above all for the performer. (They also made it possible for the dedicatee, Archduke Rudolf, himself a musician, to judge whether Beethoven had successfully expressed feelings associated with the titles.) Rather than deny the element of character in the music of Beethoven or Schoenberg, we should be thankful for these kinds of verbal aids. If Schoenberg conceived the first movements of his Piano Concerto under the rubric “Life was so easy,” then this will perhaps deter performers from playing the piece all too dreamily. And even if the composer covered up the “background” to his compositions and wished to leave no psychological clues, it must be granted that there is occasionally a kind of musical coherence that is above all psychologically motivated. One of the most delectable tasks of the interpreter is to sense such motivations, even if they are not to be captured in words.

Like the essays by Körner and Michaelis, Beethoven’s first piano sonata, op. 2, no. 1, in F Minor, was published in 1795. The need for “unity in variety,” as expressed by contemporary writers on aesthetics, is fulfilled in this work in a pointed manner. Compared with the plethora of ideas in the other two sonatas of op. 2, the variety in this first sonata seems to be rather tightly reined in. By contrast, the unity of deriving all the themes from the motifs stated at its beginning is clearly established in op. 2, no. 1. So, too, is the Beethovenian technique of foreshortening, a device that progressively breaks down harmony, rhythm, and melodic elements to create long spans of tension.12

Directly or indirectly, all the themes of all the movements in op. 2, no. 1, are derived from its very beginning. Beethoven did not aspire to such concentration in every sonata. A work like op. 26, for example, appears to be so loosely constructed from a thematic point of view that one can speak justifiably of a “psychological composition,” as Edwin Fischer put it, a work that reveals itself as a whole through an understanding of the relationships among the characters of all movements.13 On the other hand, the musical materials in some of the most ambitious and moving sonatas, like op. 10, no. 3, op. 31, no. 2, op. 57 (“Appassionata”), op. 106 (“Hammerklavier”), and op. 111 display a particularly strong sense of economy.

In Beethoven’s music, the motifs on which a work feeds are almost always stated at the very beginning; in keeping with this, a movement’s fundamental character can be found in its first few measures or lines. The Sonata in D Minor, op. 31, no. 2, begins with a theme whose three different motifs correspond to three different tempos. Seldom has musical material been presented to the performer and listener so clearly. The tripartite structure of this theme contains at the outset a (solemn) broken chord, at the end an (expressive) embellishment, and in the middle a layered figure on the notes A-F-E-D, which contains something like a genetic code for all the themes of all the movements, and which reappears repeatedly, either openly or in disguise.

The two other motifs are also to be found in all the themes of the D Minor Sonata. Only the opening theme of the third movement dances out of line: the embellishment is omitted here. But it soon reappears in the second theme of the movement with a persistence that is downright obstinate.

The concentration of materials in the “Hammerklavier” Sonata, op. 106, is perhaps even more astonishing. Everything in this gigantic work seems to be related to the interval of the third: the construction of the themes as well as the most important tonalities of the work are all based on this interval. Charles Rosen has pointed out how the harmonies in sections of the first movement, as well as in the development of the Adagio, progress through a series of descending thirds.14 In the Adagio, we find no fewer than sixty-five progressions by a third, along with another twenty in the Largo introduction to the fugue.

From such examples, it is easy to see that the motifs binding a work do not establish the character of that work. The character (or characters) of the “Hammerklavier” Sonata obviously cannot be derived from the interval of a third. Motifs can contribute substantially to the unity of a work, but they usually do this in an abstract sense. The impression of coherence establishes itself—even if only indirectly—when the listener’s unconscious perception is presented with recurring motifs. But musical “expression”—to which Jean-Jacques Rousseau devoted no fewer than six pages in his Dictionnaire de musique of 1768—is not dependent on motifs or constellations of motifs.15 Rather, expression makes use of them.

The fundamental character that is presented at the beginning of a movement dominates throughout. Later themes or episodes are scarcely capable of threatening its hegemony, even when they provide contrast and variety. One could perhaps point to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in F Major, op. 54, as an exception. This little-loved, highly original work establishes two contrasting characters at its very beginning. Here is a prime example of what used to be called contrasting masculine and feminine principles; or, to put it in more contemporary terms, animus and anima. But even here, anima, which starts the piece, has the last word, while the concluding movement of this sonata synthesizes both principles.

It is the interpreter’s responsibility to play the roles of different characters. Like every person, it would seem, every sonata has distinct qualities and potentialities. Each character lives and breathes as a sum of its attributes. If the interpreter goes beyond the boundaries of these attributes, a character would be falsified and ill-portrayed. Sometimes this character is marked by contradictions, through two or more souls dwelling in the same breast. (In the writings of Anton Reicha, one of the principal theorists of sonata form, the sections of a sonata-form movement bear the wonderfully dramatic designations of “exposition,” “intrigue,” and “dénouement.”16 ) In the three or four movements of a sonata—provided they do not traverse the exceptionally consistent emotional terrain of a work like Beethoven’s op. 31, no. 3—a wide range of conflicts can arise, yet the finale usually confirms the character of the first movement, albeit somewhat modified. Even in sonatas with a contrasting middle movement, like the so-called Moonlight Sonata, op. 27, no. 2 (“A flower between two chasms,” as Liszt is said to have called it), or op. 31, no. 2, nicknamed “the Tempest” (an angel between two demons, as it might be called)—in other words, in sonatas whose outer movements are entirely in the minor and whose middle movement never leaves the sphere of the major—we experience the bright major mode as the complement that reinforces all the more powerfully the darkness of the minor-key movements.

  1. 1

    Arnold Schoenberg, Fundamentals of Musical Composition, edited by Gerald Strang, with an introduction by Leonard Stein (St. Martin’s, 1967), p. 95.

  2. 2

    Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgement, translated by James Creed Meredith (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1952), p. 195 (section 53).

  3. 3

    Noël Antoine Pluche, La Spectacle de la nature, second edition, Vol. 7 (Paris: Chez les Frères Estienne, 1745), p. 116.

  4. 6

    Christian Gottfried Körner, “Über Charakterdarstellung in der Musik,” Die Horen, Vol. 1 (1795), p. 604. For a commentary and English translation of Körner’s treatise, see Robert Riggs, “‘On the Representation of Character in Music’: Christian Gottfried Körner’s Aesthetics of Instrumental Music,” Musical Quarterly, Vol. 81 (1997), pp. 599-631.

  5. 7

    Carl Czerny, Über den richtigen Vortrag der sämtlichen Beethoven’schen Klavierwerke (1842), edited by Paul Badura-Skoda (Vienna: Universal, 1963), p. 25; the English translation was published as On the Proper Performance of All Beethoven’s Works for the Piano, edited by Paul Badura-Skoda (Vienna: Universal, 1970), p. 21.

  6. 8

    Christian Martin Schmidt, “Schönbergs ‘Very definite—but private’ Programm zum Streichquartett Op. 7,” in Bericht über den 2. Kongress der Internationalen Schönberg-Gesellschaft (Vienna: Elisabeth Lafite, 1986).

  7. 9

    See Arnold Schoenberg, Werke, part VI, series B, vol. 20, Streichquartette I: Kritischer Bericht, edited by Christian Martin Schmidt (Mainz: B. Schott’s Söhne, 1986), pp. 109-110.

  8. 10

    Arnold Schoenberg, Stil und Gedanke: Aufsätze zur Musik, edited by Ivan Vojtech (Frankfurt: S. Fischer, 1976), p. 273.

  9. 11

    Czerny, Über den richtigen Vortrag, p. 55; On the Proper Performance, p. 61.

  10. 12

    For detailed discussions of this technique, see the essay “The Process of Foreshortening in the First Movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 2, No. 1,” in my Musical Thoughts and Afterthoughts (Princeton University Press, 1976), pp. 154-161; and William Kinderman, Beethoven (University of California Press, 1995), pp. 30-35.

  11. 13

    Edwin Fischer, Beethoven’s Pianoforte Sonatas: A Guide for Students and Amateurs, translated by Stanley Godman (London: Faber and Faber, 1959), p. 58.

  12. 14

    Charles Rosen, The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, second edition (Norton, 1997), pp. 404-434.

  13. 15

    Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Dictionnaire de musique (Paris: Veuve Duchesne, 1768; reprinted by Georg Olms, Hildesheim, 1969).

  14. 16

    Anton Reicha, Traité de haute composition musicale ou Cours de composition musicale, Vol. 2 (Paris: Richault, 1826), p. 299.

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