Thesis, antithesis, synthesis in Beethoven’s Tempest sonata

In previous entries, I have touched upon the subject of cycles of multi-movement works published in the 18th and early 19th centuries having an overarching shape of sorts. As it was common to publish works in groups of three or six, the first work in the group was often the simplest, and the last the most ambitious. Beethoven did indeed publish many iconic works in batches of three or six—the Op. 18 quartets (six), the Razumovsky quartets, Op. 59 (three), the Op. 1 piano trios (three), and so on. Two of those batches are of particular interest to me, the Op. 30 piano and violin sonatas, and the Op. 31 piano sonatas. They also follow a certain trajectory, but in their case, it isn’t about simplicity or ambition. Rather, in the grouping of these works, Beethoven engages with much more concrete questions of character and emotion, and in the progression of these two sonata cycles, we see very similar “plots.”

Looking at the first sonatas of the two batches, the A major violin sonata, Op. 30/1, and the G major piano sonata, Op. 31/1, we hear Beethoven’s grazioso style—quintessentially humorous music, shifting between gentle and more “down-to-earth” humor, with Italianate slow movements that exhibit the composer’s deep knowledge of the bel canto style. The second sonatas of Opuses 30 and 31 (known as the Tempest) are both in minor keys, C minor and D minor, and they are typical of Beethoven’s “fire and brimstone” middle-period style. In a manner quite untypical of Beethoven, he becomes truly ominous, depriving us of the determined solace he so often finds in the most dire moments. Although both the Op. 30/3 and 31/3 sonatas are of a comic nature, here the paths somewhat diverge: the violin sonata is a lot less expansive and ambitious than the piano sonata, which challenges boundaries of form and harmony in many different ways. 

Amidst the turmoil and tempestuousness of the Tempest sonata, what fascinates me most about it is how simply it is conceived. Its absence of respite is flawlessly prepared by the relationship that the movements have to one another. 

The first movement depicts chaos and disorder: it begins with rapid changes of thematic material, dynamic, and tempo (Largo-Allegro). Its form is disrupted by unexpected diversions, including a return to the opening material of the Largo, which leads to an enharmonic shift to F-sharp minor (quite foreign to the tonic key of D minor). Hardly is a major harmony heard in this movement, adding to the sense of disorientation, confusion, and unrelentingness. Throughout, we hear how Beethoven’s fits of passion sometimes turn into outright belligerence. 

The first movement ends murkily and gloomily in the low register of the piano, which is where the second movement starts. However, the second movement (in B-flat major) is everything the first movement isn’t. The Apollonian sense of rectitude carries throughout the movement, in its dignified slow pace, even phrasing, and harmonic continuity. There is a tendency to think of Beethoven’s late period as being the most spiritual, because of the late string quartets and the Missa Solemnis, but this movement proves that the spiritual aspect of Beethoven was present long before (unlike say, Bartók, who came to writing Adagio religioso movements only at the end of his life). That isn’t to say that the second movement has no dramatic outbursts. At the end, unexpectedly, we hear a rapid scale followed by a succession of sforzando markings (a very similar moment occurs at the end of the slow movement of the C minor violin sonata, Op. 30/2). But rather than develop such a digression, Beethoven resolves it in the most calm and composed way, and brings the movement to a gracious and noble ending. 

What conclusion can a composer give to two movements so contrasting? Will the piece end with a statement of organization or chaos? Here comes the ultimately Beethovian idea of struggle. The movement essentially tries to be both: the even phrase structure, almost entirely made of four-bar phrases, along with the perpetual motion of 16th notes, alludes to order and direction; but conversely, the movement is harmonically quite unstable, beginning with an audible pedal point on the dominant, although the tonic is heard at the beginning. Even the more stable aspects of the movement are contradicted with fierce cross-rhythms in the second theme, which in turn are contradicted with a mollifying harmonic resolution. It is the ultimate self-contradicting movement. And as for the ending? Does chaos triumph over order, or vice versa? Not unlike Schubert’s Moments musicaux, which I discussed in the previous entry, the ending is full of ambiguity. After a cry of despair in the highest register of Beethoven’s piano, the movement winds down dynamically, not moving away from the tonic and its dominant, and suddenly fades away.  Thus, Beethoven presents the most intricate and complex emotional content in the most concise framework, that of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Or perhaps, given the conflicted character of the opening movement of this sonata—antithesis, thesis, and synthesis. 

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One thought on “Thesis, antithesis, synthesis in Beethoven’s Tempest sonata

  1. For me 1st is antithesis=“unsaved” , 2nd is thesis=“saved”, 3rd is remaining battle which goes away. I dunno if B was expressing that, but like art , that’s how the Listening was for me.
    Take good rest and thankyou for sharing so humbly. Ariel. I hope someday Lord willing to hear your own compositions or expressions.

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