Drama is one of Beethoven’s defining characteristics, and one of the first to suggest itself when we think of the composer’s works. Naturally, the word “drama” is rather generic, and in the case of Beethoven, this characteristic shows itself in many different ways. Some of Beethoven’s drama is humorous, other instances are poignant. Beethoven’s drama also varies greatly from genre to genre: the drama of his string quartets is entirely different from that of his orchestral works, for example. However, some qualities of Beethoven’s drama are common to all genres he wrote in. Enumerating the qualities of a concept so ineffable yet palpable runs the risk of over-simplifying it. Nevertheless, some of the most recognizable dramatic qualities of Beethoven are rapid changes in dynamics and rhythmic irregularities. Throughout Beethoven’s various creative periods, the dramatic element underwent a number of transformations. In my opinion, the later works contain a more forthright and “raw” sense of drama than the earlier works do, where the drama is often somewhat more “refined.”
One quality that isn’t often heard in the midst of this drama, especially in the later works, is poetic meter. Here I must make a distinction between the use of the word “poetic” to refer to profound ideas in a graceful and beautiful manner, and its use to describe strophic rhythm. The former definition is of course a defining quality of Beethoven, the latter not as much. We associate strophic meter a lot more with Schubert, whose “core genre,” unlike that of Beethoven, was Lieder. Yet there is one later sonata that Beethoven wrote almost entirely in strophic meter. It is the two-movement sonata in E minor, Op. 90, which is often described as “Schubertian.” Unlike other sonatas, where strophic meter can be heard in a particular movement, in the E minor sonata, it is heard throughout both movements. There lies the uniqueness of the sonata, not in its melodic qualities. The resplendent and self-sufficient melodies can be heard in all Beethoven sonatas, from the earliest to the latest, so this is not a unique characteristic, but almost always, we hear rhythmic and metric irregularities either in addition to the melodies or in the melodies themselves. But in this sonata, it seems as though the composer “let go” of this tension-creating aspect and allowed the rhythm to flow on its own, without being diverted or subverted.
The poetic meter is what binds the two movements of the sonata together. The two movements contradict each other in many ways: the first is in minor whereas the second is in major; the first movement is argumentative and confrontational, while the second is conciliatory and lyrical. In both movements, especially in the first, we hear Beethoven’s typical and defining drama. But also in both movements, Beethoven tells the musical story while adhering to the strict meter. Earlier, I mentioned how such rhythmic writing is seldom heard in his later works. Therefore, I feel that in this sonata, Beethoven revisits his earlier works, many of which he disavowed by the time he wrote it in 1814, from a distance.