After the grandiose and very openly brilliant movement in the C-major sonata comes a very, very different movement. In fact, just by playing the very first chord, the music signals a complete change:
Why is this such a strong change? Well, let’s look at tonality. Tonality is an incredible power at the composer’s disposal. It’s a quite unique thing in music compared to other arts, it’s something that can’t be translated or related to any other art form.
Out ears hears certain tonalities as close to each other, and others not. In a tonality, let’s say G Major, the G Major chord is, of course, the main chord, the one that defines the tonality itself. It’s called the tonic. However, it gets help to define the tonality by its closest “relatives” which are C Major ( four tones above G), D Major (five tones above G). They are called subdominant and dominant respectively.
There are also “relatives” in minor for G Major, mainly E minor and A minor. They would be called…actually, E minor is called the relative minor. How fitting.
These relations between keys are not made up rules, they follow numbers in the amount of vibrations of the string. We won’t get into that here, but we should remember that the medieval universities had arithmetic and music under the same “course” (the quadrivium): arithmetic being numbers, and music being numbers in time .
Anyway, here is an excellent show of main harmonies from Family Guy. Stewie is writing a song and he is “in my house” playing the tonic, “poke your head out the door” with the subdominant and “takes a walk outside” with the dominant, then some minor keys, where it’s more “complicated”. As always, Family Guy is outstanding.
Ok, lesson over. But see, now I can easily tell you that different movements in the same sonata would be in those keys, the “relatives”. Slow movement of the first sonata was in the same key but minor ( F minor), in the second sonata in D Major (the subdominant), but here, in a C Major sonata, Beethoven suddenly starts in…E Major! To quote Shrek, that is Far, Far Away.
Listen to this, first the end of the first movement, and then the start of the slow movement in that magic E Major. It completely transports us into the new world of the new movement:
(Unlike in the post on the first movement, this is not basement recordings anymore, this is from the future CD, yipii)
Believe me, if he would have started in G Major (which would be the dominant of C Major), the effect would not at all be the same.
This movement has a lot of theatrical drama. It starts like an aria, with those silences that Beethoven are so fond of. I love this beginning, playing it and listening to it. I think it’s one of the best beginnings Beethoven wrote for a slow movement: it’s an example of when he puts the listener into a “yoga-mode”, the music sets its own, slow tempo and our senses gets caught up in it. I really prefer to close my eyes listening to this, it seems like things around me are all of a sudden corrupting my listening…
But right after that, the music enters another character. The scenery changes, to something much more frightful and threatening. We are dealing with a quite unusual “construction” here, mainly because of two things: one, this is actually an accompaniment, but the accompaniment has such a strong character that it can stand on its own legs. Two, because the theme/melody is the four long tones in the left hand. This means that the bass line of an accompaniment is the most important thing here, in a way.
This is in E minor, as opposed to the beginning in E Major. Just like that, the yoga is over. We are now in a mood that makes us feel that something bad is about to happen. The use of a minor scale is so simple, but yet so effective. Somehow the Rolling Stones dark song Paint It Black comes to my mind. As you may know, it was used so perfectly in the masterpiece Full Metal Jacket:
The whole song is built on just the five tones in minor going up and down, it’s what we remember the most and without it there would not be much left.
Let’s look at another thing in Paint It Black. It starts with the theme played on guitar in pianissimo, and then comes the drums very strongly, as a chock (and it doesn’t matter if we know the drums will come, the logic still makes it a chock, although “known” chock):
Beethoven does just about he same thing. He plays a section that sounds somehow sweeter, and then chocks us with the bass-line theme played in fortissimo:
One last thing about this movement. In a comment on the post about the second movement of the op. 7 sonata Anu asks about the development of the piano as an instrument, and how much it affected Beethoven to not have the same piano as we have today. I wish you could come to the concert I will have in a couple of weeks at EMPAC (if you go to the website, make sure to take a look at the pictures of the building, quite amazing…), the 40 million dollar concert hall in Troy, NY. I will have both a Steinway D as well as a Viennese Hammarklavier from the 1790s ( yep, that’s when Beethoven wrote this sonata) on stage, and will use them both to show the differences.
But, to get to Anu’s question: it’s both yes and no, Beethoven probably saw the future possibilities of the modern piano, and didn’t restrict himself to just write for the piano he actually had at his disposal. In this respect he was, I dare to say, more radical in his piano writing than anyone except maybe for Franz Liszt. But nobody can possibly know ALL the things that will happen in the future to an instrument. So in Beethoven’s piano music, there is a constant mixture of things that might be some trouble to play because it’s written for another kind of instrument and things that works amazingly well on the modern piano (much better than on a Hammarklavier).
It is easy to think of Beethoven and the development of the piano as mostly that he could play louder and faster. But I think that the most important thing that happened to the piano during these times was that it attained the ability to sing. The tones became much more sustained, so now the composers found themselves being able to imitate the human voice on a piano.
Listen to this part, right after the threatening bass-line, there is an answer (and yes, it feels like opera again…) in the upper register. It sounds like a human voice that comforts us or something like it:
Beethoven is enjoying the growing possibilities on the piano, and we enjoy listening to it. At least I do…this actually sounds really marvelous on a modern Steinway, and it is an example of how Beethoven instinctively looked into the future of how pianos would sound like.
Towards the end he returns to the upper, soprano-like register:
Quite beautiful, no? It feels like angels talking to us.
In fact, our ears react very strongly to registers, high or low, in music. It defines music more than we think. And to connect on the discussion on castrati in the comments on the second movement of the op. 7 sonata, we still love to listen to men singing with unnaturally high voices, don’t we…