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Beethoven and the prolonged theme for variation

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This past weekend I reflected on how, through the breadth of current opportunities for listening experiences, we have come to find familiarity in qualities of the music of Ludwig van Beethoven that tended to provoke, if not alienate, those first encountering it in his own time. In that article my focus was on the “late” quartets, with specific attention to the first of those quartets, Opus 127 in E-flat major, composed in 1825; but I observed that the three Opus 59 (“Middle Period”) quartets composed in 1806 for Count Andrey Kirilovich Razumovsky did not fare much better. I suspect that many listeners were having problems with Beethoven’s efforts to work with longer durations of time, in which case they had already started squirming during their first encounter with the opening movement of the 1805 Opus 55 symphony in E-flat major (“Eroica”).

Where Opus 127 was concerned, however, I suspect that the greatest challenge for both performers and listeners came with the almost vast temporal expanse of the theme that would serve as the basis for the variations in the second movement. This was not new ground for Beethoven, particularly when one considers the structure of the second movement of his final piano sonata, Opus 111 in C minor, composed in 1822. In both of these cases, Beethoven comes up with a theme that almost makes time stand still; and then, in that state of “suspended animation,” he proceeds to spin out variations on that “static moment.”

Yesterday afternoon, while attending one of the end-of-term String and Piano Chamber Music recitals at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, I realized that Beethoven had been cooking up this concept for longer than I had previously been aware. Perhaps the most familiar “seed” for it can be found in the Andante cantabile, ma però con moto movement of the Opus 97 (“Archduke”) piano trio in B-flat major, completed in 1811. This is the third movement, and its duration is on the scale of the two preceding movements combined. Indeed, the opening theme is so prolonged that the listeners in Beethoven’s time probably could not have imagined that variations were coming.

Beethoven was hardly the first composer to play with the time-consciousness of his listeners. Joseph Haydn did it often. However, he tended to work with wittier gestures involving false endings and the strategic use of full-stop silence. Beethoven, on the other hand, decided to escalate from the “sense of the moment” to the “sense of duration.” It is easy now to enumerate the composers who would later follow him down that same path. However, in the early nineteenth century such thoughts were as bold philosophically as they were when realized through Beethoven’s craft as a composer.

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