Beethoven Dissected Part I

A short discussion on musical analysis and the third movement of Beethoven’s Op.130

BeetdisWhy do we bother analysing music? Isn’t it enough to simply play it in tune, with the right character and according to present taste? Or from the listener’s perspective, to listen and allow oneself to be carried away into a kind of meditative state of mind? Why do the analytical parts of our brains need to be activated at all, since music is about emotions, anyway?

It is hard to argue with the proposition that the main function of music is to convey feelings, but equally hard to deny that other ingredient that is present in all good music (to varying proportion); the one that speaks to our rational and logical side. With the greatest music, we can choose either to focus our searchlight of attention on the smallest of details, like a musical motif or a theme, and perhaps actively pay attention to its return or its development - or we can simply decide to turn that searchlight right off, and sit back and let the music affect only our subconscious. With music of the greatest stature whatever we decide to do, the experience is likely to be gratifying. And we are indeed probable to go between the two extremes continuously during a listening experience.

But with music that is complex enough, and if we do have pretensions to understand it and follow the narrative, it becomes more likely that we get lost in it if we are unable to have a basic understanding of the “musical dialect” of the composer in question: what means does he use to express himself? What is the basic outline of the composition in question? What norms is he challenging? And even if we do know the language of a composer well, someone like Beethoven is likely often to throw us when we hear some of his music for the first time just because of the fact that his dialect is constantly changing. He has an intense wish to be original, no less so within his own music.

When it comes to the musician’s function, his role is to illuminate what the audience should be able to feel and understand. This could mean clarifying the different characters in the music, adjusting the balance to underline how a theme travels between parts, or make it clear when one section starts and another finishes if it is called for. It might sound easy enough, but the challenge of identifying the characters, themes and sections in Beethoven can be considerable (and for a quartet, to agree on them…).

When you listen to a performance of a piece when all the necessary expression and clarity of form are present, a wonderful feeling can arise where that elusive balance between head and heart finds its perfect balance; all your brain is active, and what is emotion and what is rationality is no longer relevant. You are taken on a mental journey where the understanding heightens your emotional response. Everything shines.

I have written previously about how musicologists argue that Beethoven’s time was a dynamic period in which the previous emphasis in music on what had to be understood gave way to that which had to be felt, but this is of course a simplification. Few other composers have approached composing in an intellectual way to quite the same degree as Beethoven. Behind what might on the surface seem simple is, especially in his late music, a complex puzzle of motifs, harmony and voice leading. The means that he uses (primarily) to convey emotions get more and more advanced.

But is there a chance that we go too far in our analysis?

You could argue that there is a danger that we might lose sight of the most important, emotional aspects of music if we lose ourselves in the study of the intellectual. As we can see in the writings of certain experts, the more you learn about a subject, the more importance you tend to give it. And music-making sometimes runs the risk of becoming like the performance of an actor with perfect elocution and projection of his voice - but without the small inconsistencies and paradoxes that actually make him human.

There are instances when musicologists and musicians disagree about the music. Many writers on Beethoven’s music for example are dismissive in the most patronising fashion when writing about his Op. 18:4 in general, and the first movement in particular (perhaps a rare opportunity to be so). I adore playing that quartet, and it seems as if the audience likes listening to it, whereas when it comes to the first movement of the Op. 18:1, praised by musicologists for its motivic unity, I find it much more enigmatic and hard to bring off successfully.

The search for motifs in Beethoven can sometimes be inadvertently comical. I once heard a noted musician analyse the motifs of the first movement of Op. 132, and by the end he had identified so many intervals that had a motivic function that there was literally none left that didn’t have one. If all intervals have a motivic function, you could argue that the concept becomes otiose.

It is also interesting to note that many of the formal descriptions of musical structure were formulated quite late in history. The description of the Sonata form we know today was put in writing well into the 19th century, around the time of Beethoven’s death, and long after the death of Mozart and Haydn. Is it possible that we regard certain aspects of form as more absolute than the great composers ever did?

On the other hand, when sometimes you look closely enough at the music of Beethoven, it is as if he winks at you across the ages by revealing a little twist or a turn that can be hard to see at first, but is undeniably obvious once you have got it. You feel as though you have been let in on a secret.


In the next part I will look at the third movement of op.130 in more detail.

3 Responses to “Beethoven Dissected Part I”

  1. poulain says:

    I’m just back from the concert in Luxembourg (25-04-2014).
    “très forte émotion” for the 2nd mvt of the Beethoven quatuor n°8.
    A performance which touched me to tears.
    Same feeling for the end of the Sally Beamish string quartet n°3. When will you record the “scottish encores”?
    Then you again for this night..

  2. Mark Wilson says:

    Hello Martin, and greetings from Texas!

    I wanted to commend you for choosing the ideal Beethoven quartets to illustrate your point: 18/1 and 18/4. To me, the former sounds like the work of a composer who was trying too hard to get all the technicalities right. Every note is in its proper place, and everything is developed from every angle (maybe too much so in the first movement). But to me it’s the worst of Beethoven’s quartets to listen to, because it fails to move me.

    On the other hand, 18/4 sounds like the work of a composer who had something he wanted to communicate to his audience. It’s fresh, lyrical and even humorous (in the quirky 2nd movement). Is it as “integrated” or “strongly argued” as 18/1? I really don’t know and don’t care. It’s a joy to listen to, and that’s enough for me.

    Thanks again for a compelling blog!