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Welcome to week 4 of Exploring the

Beethoven Piano Sonatas.
We're now past the halfway point of the
course, and today we'll be looking at the
sonatas written in 1809, which is,
accordingly, past
the midway point of his sonata-writing
I realize that it's not a great idea to
begin a lecture with a digression-I should at least first establish a topic
from which to digress, or
better yet not digress at all--but in this
case it really is unavoidable.
As I've said, having four lectures to
discuss the
32 Beethoven sonatas means making a lot of
tough choices.
And in skipping from the year 1801 to 1809
we are, sadly, skating over the heart
Beethoven's middle period.
If you accept this, again, questionable
notion of
three periods, then you could say the
lecture covered the very beginning of the
middle period,
whereas today we're covering its
tail-end, when its fundamental
characteristics begin to break down, and
begins audibly searching for a new way.
Skipping the works that come in between is
a pity, not only because
we're missing out on some great music--the
ubiquitous, and for good reason,
Waldstein and Appassionata sonatas,
the three great Opus 31 sonatas which
followed on the heels of Beethoven's "new
paths" remark,
and the wonderful, loopy Opus 54,
one of the most bizarre works Beethoven ever
But if we're talking purely about quality,
skipping really just
about any of the 32 is regrettable.
No, there is a specific reason that I'm sorry to miss this
and that is because there is one
really rather crucial
development in sonata form that begins to
take shape at this time.
Now, if you'll recall the central harmonic
relationship in the
sonata form, in the Classical era
altogether, is tonic
to dominant and then back to tonic.
This, until middle-period Beethoven, has
been a rule pretty much without exception.

Haydn will occasionally pull a surprise,

but it's
just that, a surprise, a joke based on the clarity of our expectations,
and he always ultimately makes his way up to the
just as he's supposed to.
And Mozart, for all of his imagination,
and all the emotional variety in his
music, he never
ever plays around with this rule.
But Beethoven never met a rule that he
didn't want to test.
And in the Sonata Opus 31, Number 1, he finally
makes a bold
move that he's been leading up to really
for most of his life.
He eliminates the dominant as the primary
foil for the tonic
and replaces it with the mediant.
Now to be clear, the mediant is the name
for the chord on the third scale degree.
So tonic,
Okay, this is a huge deal.
You can tell, even by virtue of the
"mediant" that the tonic-dominant
is the foundation of Western music.
The mediant is so named because it is
half-way between the two.
By the time Opus 31, Number 1 comes
along, the Classical period is nearly 50
years old,
and we have many hundreds of pieces which
not only follow but depend on this
tonic-to-dominant model.
It was already the most important harmonic
relationship in the Baroque era.
Now, I don't want to get too bogged down
with this,
but here is the opening of Opus 31,
Number 1.
Now, at the moment where we should
be heading towards the dominant, this
You can hear that this new tonality has
a completely different color from the opening
G major.
Even though the tonic and the dominant are
opposed in the sonata,
they are next door to one another in terms
of their harmonic color.
The mediant, though, is a far-off place.

Now it would not be fair to say that

Beethoven just replaces the dominant
with the mediant, because that wouldn't be
possible, the dominant being simply too
So, when the development is wrapping up we
get a long dominant and then finally, joy, the
You see? Dominant, tonic,
just as in any sonata.
V-I. And then there's this wonderful
moment of
confusion which Beethoven plays for laughs
in the recapitulation.
The second theme, the one that was in the
the first time around, should come in the
tonic now,
just as it should have come in the
dominant in the exposition.
Instead, because it was in the wrong key
the first time around, it
is more or less inevitably now in a second
wrong key, the submediant.
Now this is a problem.
We need to get back to the tonic somehow
if the piece is going to wrap up,
and it leads to a bit of Road Runnerstyle slapstick so that we finally get
back home.
But as you see, it takes some fancy
footwork for him to get there because he's
taken a critical, foundational
relationship and attempted to
replace it with a much more incidental
All of this is to say, the tonic- dominant tension is still there,
inevitably, because it exists in nature,
but it's no longer the main subject of the music.
It is difficult to convey just how significant this is in the
context of a piece like Opus 31, Number 1 that is so jolly and good-humored,
but really the weakening of that relationship is a first step toward
the fundamental weakening of the tonal system, which continued apace for
the next 100+ years until people like Debussy and Schoenberg, in their very diff
erent ways,
decided to begin experimenting with abandoning it altogether.
By then, chromaticism was like a rubber band, stretched to its breaking point.
Beethoven surely couldn't imagine where this would lead, but music
began winding its way down that road with him, in 1802.
This seismic event actually feels very
modest in Opus 31, Number 1,
in large part because, like most everything else in the work's
first movement,
the move is - to the mediant is, a kind of a joke.

The piece is really one of the greatest examples

of Beethoven's humor, which
comes in many forms here. I highly
recommend you listen to it.
But once Beethoven has tried this mediant
once, it just absolutely opens the floodgates.
He uses it or its close companion, the
submediant, again and again
as the main destination in the sonata movement:
the Waldstein sonata, the Archduke trio, the Hammerklavier
These are really just the most famous examples.
It's crazy--for decades and decades, it
seems impossible.
And then once he does it once, it becomes
almost the norm.
And, in each of these cases, unlike with
Opus 31, Number 1,
the substitution of the mediant
for the dominant is deadly serious.
It's not a shock effect, but simply
going where his ears and his interests
take him.
Because the fact is, long before Beethoven
to take this radical step, he had what we
might call a mediant fixation.
In fact, this has been in evidence in two
we've already discussed, though I haven't
identified it as such.
That wonderful slow movement of Opus 2, Number 3...
that's E major, the mediant of the piece's
main key, C major.
It doesn't represent a sea change, because
here it's its own movement.
He's allowed to go there, even if it's
And that amazing passage in the Pastoral
sonata that we discussed last week...
that pedal point is on an F sharp-again, the mediant of the home key, D
Clearly, there is something about the
color of the harmony that appealed to him.
As I was preparing this lecture, I had a
conversation with a musician friend who
suggested a notion that hadn't occurred to
and which I am really now obsessed with.
The idea is that, in traditional classical
harmony, Mozart above all, the tonic
the present; the dominant, the future, and

subdominant--that's the fourth scale

degree--the past.
It's a poetic notion, and I can see the
eyes of scholars
rolling as I speak, but to me it has a
certain logic.
It's natural that the dominant should
be the future, because
traditionally, it's where we are going to,
where we are headed.
And the subdominant--which in most of the
most commonly used keys
has an extra flat rather than sharp in it,
and therefore
an inherently mellower sound-- does feel
like the dominant's spiritual opposite.
It's no accident that when Mozart wants to
convey nostalgia in
slow movements, as he very often does,
he uses the subdominant.
If you want to explore this, the sonata
K. 330 and the
piano concerto K. 467 are excellent
examples, two out of literally hundreds.
This idea is viable because both of those
chords, the dominant and the
subdominant, are so close to the tonic, so
closely related to it.
They are easily defined in relation to the
tonic. It's really even their point of
This is not true of the mediant.
It's triad shares only one note in common
with the tonic...
and it is too far away from the tonic to
be known as its relative.
So if the dominant is, in fact, the
future, and the subdominant is the past,
the mediant represents uncharted territory,
the infinite, the universe-which, of course, is what Beethoven is
ultimately most interested in.
Let's take a short break for a review