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L. Poundie Burstein
Interrelationships in Beethoven’s Second Symphony
various striking similarities between the movements of Beethoven's
Interrelationships in Beethoven’s Second Symphony
It has often been claimed that the movements of Beethoven’s Second Symphony portray a type a psychological journey: its movements do not merely follow one another, but rather are intimately bound together so as to seem to unfold a narrative. Much of the sense of unity in this symphony relates to an odd harmonic procedure that is found at the climax of each of its movements and which has important ramifications throughout.
The unusual harmonic device that plays such an important role appears during the approach to the recapitulations in the various movements. Typically, a recapitulation will be preceded by a grand cadence on a V chord, a chord which points back towards the main key. The V chord usually will be prolonged for a number of measures, so that a large proportion of the development will prepare harmonically for the return to the home tonality.
In some compositions, however, Beethoven plays a trick on us by pointing to the “wrong” key at the end of the development section. Such is the case in the Second Symphony. For instance, consider its first movement. Since this work is in D major, one would expect the development section to end with a semicadence on an A chord (the V of D). Instead, however, there is a huge semicadence on a C-sharp chord, the V of the distant key of F-sharp. Not until the last two bars of the development section does an A chord enter to jolt us back to the home key of D major.
The harmonic maneuvering here creates the unusual chromatic chord progression “VII#-V-I” (fig. 1). This progression is found at the point of recapitulation in only four other pieces Beethoven. Surprisingly, one of these is the last movement of the Second Symphony. That is, in all of Beethoven’s compositions, he uses this striking procedure only five times, and yet two of those times occur within the Second Symphony. This hardly seems coincidental. And not only is this striking procedure used in the first and last movements, but a VII#-V-I progression is also found immediately before the recapitulation of the second movement, and a related harmonic device is used at an analogous point of the third movement.
Furthermore, the interrelationships between the movements are not limited to the central climaxes, for the harmonic twist that occurs at these climactic moments interacts with other elements in the work. For example, in the first movement, the harmonic gesture at the climax of the development section is echoed at the climaxes of the exposition and the coda. Each of these climaxes involves a pronounced chromatic ascent from either B-sharp or C-natural. B-sharp and C-natural are, of course, enharmonic equivalents (that is, in equal temperament, B-sharp and C-natural are the same pitch). But whereas (in the key of D major) B-sharp normally pulls up and towards distant harmonic regions, C-natural normally pulls down, leading towards the local key of G (the key of IV). Significantly, however, in this movement a C-natural pushes up—contrary to its natural tendency—at the climaxes of both the exposition and the coda, thereby paralleling the upward motion from B-sharp at the climax of the development section.
The chromatic ascents at these climactic moments come as reversals of previous tonal gestures that emphasize downward-resolving C-naturals. In this regard, one might divide the exposition and development into three stages: (1) In the first stage, tonal disturbance is created by repeated emphases on C-naturals that resolve downward; (2) in the second stage, there is an increase in melodic stability that coincides with the entrance of a diatonic theme; (3) and in the third stage (at the climax), there is great tonal disruption as C-natural (or B-sharp) ascends to C-sharp.
Let’s consider this layout within the exposition. The first theme of the exposition begins with a distorted fanfare involving a strong emphasis on a D7 chord (in bars 42-43). This D7 chord features a chromatic disturbance in the form of a C-natural, which resolves downward as part of a V7/IV (fig. 2a). This is then followed by a straightforward statement of a D7 chord fanfare, which twice reaches a highpoint on an accented C-natural (fig. 2b). As before, the C-naturals of this D7 chord resolve downward, thereby following their natural tendency.
fig. 2: Second Symphony, first movement, exposition. FIRST STAGE: tonal disturbance involving downward-resolving C-natural (a) harmonic and rhythmic reduction of bars 34-57; (b) straightforward D7 chord fanfare, bars 47-53.
The presence of a V7/IV within a first theme is by no means unusual. Yet in this theme the V7/IV chord plays a far greater role than is normal, for it is asserted with an almost obsessive force. The great emphasis on C-natural here can be appreciated by comparing this passage with the theme as Beethoven first composed it in his sketches. Beethoven initially planned the theme to begin with an arpeggiation of a simple D major triad, without a C-natural (fig. 3). The emphasized C-naturals in the final version, therefore, were literally imposed on what was originally conceived as a diatonic arpeggiation.
fig. 3: First theme, according to Beethoven’s early sketches.
The next stage of the layout
begins with the entrance of the second theme (fig. 4). This new
theme is a type of variant of the first theme. The new theme has a
greater sense of stability, however, owing to its smoother rhythm,
higher register, more balanced phrase structure, and from its
abandoning of the chromatic chordal seventh that was so prominent
during the earlier theme.
fig. 4: SECOND STAGE: diatonic, stable second theme, bars 73-76.
The newfound sense of assurance is soon disrupted, as the second theme group reaches its climax in the third stage of the layout (in bars 102ff.). At this point, there is an extremely agitated, explicit allusion to both the rhythm and the pitches of the opening of the exposition (fig. 5a). As in the earlier D7 fanfare (see fig. 2b), the ascending motion here halts upon reaching C-natural. Portentously, however, the C-natural does not immediately resolve down, as it did in the first theme. Instead, there is first an implicit motion up from C-natural to C-sharp (fig. 5b). This foreshadows the B-sharp-to-C-sharp motion that will appear at the climax of the development section.
fig. 5: THIRD STAGE: agitated, upward moving C-natural at climax of second theme group (a) quotation, bars 99-108; (b) analytic sketch of voice leading, bars 98-112.
To review: in the first stage, the opening theme of the exposition reiterates a D7 chord fanfare that highlights a downward-resolving C-natural. In the second stage, stability increases with the entrance of the diatonic second theme. And in the third stage, the emotional climax of the exposition is reached with a tense return of the material from the first theme, in which C-natural contradicts its natural tendency by momentarily moving upwards.
This basic layout is repeated during the development section, although with much greater intensity. In the first stage, the development section greatly expands a D7 chord (fig. 6a; note how the modulation in bars 138-158 presents an enlarged motion from D to C-natural, the defining interval of the D7 chord fanfare). This passage concludes with a series of forthright statements of the D7 chord fanfare, now presented even more emphatically than in the exposition (fig. 6b). The C-natural of this fanfare resolves downwards, leading to the second stage, in which the sturdy second theme reappears in the key of G, a local key on the “flat” side of D major. This is soon counterbalanced in the third stage by the reappearance of C-natural’s enharmonic equivalent, B-sharp. This B-sharp leads to the climactic cadence (in bars 198ff.) on C-sharp, the V of F-sharp, a distant key on the “sharp” side of D major.
fig. 6: (a) Analytic sketch of voice leading in development section, bars 138-216; (b) D7 chord fanfare, bars 170-181 (compare with fig. 2b).
The recapitulation that follows, of course, more or less repeats the exposition, with the second group transposed to the tonic key. In the first theme of the recapitulation, the codetta of the recapitulation, and in the beginning of the coda, D7 chords returns prominently, each time highlighting a downward-resolving C-natural. At the climax of the coda, however, there is one final reversal of this, as the D7 fanfare reappears in a wildly distorted fashion in the bass (fig. 7). As with the previous climaxes in the exposition and development section, the C-natural in the coda’s climax moves against its natural tendency by pushing up towards C-sharp.
fig. 7: Climax of coda, bars 326-40.
Following this bold upward motion, the movement concludes with a final straightforward statement of the fanfare. Significantly, in this final statement the D chord is arpeggiated as a simple diatonic triad, without a C-natural (fig. 8). This diatonic arpeggiation sounds particularly triumphant, as though celebrating a victory over the chromatic C-natural that has asserted such strong disruption throughout the movement.
fig. 8: Final statement of the fanfare, without C-natural, bars 350-352 (compare to Example 2b).
I should emphasize that the dramatic motions that I have noted involving C-natural (and its enharmonic B-sharp) are not random, isolated events. They are highlighted in almost every section of the piece, especially at its crucial junctures. As part of the D7 chord, C-natural follows its natural tendency by resolving down throughout most the exposition, most of the development section, the first theme group and codetta of the recapitulation, and the beginning of the coda. At the climaxes of the exposition, development section, and coda, this tendency is reversed as C-natural (or its enharmonic B-sharp) moves upwards towards C-sharp. By defying the natural, descending tendencies of C-natural, these climactic ascents seem to involve an imposition of human will, as though portraying a struggle against fate. Of course, the sense of human struggle against fate is one that is prototypically associated with Beethoven. In this symphony, this sense derives not merely from the conventional heroic gestures found throughout, but also from the linking of these heroic gestures with the interrelated harmonic motions and conflicts that permeate the composition.
The same elements involved in the tonal struggles of the first movement return in the second movement. The second movement is a pastorale whose serenity initially seems to provide refuge from the turmoil of the previous movement. This serenity is not to last long, however, for the bucolic mood soon gives way to increasingly restless passages. Significantly, these restless passages heavily involve C-natural, the pitch that was engaged in so much of the turbulence in the first movement.
It is within the second movement’s development section that C-natural makes its first prominent appearance. Within this section, there are two semicadences in C major. The climax of the movement comes after the second of these semicadences, where the bass climbs up from G (the V of C) towards C-natural. This bass ascent does not stop upon reaching the C-natural, however, but rather continues up past C-natural to C-sharp and D. Remarkably, the bass C-sharp and D support a VII#-V-I progression in the local key of D major (fig. 9a). In other words, much as in the first movement, at the climax of the second movement there is a chromatic ascent from C-natural (= B-sharp) to C-sharp, leading to the unusual VII#-V-I progression in D major (fig. 9b).
fig. 9: (a) Second movement, climax (bars 147-54); (b) analytic sketches comparing bass lines of the climactic passages in the first and second movements.
The poetic effects of this progression in the two movements are quite different, however. In the first movement, the VII#-V-I progression stands precisely at the juncture of the development and recapitulation. Furthermore, it is punctuated by flourishes and arpeggios, so as to give it a heroic feel. In the second movement, on the other hand, the climactic VII#-V-I motion is couched within a larger progression, one that ends in a peacefully, with its energy gradually dissipating. It is as though the second movement demonstrates that the conflicts seen in the first movement are but one aspect of our world, as they are ultimately embraced within a larger, peaceful framework. This produces a sense of reconciliation, offering a gentler alternative to the treatment of the tonal conflicts seen in the opening movement.
The last two movements of the symphony also conspicuously confront elements similar to those found at the highpoints of the first two. Though the third movement does not directly involve the C-natural/C-sharp conflict or the VII#-V-I progression, the central part of its Trio section nevertheless bears a striking resemblance to the central climax of the opening movement. Immediately before the thematic return in the Trio—much as in the analogous part of the first movement—there is a sudden motion to the key of F-sharp minor. This is followed by a rapid decrescendo and then by a sudden forte statement of a V chord—again, much like in the first movement. In the third movement, of course, this passage is simpler and more lighthearted, as though parodying the monumental climax of the first movement.
By noting the use of parody here, I am not suggesting that the movement itself is trivial or buffoonish. Though in its lowest forms, parody might seem to rely simply on clownish antics, in its elevated manifestations—as in the Second Symphony—it can be quite sophisticated. In all parody, a comic effect is achieved by imitating something in an exaggerated and lighthearted fashion. The greater the degree of similarity between the thing that is parodying and the thing that is being parodied, the stronger will be the sense of parody. Yet there must also be a contrast between the integrity of the subject and that of the parody. The sense of parody increases in direct proportion to the degree of contrast between the seriousness of the subject and the lightheartedness of the thing that is parodying it. Through such means, the thing being parodied becomes less forbidding: what once seemed overwhelmingly powerful may be approached in a more ready manner after having been parodied.
The sense of parody may be found in even greater abundance within the finale. The tomfoolery here may be witnessed from the very opening gesture of the movement, which sounds somewhat like the braying of a donkey (fig. 10). Similar comic gestures such as frantic leaps, sudden starts and stops, and barnyard-like sounds continue throughout the movement.
fig. 10: Fourth movement, beginning, bars 1-2.
This happy exuberance does not merely contrast with the more dignified natures of the first two movements: it comes at their expense. In spite of its great difference in mood, the finale shares many elements with the opening movements of the symphony, especially the first one. The strongest correlation between the outer movements may be found in the development sections, which parallel each other closely (fig. 11).
fig. 11: Comparison of development sections from the first and last movements.
Note that the development section of the finale, like that of the opening movement, culminates on a VII# chord that forms part of a VII#-V-I progression. The treatment of this progression in the finale, of course, is much less serious than in the earlier movement. The furious passage that prolongs the VII# chord in the finale leads not to the entrance of a serious theme, but rather leads to the comic “braying” outburst from the opening of the movement. This humorous outburst ridicules not only the serious pretensions of the previous passage within the finale, but also those of the analogous passages from the earlier movements.
Throughout the remainder of the finale, serious passages continue to be suddenly deflated by lighthearted ones. Again, many of these relate to passages heard in the opening movements. An example of this may be found at the conclusion of the finale’s recapitulation. In the first movement, as you will recall, a series of D7 chord fanfares (along with their motions towards the key of G) were presented in a bold manner, as were the climactic ascents from C-natural to C-sharp. At the end of the finale’s recapitulation, on the other hand, a D7 fanfare (in bars 278ff.) soon degenerates into a silly, squawking arpeggio (fig. 12a), and the subsequent motion to and from G (bars 290ff.) is treated in a flippant manner, as is the accompanying ascent from C-natural to C-sharp (fig. 12b). As with many other such reminiscences within the finale, these lighthearted passages seem to mock the severe struggles seen within the first movement.
fig. 12: Fourth movement, parodies of the first movement (a) bars 282-88; (b) 290-93.
Perhaps the most farcical moment of the finale comes in the coda. Towards the end of the coda, the bass repeatedly ascends to a C-natural, in a manner reminiscent of the obstinate ascents to C-natural in first movement (fig. 13a). The seriousness here is soon undercut, however, by squeaks in the first violins, which in turn lead to a transposed variation of the opening gesture. Previously, the opening outburst of the finale had always outlined a V7 chord. In this transposed variant, however, it outlines a tonic triad, so that even the tonic chord ultimately is caught up in the opening gesture’s frenetic web (fig. 13b). Again, the contrast with the first movement is significant. As I have argued earlier, at the end of the opening movement, the transformation of the D7 motto into an arpeggio of a diatonic tonic triad was a moment of triumph (see fig. 7b). At the end of the finale, on the other hand, the transformation of the opening gesture into a tonic arpeggio comes as yet another instance of raucous fun.
fig. 13: Fourth movement, coda (a) bars 382-89; (b) bars 416-25.
To sum up: there is great similarity in the central climaxes of each of the movements in Beethoven’s Second Symphony, three of which involve the unusual VII#-V-I progression. Owing to the rarity of this progression, this similarity seems too striking to be merely coincidental. Furthermore, the harmonic gestures found at these climaxes interact with other elements throughout, so that—in spite of their difference in moods—the various movements are strongly interconnected.
This interconnection helps allow for the Symphony’s aforementioned portrayal of a psychological journey. In one sense, the movements follow a format that is typical for a symphony: its first movement is dignified and bold, the second is thoughtful, the third is cheery, and the finale is joyous. Yet largely owing to the strong relationships among the movements, one might well think of the symphony as a relating a type of narrative. Within this narrative, the heroic attitude of the first movement is transformed into a conciliatory stance within the second movement—only to be mocked by the twisted parodies of the final two movements. Certainly, the powerful expression of this narrative owes much to the intricate interrelationships that are so craftily established throughout the composition.