Beethoven's "The Tempest" Sonata

It is widely recognizable that “Beethoven is the towering figure in the history of the sonata” (Miles Hoffman), and, in my opinion, his piano sonata No. 17 in D minor, op. 31, No. 2 (hereinafter defined as the Tempest Sonata), composed in 1802, can be considered the “towering” work in the history of the sonata form.  This unique and ingenious creation also indicates the beginning of the so called “middle period” of Beethoven’s life, which lasted until about 1813.  During this period, “Beethoven… attained the highest order of productivity and creativity” (Solomon).  This period is usually called a “heroic” decade, since the creation of the most significant works in this period was influenced by the Napoleonic wars and reflected the composer’s state of mind which was affected by an invasion of some European countries including Austria (Vienna was invaded in 1809) by the French army.  Such magnificent works as the “Eroica” Symphony (No. 3), the Fifth Symphony, the opera “Fidelio”, the Third and Fifth piano concertos, the Music to Goethe’s “Egmont”, the piano sonatas “Waldstein” (No. 21) and “Appassionata” (No. 23), the “Kreutzer” sonata for violin No. 9, and many others were composed during this period.  Most of Beethoven’s innovations in various forms and genres (and especially in the sonata form) also took place during this period.

Some principles and techniques of the innovative motivic development first used in the Tempest Sonata were later applied to the other works of this period.  (For example, it would be quite interesting to compare two sonata forms—the first movement of the Tempest Sonata and the first movement of the “Appassionata” written two years later, in 1804.)

The appellation “Tempest” comes from a report by Beethoven’s secretary Anton Schindler, who, having asked Beethoven for the “key” to both the “Tempest” and the “Appassionata”, received the reply, “Read Shakespeare’s “Tempest”.

The major innovations in the first movement of the Tempest Sonata can be presented as follows:

  1. Employing a “peculiar type of motivic development (Timothy Jones).  Please note that the term “motivic development” itself shows a major distinction from previous works in sonata form (composed in the high-Classic era by Haydn, Mozart and early Beethoven), which were based on thematic development.  Motivic development is the most peculiar characteristic of the new Beethoven's style, and the analyzed work is a perfect example of that characteristic.

    The principal theme of the first movement consists of three contrasting motives, which are deployed one after another in the first six measures of the movement.  The first motive (Largo) is formed by an arpeggiated dominant six chord (D6) (hereinafter defined as the arpeggio).  The second motive (Allegro) is formed through a sequence of four suspensions (hereinafter defined as the lamentation).  The third motive (Adagio) is a melismatic phrase (hereinafter defined as the turn) which forms an authentic half cadence (A Major triad) with an anticipation of A (dominant). “The summation of these three motives forms the thematic pattern of the whole sonata” (Rudolph Reti).  See Example 1.

  2. Deploying the “unstoppable transformation process (Timothy Jones) based on three major motives. For instance, the arpeggio, first exposed as a slow and soft broken chord, is later transformed to take on the aggressive belligerence of a battle in the transition section (hereinafter defined as the battle episode).  The second and the third motives (the lamentation and the turn) are significantly transformed as well.  It is important to note that the transformation process reveals the similarity between the lamentation and the turn (which both create a major contrast to the arpeggio). Both motives are based on a stepwise motion.  Both, being “weak” and “pathetic” at the beginning, gradually become more and more active and passionate. The turn is transformed into the spinning “storming” motion in the secondary theme and becomes a melodic implementation of a Neapolitan chord consisting of all chromatic half tones (first closing theme).  See Examples 3 and 4.

  3. Beethoven revolutionarily modifies the sonata form, transforming it into a multi-stage drama through the innovative motivic development indicated above and, as a result, through ambiguity of formal functions of almost all the sections of the sonata form.  “The sonata cycles of Mozart and Haydn were musical analogues of the comedy of manners. Beethoven was the first who fully merged the tempestuous, conflict-ridden heroic style with the sonata principles.” (Salomon)

Example 1. Three basic motives of the exposition.

Three basic motives of the exposition Arpeggio Lamentation Turn

As was mentioned before, the major contrast (conflict) in this movement is between the first and second motives.  As can be seen in Example 1, the first and second motives areseparated by a long fermata (measure 2, between “Largo” and “Allegro”); the second and third motives are actually combined together in one four-measure phrase (“Allegro” and “Adagio”).  Thus, a “question-answer” structure is created (the arpeggio is a question, the lamentation and the turn are the answer).  The second phrase of the principal theme restates the conflict between the arpeggio and the lamentation (the turn is not restated though!)  But it is not just a restatement - lamentation immediately turns into an “aggressive” ascending development involving large leaps supported by the dissonant harmonic functions (diatonic and chromatic diminished seventh chords), climaxing in measure 13 (cadential six-four chord) and then falling down from F6 to A3 within the next four measures and whirling around the dominant pedal point.  This ultimately means that the conflict first exposed in the opening phrase is turning now into a battle. Thus, the principal theme of the exposition is not just the exposition of three basic motives (as would be expected in standard classical sonata form), but the exposition of the first stage of a drama, which will be continued in the following sections of the exposition.  In terms of structure, the principal theme also breaks all the “classical” laws.  For instance, the first complete cadence comes in measure 21, andthis is the first appearance of a stable tonic function in this movement.

By employing the “off-tonic” and “off-cadence” tendencies, Beethoven avoids any tonal, structural, and cadential standards and regularities in this sonata – this creates not only the sense of an “unstoppable transformation process,” but also the sense of ambiguity of formal functions in almost every section of this sonata form.

For instance, music critics still debate whether the beginning thematic material in this movement is introductory or the principal theme.  Some of the critics suggested that the opening section bear the character of an improvisational introduction. As was shown above, the first 20 measures do comprise the principal theme of the exposition (since this is the only section that does expose the three basic motives of this sonata).  It is not surprising, however, that the following section (transition, measure 21) rouses numerous debates – with the exception of the modulation process, it shows no sign of being a transition.  It appears to be more stable than the previous section (starting with the long-awaited tonic). Indeed, this section actually presents two basic motives (the arpeggio and  the turn) in a face-to-face conflict for the first time – the typical characteristic of a development section in sonata form. See Example 2.  Thus, the transition is actually the next stage of the drama.

Example 2. Elements of the “transition” – “development”.

Elements of the “transition” – “development” Turn Arpeggio

The developing function of this section can be demonstrated by repeating it again in the actual development (the only difference between the two episodes is their key). The dualistic nature of the formal function in this section (“transition” – “development”) follows a pattern, which was first employed in the opening section (“introduction” – “principal theme”) and, as will be further shown, can be identified in almost all the following sections of this sonata form.

The secondary theme comes in measure 41.  But, unlike the “classic” secondary themes, it does not bring any rest and does not contrast with the first theme (there is no need for the contrasting theme here, since the major contrast (and conflict) in this sonata form is between the arpeggio and the lamentation, on one side, and the arpeggio and the turn, on the other side.)  Thus, the secondary theme is just a new stage of the ongoing drama. There is no cadential closure or any other kind of a rhythmic or melodic indication of the break between the previous and the new section of this form-as-process (Carl Dahlhaus).  The secondary theme is made up of the combination of transformed basic elements (all three of them, but with a prevalence of the turn in bass and the lamentation in soprano).  See Example 3.  This theme of the exposition is the least contrasting (since the turn and the lamentation do not really contrast with each other).  Similar to previous sections, this theme has its own “local” climactic area in measures 50 – 52 (reaches the same F6 note as in the first section).  Again, this section is functionally dualistic, being based on a dominant pedal point (e in the bass – V/V), thus carrying some features of a closing theme (“secondary” – “closing”).

Example 3. Elements of the secondary theme.

Elements of the secondary theme Lamentation

The actual closing section starts in measure 55 and introduces some contrasting elements.  First, the rhythmic changes take place (from an unstoppable movement of eighths to quarter notes), creating a slight slowing-down effect. However, the sense of relaxation is immediately overpowered by harmonic tension (Neapolitan chord) and syncopation (created by an accented and prolonged Neapolitan chord).  In the first closing theme, we can clearly identify the turn (doubled in soprano and tenor), and in measure 59, it turns into an inverted (rising) the lamentation.  See Example 4.

Example 4. The first theme of the closing section.

The first theme of the closing section Lamentation (inverted)

Then the turn appears in bass and, after being repeated three times (six measures), is followed by a 6-measure bridge (with an easily identified lamentation in the upper voices), which in measure 75 turns into the second closing theme with a dominant pedal point in bass, the lamentation of thirds in tenor, and the arpeggio in soprano.  As can be seen from Example 5, the contrapuntal imitation is masterfully employed here in the two-layer texture: soprano and bass (based on the transformed arpeggio and lamentation, accordingly) exchange their roles.

Example 5. The second theme of the closing section.

The second theme of the closing section Arpeggio Lamentation Arpeggio Lamentation

Based on this analysis, one can conclude that the closing section evidently holds some “development” functions as wellit is a very important stage of the drama exposed in this movement.

The exposition (the largest part of the form) ends with the two breve notes (a and g), and smoothly (again, without stopping) flows into the actual development section of this sonata form (measure 93).

The actual development is mostly restating the major stages of the drama shown in the exposition (which is unique for sonata-allegro forms).  It is unusually short, consisting of the three small sections.  The first section carries some “transition” functions (a modulating bridge that clearly restates the arpeggio from the opening section of the movement).  There are three arpeggiated chords – the D Major six chord, the diminished seventh chord and the F# Major six-four chord.  The modulation into a distant key is accomplished through the secondary diminished seventh chord (VII7/V) being resolved into F#I64.   The second section (measure 99) is a restatement of the “battle episode” (“transition”) of the exposition, but now is in the key of F# minor (mediant chromatic relationship to the home key). This highly conflicting and dramatic episode now modulates back into the home key (retransition).  The following short section is based on the turn with syncopation created by the sforzando.  It obviously belongs to the group of themes in this movement, which can be identified as a “storming group” and can be easily recognized by the employment of a dominant pedal point and the relentless whirling motion around this pedal point. (Because of this unique usage of a pedal point, all themes of the “storming group” carry some closing formal function - in this case, it is the closing of a development section). This section stops in measure 133 on the dominant (not on the tonic again!). The actual pedal point and a stepwise melody in octaves gradually lead to the recapitulation section (Largo, measure 143) – the last stage of the ongoing drama.

Therecapitulation in this movement most poignantly demonstrates the uniqueness of this modified sonata form.  This section, again, follows a pattern of dualistic formal functions (a combination of “development” and “recapitulation”).  The first theme of the recapitulation is another example of the improvisational nature of many episodes in this sonata form. Beethoven inserts here two highly expressive recitatives, which transform and replace the lamentation as it was shown in the primary theme of the exposition. The second recitative serves as a tonal and melodic transition to the new episode in measure 159, which serves, in turn, as a transition to the secondary theme (defined here as the transition episode). The transition episode is fully based on the arpeggio and rhythmically (in its usage of different rhythmic groups) is of improvisational nature as well.  This episode also features the key of F# minor for the second time in this movement (the first time it was used in the development section in the “battle episode”) and clearly shows the connection between the two episodes (the arpeggio is a leading component in both).  The transition episode is comprised of three 4-measure phrases (12-measure structure!) – the second phrase is in the key of G minor (sequential modulation) and the third phrase is a modulating bridge (again through the diminished seventh chord) to the secondary theme. The transition episode replaces here the transition section (the battle episode) from the exposition.  (Absence of the battle episode in the recapitulation is quite self-explanatory, since it has been already exposed twice in the previous sections).  Thus, the formal functions of primary theme and transition are not really recapitulated, but are replaced with new inserts (recitatives and the transition episode).  In my interpretation, the recapitulation in measure 143 can be considered a “false” recapitulation.  Thus, the actual recapitulation of this movement starts in measure 171 with the restatement of the secondary and closing themes in the home key.

There is a short coda (measure 217), the role of which is a prolongation of the tonic function (as a compensation for the off-tonic development of the entire form), and a temporary relaxation before the coming stages of the ongoing drama (in Movements 2 and 3).  It is fully based on the transformed arpeggio and gradually “fades away.”

As a summary, the ambiguity of formal functions in this movement can be presented as follows:

  1. first section of the exposition (measures 1–20) - “introductory”, “primary theme” and “developing” (transforming “lamentation” element in the second phrase) functions.

  2. second section of the exposition (measures 21-40) - “transitional” (modulating) and “developing” (transforming major elements – “arpeggio” and “turn”) functions.

  3. third section of the exposition (measures 41-54) - “secondary theme”, “developing” (transforming major elements – mostly “lamentation” and “turn”) and “closing” (dominant pedal point) functions.

  4. fourth section of the exposition (measures 55-92) - “closing” (dominant pedal point) and “developing” (transforming major elements) functions.

  5. first section of the development (measures 93-98) – “transitional” (modulating from D Major to F# Major) and “introductory” (similar to the opening section) functions.

  6. second section of the development (measures 99-120) - “restating” (restates the “battle” episode from the exposition in another key), “transitional” (modulating back to home key) and “developing” functions (see No. 2 above).

  7. third section of the development (measures 121-142) – “developing” (transforming major elements – mostly “turn”) and “closing” (dominant pedal point) functions.

  8. First section of the recapitulation (measures 143-158) – “restating” (major elements), “exposing” (inserting new episodes), “transitional” (modulating to F sharp minor) and “developing” (transforming major elements) functions.

  9. Second section of the recapitulation (measures 159-170) – “developing” (transforming “arpeggio” into a new episode in F# minor) and “transitional” (modulating) functions.

  10. Third section of the recapitulation (measures 171-184) – “secondary theme” and “developing” functions (see No. 3 above).

  11. fourth section of the recapitulation (measures 185-217) – “closing” and “developing” functions (see No. 4 above).

Thus, the intensive transformation process makes the development a transcendental formal function in this movement, transforming it into a multi-stage drama (which eventually will be continued in the finale of this sonata).  The first movement of the Tempest Sonata is a perfect example of “form-as-process” (Janet Schmalfeldt) (widely presented in many other of Beethoven’s instrumental and symphonic works of the “middle period”), in which all sections are deployed as stages of dramatic development.

A synopsis of the most important style components (harmony, rhythm, structure, texture, dynamics) which together contribute to the uniqueness of this sonata form can be presented as follows:

  1. The dominant function eventually takes precedence over the tonic function (thus creating the dualism of the major harmonic functions as well).  This can explain the usage (in two very important episodes) of the key of F-sharp Minor, which is distant from the home key of D minor (mediant chromatic relationship), but is a relative key to A Major (harmonic dominant).

  2. The dominant pedal point (mostly based on the transformed “turn”), normally used in the closing sections (codas) for the prolongation of the dominant function, is uniquely used for creating the spinning, “tempestuous” effect in all the “storming group themes” (the secondary theme and first closing theme of the exposition and recapitulation, the “closing” section of the development).

  3. The Neapolitan chord (Beethoven’s favorite in minor keys) in the first closing theme is masterfully used as the “stopping” factor (enhanced by syncopation and the transformed “turn” element) – the obstacle on the path of the “unstoppable” development process.

  4. The diminished seventh chord and its inversions are frequently used as a bridge in the modulation process (for instance, the first section of the development).

  5. Non-harmonic tones are effectively used to enhance motivic expressiveness (suspensions in “lamentation”, anticipation of A in the first exposure of the “turn”, neighboring tones in the transformed “turn”, etc.)

  6. Usage of different rhythmic groups for creating the “storming” effect: triplets in the “battle” episodes (in exposition and development), triplets and sixtuples in the “transitional” F# minor episode in the recapitulation, etc.

  7. Syncopation is widely used to intensify the tension of the dramatic development (especially in the “closing” sections, thus enhancing their “developing” functions – a very unique characteristic of these sections compared to “classical” sonata forms.)

  8. Usage of 6-12 measure structures instead of the typical “classic” “question-answer” 4-8-measure periods (in most cases, a 4-measure phrase is repeated 3 times instead of the standard 2, creating 12-measure periods).

  9. Contrapuntal technique is masterfully used for extending the texture density and ranges, as well as intensifying the dynamics and motivic development (the “battle” episode, the second “closing” theme). Also, phrase reduction is used to create a “stretto” effect (analogous to the polyphonic “stretto”).  See the “battle” episode (4-measure phrases are gradually reduced to 2-measure phrases, creating a sense of acceleration).

  10. Dynamics are a very important “dramatic” component in this work.  Beethoven uses both “classical” contrasting, “subito-like” dynamics for creating a deeper contrast between the major contradicting motives, and “building-up” dynamics for climactic areas which are strong but short (there are several “local” climactic areas in this movement, rather than one major climax). The short coda is a soft” climax in this piece, presenting a long-awaited tonic function which gradually “fades away.”

The resulting summary of the most unique characteristics of the first movement of the Beethoven’s “Tempest” sonata can be presented as follows:

  1. Peculiar type of motivic development – three major motives govern the entire form

  2. Unstoppable transformation process based on three major motives (form-as-process)

  3. Transformation of the sonata form into a multi-stage drama due to the unstoppable transformation process, which makes development a transcendental formal function, thus creating an ambiguity of formal functions in almost all the sections of the sonata form.

  4. Improvisational nature of many sections of the sonata form, which is obviously derived from the existing genre of fantasia (sonatas of C.P.E. Bach, fantasias and sonatas-fantasias of Mozart, etc.).  Improvisational opening of each of the main sections of this sonata form clearly foreshadows the upcoming “romantic” genre of ballade (later developed and widely employed by Chopin, Grieg, Brahms, etc.). 

  5. Modification of the main sections of the sonata form is due to:

    1. unstoppable dramatic development: “false” development in the “transition” section of the exposition (first “battle episode”); the “actual” development is mostly just restating the exposition (the second “battle episode”).

    2. intensive use of improvisational episodes (“false” introduction and “false” recapitulation).

  6. The most uniquely used style components are:

    1. dominant harmonic function - eventually takes precedence over tonic function (dualism of harmonic functions); “off-tonic” tendency;

    2. dominant pedal point (normally used for a prolongation of the dominant function) - based on the transformed melismatic “turn” motive, is used for creating “tempestuous,” “storming” effect;

    3. 6 - 12 measure structures (12-measure periods) instead of a “classic” 4 - 8 measure structure; “off-cadence” tendency;

    4. “local” and short climactic areas rather than “general” and long, which is very unique for Beethoven’s sonata allegro forms (the obvious result of  modification of formal functions – the development, the standard place for a major climax in Beethoven’s sonata forms, is being distributed equally between all sections).


September 11th, 2010

Clare Ehlers:

I was so thrilled when I found you music criticism on Beethoven's "Tempest" sonata.  I am a senior piano major at Clarke College, of Dubuque Iowa and am currently working on my senior paper.  I was hoping that I could possibly use your criticism as a resource in my research project.  I want to thank you again for your contribution and excellent criticism.

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