The Opening Theme of Beethoven's "Ghost" Trio:
A Discourse in Semiotic Method


Robert Hatten

Penn State University






The Piano Trio in D Major, opus 70, nº1, was composed in 1809. Its minor-mode slow movement, Largo assai ed espressive, is filled with such chromaticism and tremolos that Czerny (1970: 97) associated it with the scene from Shakespeare where Hamlet encounters the ghost of his father. William Kinderman (1995: 134) notes that the uncanny attribution is literally warranted, but the connection is not with Hamlet but with Macbeth. In 1808 Beethoven was sketching ideas for an opera based on a Macbeth libretto by Heinrich von Collin, and entries for the abandoned opera project are found interspersed with ideas for the slow movement of the trio. If a semiotic approach to musical meaning depended on such programmatic suggestions, I might well have chosen the slow movement for a demonstration of semiotic method. But it is to the decidedly less gloomy first movement that I wish to direct attention, specifically to the opening theme complex. I plan to demonstrate how we can come to a deeper understanding of the expressive meaning of this opening by pursuing evidence from a variety of perspectives, and that this process, both hermeneutic and structuralist, will help us understand not only what, but how the music means. In the course of my presentation, I hope to demonstrate the breadth of a semiotic approach properly conceived -- not as an alternative to other forms of analysis, but as a means of interpreting the kinds of evidence that they provide, and perhaps finding other kinds of evidence they might overlook.
A characterization of this theme complex, from the opening up to the counterstatement launching the transition at m. 21, might sound something like this:
"With an energetic burst akin to the opening of the Piano Sonata, opus 10, nº3, the unison opening motive, X, sequences upward before breaking off with a surprise shift to F-natural. Sustained in the cello like a written-out fermata, this F-natural is then supported by a consonant Bb in the piano, before moving to an F# above a cadential 6/4 and the elided beginning in the cello of a more lyrical first theme, Y."
At least, this is what one might observe from a rather traditional point of view, which I have expanded to embrace such expressive terms as "energetic" and "surprise." An even closer analysis, perhaps inspired by Schenkerian voice-leading insights, would recognize that the Bb-F consonant fifth implies an unstable German augmented-sixth, which resolves in contrary motion by half-steps to a cadential 6/4, and thus the whole opening is one briefly interrupted expansion of the tonic-to-dominant key-defining progression. Students of Leonard Meyer might note the delayed realization of the implied F#, or the thematic arrival in m. 7 is not congruent with the proper arrival of the tonic in the bass, which does not occur until m. 11. And devotees of Rudoph Réti might have noted the derivation of the cello melody, Y, from the opening X motive, as an augmented inversion.

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AS/SA Nº4, Article 2 : Page 1 / 10


© 1997 by AS/SA

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21.12.1997