Robert HATTEN: "The Opening Theme of Beethoven's 'Ghost' Trio" (5/10)


Finally, in Schubert's Piano Sonata in A Major, D. 959, the last statement of the rondo theme in the finale is broken by rhetorical pauses and a reinterpretation over a German augmented sixth (m. 342). But rather than resolve "properly" with an arrival 6/4, Schubert instead continues the theme where he left off, which happens to be on a 16/3 (m. 344). The effect is rhetorically and resolutionally that of the arrival 6/4, and the warmth of the return to an unambiguous A major is enhanced by the turn figure in the melody. What this example demonstrates is that rhetorical resolution can taken priority even over proper syntactical voice-leading resolution, a telling instance of style growth in Schubert, and more evidence for the importance of expressive as opposed to formalist motivations for meaning in music.
Returning to the "Ghost" trio, the further interpretation of the Y theme's arrival 6/4 as positive would also take into account the lyrical character of the cello line and the hint of pastoral in the parallel thirds of the piano accompaniment. These have their own familiar stylistic correlations, which contribute to the total effect. Another, more strategic mode of interpretion considers the thematic opposition between motives X and Y. Indeed, Beethoven sets up that opposition as a compositional premise to be worked out through the movement. For example, the transition section uses a rhythmically ironed-out diminution of the Y theme for its "liquidation" of the counterstatement, bringing Y in closer relation to the eighth-notes of X. The development section juxtaposes and mixes the two motives in contrapuntally complex arguments that also touch on the tonal implications of the Bb. And the recapitulation further juxtaposes the two themes, with the X motive in D minor interrupting the return of Y. We have no comparably significant motive for the second key group of this rather compact exposition, and the closing motives lead to a motivic melodic cadence that recalls the Y motive. Thus, the "discourse" of the movement, its enacted drama, concerns the relationship of the two motives introduced at the outset, as pursued in E. T. A. Hoffmann's analysis.
In terms of phrase construction, the X motive is introductory. While clearly grouping in two beat units, it is metrically ambiguous as to which beat is the downbeat. Furthermore, the sequencing of the motive evades clear periodicity (a stylistic expectation for thematic material); the rhythmic and modal interruption of X forces us to wait for Y in order for a Satz, or sentence, to begin. The periodic Satz from mm. 7-21 is nevertheless built mosaically out of the two-bar motive, compressed to one-bar sequential extensions, with a more brilliant, almost cadenza-like flourish in the piano to expand the cadence. Its structure is 4 + 11 bars, due to the additive (hence developmental) extensions. It is a single sentence in terms of overall harmonic progression, however, since the first four bars are dedicated to the arrival 6/4's becoming dominant and then stepping up to tonic.
Thus, both motives are parts of something larger to which they contribute; Y is not merely a resolution of the phrase-structural instabilities of X. I noted earlier that Y shares its contour with X. Beethoven brings about an integration of the dual perspectives of both X and Y, both contrapuntally (in the development) and with rhetorical juxtapositions (in the recapitulation. Where does this lead us? First, to the question of agency. Often a dramatic contrast at the opening of a movement is used dialectically (McClary 1986, Eckelmeyer 1986). With this movement I experience a single agency, and I think that the above analysis indicates why. Motives X and Y, while direct contrasts on the surface, are dual perspectives from a single vantage point, that of the implied agency of the work. Notice that what I mean by agency goes beyond the triple agency of three performers, or three contrapuntal lines, as in the familiar metaphor of a chamber work being a conversation among equals. Granted, this concept of singular agency embracing different instruments, voices, and thematic contrasts may appear a bit vague. Carolyn Abbate (1991) and more recently Scott Burnham (1995) have spoken in terms of "voice" or "presence." Burnham notes that in Beethoven's heroic period works (although he doesn't address the trios) we hear the agency of heroic struggle, and we tend to project ourselves as enactors of that struggle. But even within such a model, there would be cases when a sudden loud chord might suggest an external agency, threatening the "pilgrim's progress" of the central, or internal agency with which we might identify. I would argue that the sudden shift to minor in m. 5, suspended rhetorically in m. 6, is instead an internal shift, as the protagonist-agent is caught up short, pauses to ponder, and then is re-engaged in m. 7 with a transformed kind of energy that bespeaks not necessarily heroic effort, but assured insight.

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AS/SA Nº4, Article 2 : Page 5 / 10

© 1997 by AS/SA

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