♫ Nothing in this slow movement earned that description – indulgent – more than the first theme itself. ♫ There is a wonderfully casual quality about this theme. That it is unhurried is not in itself unusual: Beethoven wrote piano sonatas with unhurried piano slow movements all the time, starting with the op. 2s, and all the way through op. 111. But in every other case, the slowness – the unhurried quality – comes from Beethoven asking questions, big questions, existential questions. Op. 2 no. 3. ♫ Op 7. ♫ The Waldstein. ♫ This slow movement theme is not like that – it proceeds slowly not because it has heavy thoughts to ponder, but because it is comfortable. And this theme is very reminiscent of bel canto opera in that it is designed to allow the “singer” to show off her vocal line. (Before showing off her dexterity, which is soon to come.) You may remember that we talked about Beethoven providing similar show-off opportunities in op. 10 no. 1, but this is really much more blatant. And what is really much more blatant in its evocation of Italian opera is the accompaniment. ♫ That would not be at all out of place in a Bellini opera. However beautiful this theme is – and it is beautiful – the style is so atypical of Beethoven, I detect a definite twinge of satire in it. But what REALLY has a twinge of satire – even mockery, is the embellishment. Normally in rondos – any rondo, even ones that aren’t especially operatic, or vocal – the principal theme undergoes a bit of light embellishment each time it comes. Often this embellishment gets just a little bit more involved, more florid, with each reappearance of the theme. We’ve seen this in op. 7’s rondo, and op. 22’s, and many others. An added turn here, a few sixteenths notes there, nothing dramatic. In Op. 31 no. 1, however, Beethoven goes from 0 to 60. After that first appearance of the theme, it gets instantly repeated, like this. ♫ I mean, this is really a bit preposterous. Beethoven transfers the theme to the left hand, turning a melody into a duet – already a big change, but fine. But those flourishes in the right hand? The first one of them ♫ has 46 notes in the space of one measure, not one of them serving any critical need whatsoever. I used to have a teacher who would tell me, whenever I did something that was a little self-indulgent or otherwise in questionable taste, that I sounded like “a bad Italian tenor.” These over the top, show-off flourishes are Beethoven in bad Italian tenor mode. So no matter how beautiful this opening theme is, and even if there is genuine feeling in it, Beethoven is simultaneously winking at the listener. “Get a load of this guy.” The B section (if that’s indeed what it is – again, this is not quite a pure rondo, and this part of the piece might more accurately be described as an episode within a much larger A section, rather than a freestanding B), anyway, this B section is quite different in character: it is neither especially parodic nor especially vocal – its counterpoint belongs more to the world of string quartet than to opera, it has much darker harmonic undertones, and it leaves behind that rather silly oom-pah-pah accompaniment of the opening. All of which is to say: it has a style and an intensity that is much more typical of Beethoven. ♫ If you were to hear the opening of this movement without any advance knowledge or context, you might struggle to correctly identify the composer; with this music, there could be no question. But as we move away from this B section and back to the music of the opening, we again get a vocal flourish – a kind of cadenza this time – that is florid in the extreme, almost comically so. ♫ So really, the “bad Italian tenor’ is never that far away in this movement. (Though in fairness, I suppose this is a bad Italian soprano, not a tenor.) Jokes aside, I do want to stress how atypical this style of writing is for Beethoven. I’ve been trying to think of another similar example of a cadenza in a sonata or chamber music work, and the next most florid one I can think of comes from the Quintet for piano and winds, op. 16. ♫ The decoration is much more modest than in the cadenza from Op. 31 no. 1’s slow movement – and there are still more extreme examples to come!