♫ So that’s the overview of op. 31 no. 3; now let’s begin at the beginning, with the first movement. What I said about the piece as a whole probably applies most to the first movement – its character is the most subtle and changeable, and it is also the most subtly subversive. And in fact, this begins at the very beginning, as the piece begins not with any sort of declarative statement, but with a question. ♫ I’ve always found this opening very Schumannesque – I’ve talked about how falling intervals are suggestive of yearning, and that’s very true of this one, and Schumann is the king of the yearners. But it’s more specific than that: the falling 5th is THE interval for Schumann – he associated it with his wife, Clara, and used it in virtually every work, usually in the most personal, poignant, vulnerable moments. The most obvious example of this kinship is with the string quartet in A Major, Op. 41 no. 3, which opens with the same interval, in the context of the same chord, just in a different key. ♫ In the case of the Schumann (also in the Beethoven, just to a lesser extent), the interval, and that chord, becomes the central idea of the whole movement. So, in highlighting this link to Schumann, I’ve buried the lede a bit: the interval is beautiful, and becomes an important feature of the piece, and influenced a future master, but what is REALLY surprising about this opening is the chord: not a tonic, in fact far from it, a II7 chord in first inversion. ♫ I’m sorry to have gotten into these weeds – don’t worry about the terminology. What this means, practically, is that the piece begins away from home, with a question. This is really a bold move, and one that falls in the category of bold moves that are hard to recognize as bold moves in the context of Schoenberg and Ligeti and Xenakis. But let’s put it back into the context of the Beethoven sonatas: this is actually the 20th sonata that he wrote. 17 of the preceding ones – not quite the first 17, but close – begin with tonic chords, that are clear announcements of their keys. ♫ The first sonata that in any way diverges from this is the Pastorale, Op. 28. ♫ A real departure, with the piece seeming to begin in midsentence, from many points of view. But at least the bass tells us – over and over and over again – that we are in D Major. ♫ Then you have the Tempest sonata, which begins with that recitative outlining the dominant. ♫ VERY bold. But still a dominant – the chord that, as we’ve discussed time and again, is the main foil to the tonic. The only precedent for Op. 31 no. 3, for beginning a work this far away from home, is the 1st symphony, written just a year or so earlier. The piece is in C Major, but begins thus: ♫ A bold move, for sure – but to me, not ultimately as striking, or as deep as the sonata. It’s sort of a Haydnesque gambit – not a joke, exactly, but a way of getting the audience to sit up and listen in surprise – “What sort of a way to start a piece is that??” By the time the sonata op. 31 no. 3 rolls around, this mid-sentence opening is a much more fully-integrated part of the piece, and therefore a much more powerful idea. And really, it’s not just mid-sentence: it’s mid-paragraph. To expand the analogy of speech: think of a sonata as an essay or, if you prefer, a conversation. Tonics are “proper” introductions. ♫ ( “Hello, my name is Steven.”) This II7 chord? ♫ It’s like meeting someone for the first time, shaking their hand, and saying “what is the meaning of life?” So, what IS the meaning of life? Having begun from this place, how does Beethoven resolve things? Let’s now hear the first phrase in its entirety. ♫ And there, in bar eight, comes the “hello, my name is Steven” moment: the tonic. So, there are a number of important points to be made about this opening phrase. First of all, the rhythm that one finds in the third and fourth, and then again in the fifth and sixth, and then again, in the left hand, in the seventh and eighth bars ♫ duh-duh-duh-daaaaaaah: that, along with the interval of the falling fifth that opens the piece, is the central, unifying idea of the whole movement. It’s substantially slowed down, but this short-short-short-long is really no different from the opening of the fifth symphony – it is Beethoven’s absolute favorite rhythmic pattern, showing up in the Appassionata and in all kinds of other pieces. But perhaps more importantly, this opening phrase really exemplifies the subtle and difficult to pin down nature of this movement. Having begun with such a wistful, searching question, the next four bars ratchet up the intensity, as Beethoven looks for an answer. ♫ Still searching. And then, with a crescendo and ritardando – we’re still in the first phrase of the piece, and already losing our established tempo! – leading to a fermata. ♫ In the space of six bars, we’ve gone from shy and uncertain, ♫ to dark, with that diminished chord, ♫ to the verge of real triumph, as the cadential 6/4 seem sure to prepare, finally, the resolution, the answer. ♫ And we DO get the resolution, harmonically, but without a whiff of triumph. ♫ It’s as if Beethoven is disavowing the drama he created in the first phrase. Having asked a seemingly difficult question, and then wrestled with it, he says “what’s all the fuss about? It really isn’t all that complicated.” Perhaps this is another reason why I find this opening Schumannesque – it is mercurial, and Schumann is the king of the mercurial. At any rate, I’m sorry to have spoken at such length about just one bloody phrase – without having even played the exposition! – but it is a phrase that really does say an enormous amount about the complex, subtle, and varied emotional profile of the movement at large.