♫ Let’s launch in. Not to the exposition of op. 111’s first movement, but to its introduction, marked “Maestoso”, or “majestic” – op. 111 is one of a handful of Beethoven’s sonatas, the first being the Pathetique, to include an introduction that is slower than the main body of the movement. ♫ So, I deliberately played that without setting it up at all, because I hope to have conveyed how radical, how extreme that opening is: op. 111 is a piece of extremes, and a piece of extremes demands an extreme opening. The principal reason that this opening is extreme is that it really isn’t an opening at all, at least not in the way classical openings function. Nearly 200 years later, and more than 100 after the birth of atonality, an opening can be anything at all, really; in 1822, this was astonishing. So, why is it astonishing? What should it do that it fails to do? In the classical era, a piece begins by announcing itself – by telling you, the listener, what it is. It tells you what its tonality is, and usually, what its meter is. To put this opening in context, let’s listen to the beginnings of Beethoven’s two earlier sonatas in the same key of c minor. First, there is the sonata op. 10 no. 1. ♫ The very first thing that happens is this thunderbolt of unambiguous c minor. ♫ And within that first phrase, Beethoven has established the ¾ meter with equal certainty. ♫ Then there is the Pathetique, op. 13. ♫ Again: “c minor!”. The slowness of the music means that it takes a moment or two longer to know that there are 4 beats to a bar. But just as with op. 10 no. 1, this opening exists to say, emphatically, “I am in c minor!” Now listen again to that opening phrase of op. 111. ♫ That is profoundly unlike those earlier opening phrases. It leaves considerable ambiguity about the piece’s meter, but far more shockingly, it refuses to define, to “lay down” the tonality. There are certain precedents for this: the “Pastorale” sonata, op. 28 whose first full chord is most definitely not a D Major tonic one. ♫ Or the “Tempest” sonata, op. 31. No. 2, which begins with a slow recitative on the dominant, not the tonic, of its d minor. ♫ These examples both represented significant steps forward for Beethoven – or rather, steps away from the established notion of how sonata form worked and of how a piece began. But what he does in op. 111 goes way beyond either of those earlier works. (Much of this lecture, as you’ll soon see, will be about how this sonata sees Beethoven take some of his earlier innovations to their limit, or beyond their limit.) The radical aspect of this opening is not exactly that we don’t KNOW what the key is – it is possible to infer, reading between the lines – that we are in c minor. It is, rather, that the piece begins not just in mid-sentence, but with an intense emotional storm already in progress. Many terrible events have led us to this point; they just occurred before the piece began. It’s not that this sonata in c minor begins away from c minor – it’s that its c minor-ness is assumed, rather than announced, and that we proceed directly to this anguished diminished chord, ♫ which normally, we would need to work our way up to. There is, in fact, a c minor chord in this phrase, ♫ but it attracts no attention to itself, coming, as it does, in piano, on a weak beat, and as a step on the road to the next outburst. ♫ So, this sonata begins in a state of extreme harmonic unrest. Adding to this sense of unrest is the rhythm: in not just the opening phrase, but the majority of the entire introduction, the rhythmic stresses occur away from the downbeats. ♫ One, two, three. Just as I don’t think that the radical harmonic opening means we don’t understand that we are in c minor, I don’t think that the off-beat stresses mean we don’t understand that we are in 4/4 time: they just greatly increase the overall instability of the music. Let me play a little bit more, to drive this home. ♫ So, in this third phrase, the avoidance of downbeats, the emphasis on the second beat of the bar – because throughout this introduction, it really is mostly the second beats that get the displaced stress – that becomes more extreme. Because while in the first two phrases, the second beats, though accented and extended, are just reiterations of the same chord we find on the downbeat, ♫ in the third phrase, the second beat brings a new chord, a ferocious harmonic response. ♫ This devastating response launches an agonizingly long and deliberate harmonic sequence, with the bass constantly rising chromatically, and the second beats of each bar uncomfortably extended – everything about this passage conveys unease. ♫ And there, finally, we reach a G, ♫ the dominant of our alleged home key of c minor. Having been in a state of constant harmonic motion, Beethoven now digs in his heels: we sit on that dominant g for a very long time. That might sound like an indication of stability, but in fact, this landing on the dominant does nothing to ease the tension of this excruciatingly tense introduction. Remember, a dominant always wants – needs – to resolve to a tonic, so the longer we sit on it, the more tension accumulates. And that is even more the case on account of how the sonata started: given that we have NEVER had a true tonic, as the dominant G continues, we grow more desperate for an assertion of c minor. As if this weren’t enough, for the first several bars of this G pedal, the repetitions of the G butt up against notes – mostly, again, on offbeats, that create dissonances that can only be described as gnashing. A flat, f natural, f sharp – the friction of these notes is palpable against the Gs. ♫ The accents, and the gnashing dissonances eventually do go away, but the tension STILL does not abate: the G pedal proves remarkably persistent, dropping an octave and then increasing steadily but furiously in speed and volume, until we finally – finally!! – arrive at our c minor home. ♫ A happy home it is not. It tells you much of what you need to know about the nature of this movement that when we finally reach the c minor that Beethoven has withheld for so long, it is not a c minor chord, ♫ but just a lone, stark C. ♫ A terrible answer to the questions posed by the Maestoso introduction, this C, undecorated and uncompromising, will come to define the character of everything to follow.