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 Harmony: functional and dysfunctional

 by Professor Wilfrid Mellers

 Part I: The Beethovenian Crisis (B)

This democratic humanization of music culminated in the work of Beethoven, who rendered harmony 'functional' in being human as well as musical. In the sonatas and symphonies of his middle years he made the fiercest assertion of dichotomy in European music; and his Third Symphony is justifiably termed 'Eroica' because in it his courage in confronting human contrariety is indeed heroic. This we may hear in the famous crux in the first movement's development section, wherein quasi-fugal unity cataclysmically erupts in cross-rhythmed dissonances of hitherto unparalleled ferocity.


Ludwig Van Beethoven

Eroica Symphony, 1st movt., G to I
Symphony no. 3, Eroica
1st movement (G - I)

In such passages Beethoven demonstrates, from within the Promethean Fire itself, that (in Kant's words) 'God's Kingdom is in ourselves'. After such an admission it was inevitable that Beethoven - and humankind - should seek release from the reign of will-directed functional harmony: an evolution that occurs during Beethoven's 'third period', and is consummately manifest in his last piano sonata, opus 111, in two movements, one based on C minor, the other mostly in C major.

The work begins with a slow introduction founded on classical baroque idiom, with 'horrendous' diminished sevenths and double-dotted rhythms enacting the clenched fist with which Beethoven confronted an inimical destiny:

Beethoven: Sonata op.111, opening (maestoso)

Beethoven: Sonata op.111, opening (maestoso)

This introduction explodes into a first movement allegro that fuses the contradictory principles of the duality of sonata and the unity of fugue, with a theme derived from the introduction, combining an upward-thrusting scale, a rising minor third, and a plunging diminished fourth: a theme that Beethoven associated with the mythical hero Atlas who, like himself, bore on his shoulders the burden of the world.

Allegro con brio ed appassionato

Beethoven: Piano Sonata op.111 - Allegro

The coda of this fugued sonata reconciles the opposing energies of its dynamic first and relatively lyrical second subjects, in the process metamorphosing C minor into C major: in which 'white' key Beethoven concludes his sonata with a variation-set which, despite its length, he terms an Arietta rather than aria, no doubt because it embodies a 'condition of complete simplicity, costing not less than everything'. The sublime theme of the variations, remotely derived from the first movement's tempest, eschews, in being 'varied', any element of sonata-conflict, for the variations are a continuous flowering of melody, reflecting not so much the 18th century notion of variation as the 16th century concept of 'divisions', whereby a tune is divided into ever-smaller note-values as the basic tempo is 'diminished' into its multiples. Only after this series of variations, moving ever faster in a kind of celestial boogie-woogie, is there a real shift from the home tonic in a modulatory retrospect that recalls, as from a vast distance, the turmoil of the first movement.

Adagio molto semplice e cantabile - Beethoven: Sonata op.111 - Arietta

Arietta variation

After that, the original pulse is re-established, with the arietta melody soaring on top, in its original form, but with the figuration so rapid that there is nothing left but trills - a musical synonym for 'the still point of the turning world'. Beethoven has dissolved 'functional' harmony into an aural metaphor for paradise; and although no other composer followed him on that perilous path, the Great Romantics - initially Schubert, Schumann, Chopin and Brahms - accepted with grace and gratitude the liberation he had offered from obsessive Will and harmonic functionality.

Copyright © 1999 Wilfrid Mellers

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