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Paolo Rosato

Rhetorical "Intentio Operis" in the Piano Sonata Op. 2, No. 2 by Ludwig van Beethoven

Let us consider the exposition [measures 1-117] from the first movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata in A major Op. 2, No. 2 [Examples 1a, 1b, 1c], composed in 1795 and dedicated to Joseph Haydn. Those familiar with the classical sonata style might be amazed at the second theme in E minor: how many 18th Century sonata forms have an exposition with first and second theme based in a major and a minor key respectively?
Let us take a quick look at the neighborhood. In the first Sonata of Opus 2, in F minor, the second theme is -- as usual -- in A flat major, but the melodic material is composed of the notes of the dominant flat ninth chord (measures 21-25): the note characteristic of the major region -- that is C natural -- is heard only at the resolution to the first degree.
The third Sonata, in C major, has two secondary themes: in G minor the first, the second in G major.
Our Sonata takes an intermediate place: in fact, the exposition ends in E major, with a Codetta stabilizing the region of the Dominant.
Well, all three sonatas show a tendency to the "minorization" of the second theme. But a progressive process appears too, connected with a greater individuation of melodic achievement in the minor of second themes. In the first Sonata, the second theme evokes a minor mode. In the second Sonata, the minor theme aims to a major cadence directly flowing into the major Codetta. In the third Sonata, at last, the presence of a third theme in G major isolates the minor one as a concluded element.
At this most general level, musical signification seems to waver between "swerve" from conventionalized forms [a minor second theme in a major exposition] and "systematization" of this swerve [process of minorization within the whole Opus 2].

Table 1 shows a synthesis of melodic and harmonic courses of the first movement of Opus 2, No. 2: balancing relationships between larger harmonic and melodic spans throughout the movement come to evidence. Moreover, with respect to the tonal plan, we notice that each harmonic gap, leading to far regions, is counterbalanced by filling or other gaps in the opposite direction. This kind of general homeostasis in the macrostructure seems to regulate the harmonic processes of the piece. Unlike Beethoven's Opp. 53 and 101, no striking ambiguity comes immediately in sight, and the key of A major is clearly affirmed at the beginning of the movement.
The second theme rises out from this regular background. Melodically derived from distinctive units of the first theme [as shown in Table 2], it is harmonically characterized by steps of a third (E minor-G major-B flat major-D major -- an anomalous path at that age) and steps of a second (D major-E minor/major-F sharp minor-E minor/major). In Table 3, I present a synthesis of this harmonic course, strikingly resembling Wagner's Tristan.
The exceptional resolutions of the diminished seventh chords [at measures 61, 65 and 69] -- which allow the harmonic course to move to other regions are systematic and made grammatical by a conventionalized praxis.
At measures 68-69 melodic and harmonic breaks converge: the awaited chromatic pull of A to A flat is suppressed (measure 69), and G flat is replaced by F sharp (measure 68). This way, a link of an ascending fifth takes the place of a link of an ascending minor third (see line 5)!
In line 2, I propose a reconstruction of the model process of an ascending minor third: this harmonic path enharmonically aims to the first degree of E major. If we observe the real process within the piece (line 1), we can find a perfect major chord paradigmatically corresponding to that one of line 2 (measure 72), but which is not the ending tonic yet. The swerve from the model needs the adjunction of a harmonic sequence -- the new progression D major-E minor/major-F sharp minor -- , and the suppression of the first part of melodic units SU14, 15 and 16 (Example 1b, measures 70-76).
This new harmonic progression starts from the first degree of D major instead of the first degree of D flat major, as you can see by comparing lines 1 and 2. But more interesting is to notice again a break at measures 74-75, where the ascending chromatic step in the lower notes is missing, as you can see by comparing the real course in line 1 with the virtual model in line 4.
The first swerve, at measure 68-69, causes a semitonic ascending shift of the musical material; the second swerve, at measures 74-75, provokes a semitonic descending shift, which restores the initial balance. Notice that each model is swerved at its second repetition, and that the anomalous process of ascending thirds is replaced with the more regular process of steps of a second. At this more particular level, musical signification comes out not only by using systematic swerves and by swerving from conventionalized forms, but also by swerving structures the musical text itself creates!
One could object that a certain swerve from the "degré zéro de l'Ecriture" is connatural to the musical language -- unlike ordinary language -- because of the absence of a referential plane: what would a musical composition based on mere repetition of melodic and harmonic elements mean? And what would this Beethoven's Sonata say if any swerve were missing? Well, if music needs a rhetorical behavior in order to construct its own signification, what does speaking of a musical rhetoric mean? I assume that the musical "intentio operis" according to Umberto Eco's terminology has constitutionally a rhetorical inner will.

Concluding this work, I have a last question: how does the rhetorical intentio operis of this Beethoven's Piano Sonata show itself?
At the moment, we have found swerves from formal conventions -- second theme in a minor key, harmonic links of a third within the second theme -- and some swerves of swerves, mainly on a regional harmonic plane. So, let us look at the most general tonal plan of the first movement.
Recapitulation presents, as usual, harmonic links identical to the Exposition.
Development shows, at a first sight, more traditional harmonic courses: from E minor to C major (measures 118-122) at the beginning; links of a descending minor third and an ascending fifth between regions (see Table 4a). Yet, an unusual harmonic relationship is also present: a descending major third link between the end of the exposition (E major/minor), the first and the second subsections at the beginning of the development (C major and A flat major respectively).
Like the second theme, the whole movement swerves from a conventional course, yet this process of a descending major third -- which could aim to the E major perfect chord [as dominant to return to A] -- has been broken off too, and swerved thanks to the adjunction of a traditional harmonic path.
At last, the third section of the development (from A minor to A major measures 203-225) is paradigmatically opposed to the Pedal of the Exposition, from E major to E minor.
In Table 5 you have a synthesis of the illustrated processes in the first movement. In Table 6 you have a synthesis of the more evident repeated harmonic processes through the four movements, and of the process of minorization within the whole Op. 2.
Inversions (from major to minor/from minor to major; ascending minor thirds/descending major thirds), repetitions, swerves, swerves of swerves -- at different levels -- mark this sonata.

It seems to be clear that a rhetorical manner is characteristic both for poetical and musical processes: musical and poetical discourses live in function of a re-semantization of their signs, not depending on the referentiality degree of these signs. But if poetical language assumes ordinary language as its degree zero, music assumes itself to build its meaning. A different approach to the rhetorical strategies between musical and poetical languages rises out: in poetry, we must necessarily study literary codes to understand rhetorical configurations and stylistic characterization in a poem; in music, although historical and cultural knowledge enhances our understanding, we can comprehend the constitutive and implicit rhetoric of a piece thanks to the simple attending to the musical object itself.

Index of musical examples
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