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Analysis of the First Movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 31 in Ab-Major

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The first subject may be divided into two parts: the first part, Bars 1-4, ending on dominant seventh; the second part, consisting of a distinct melody of eight bars (Bars 5-12), ending with full close in tonic key. Bars 12-28: Connecting Episode. The connecting episode begins with a brilliant arpeggio passage in tonic key, modulating to the dominant key, in which after a passage of different character, commencing Bar 20, it closes, Bar 28. Bars 28-34: Second Subject in E flat major. The second subject consists of a passage of different character, extended to six bars. The bass of Bar 28 is repeated at Bar 29, and also (with one note altered) at Bar 30. It begins and ends in the dominant key.

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Beginnings of movements by Beethoven often convey a feeling of instability, tension, and expectation. Frequently, opening themes sound introductory and points of harmonic arrival or resolution are delayed. Among the musical techniques described by Heinrich Schenker that "heighten the inner tension" of such openings, is the setting of the primary tone of the fundamental line-the first Urlinie tone-by a harmony other than the tonic.' This non-tonic setting heightens the dramatic effect of the primary tone. The primary tone is approached either by a rising arpeggiation or an initial linear ascent, two voice-leading procedures which Schenker described as representing a "retardation" or "delaying at the very outset of the piece." A dramatic example of upper-voice arpeggiation to the primary tone is the opening section of the Marcia Funebre from Beethoven's Piano Sonata in Ab major, Op. 26, analyzed by Schenker in Free Composition. Beethoven uses non-tonic settings of the primary tone to create tension at the opening of a movement. It has also shown how the emphasized primary tone is exploited both as a motivic element within a single movement and as means of linking different movements of a composition. It is clear that there is growing recognition among music theorists and historians alike that Schenkerian analytical procedures can contribute to the study of musical style. Nevertheless, much work remains to be done.

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The first bars start with a character of carefreeness, but the cresc. of bar announces a possible arrival of tension. Still, the shocking surprise of bar 9 is not expected and a sudden disequilibrium is felt:39 the character, the key, the tempo, the rhythm are different. When bar 14 is initiated, through the reductive technique, this latter being present through an emptiness in the musical notation at the end of bar 13, it feels as if the tension created through the fracture is about to be released (Susan H. Gillespie, 2002). In the next bar, each time the B is reiterated it feels like an arrival: first the right hand begins the bar with a B, the left hand follows with two Bs, and the development starts with B, preceded by a ritardando. The intensity created during the second theme, disappears gradually from the end of bar 13, where the music heads towards the reiterated Bs of bar 15. In the development, it is important to understand how the tension is built, since it is done over a very short period of time and is very well organised. Furthermore, the pianist should be aware that another fulfilment of the melodic interval G#-B, even though chromatically filled, happens at the same time where the music reaches the last level of tension before the recapitulation (Spitzer). At the beginning of the recapitulation, it is almost impossible not to take a bit of time on the last beat of bar 48, as the tension, perfectly built in the last two thirds of the development, now arrives, and this feels like an explosion.

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Obviously, this sonata, however, contains both a scherzo and a minuet, though it was the last one to include a minuet in all Beethoven’s sonatas. It is also worth noting that there are no slow movements in this work, which makes the form of the entire work unique, and, more importantly, supports the joyful character throughout the piece.

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Essays on Music, trans. Susan H. Gillespie, ed. Richard Leppert (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 567.

Spitzer, Music as Philosophy: Adorno and Beethoven’s Late Style, 82.

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Analysis of the First Movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 31 in Ab-Major
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