Exploring the singing style in five lyrical first movements from Beethoven’s piano sonatas

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2016-05
Authors
Liu, Peng, M. of Music
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Abstract

Although Beethoven’s so-called “heroic” style dominates perceptions about the composer, he also composed a number of pieces that have a less heroic, more intimate or “lyrical” style. Up to now, the most extended discussion of this lyrical strain has been written by Carl Dahlhaus (1980), who, however, treats the topic primarily from the perspective of thematic unification. Drawing on the discussion of the singing style in recent writings on topic theory, particularly on the semiotic approach of Sarah Day- O’Connell (2014), the present paper explores multiple musical and semiotic parameters of the singing style in the first movements of five of Beethoven’s piano sonatas: Opp. 14/2, 28, 78, 101, and 110. As shown in my analysis, these five movements not only exhibit surface musical elements that signify of the singing style--conjunct melody with narrow range and long note values, continuous and flowing contours, less impetuous rhythms, soft dynamics, simple harmony, and homophonic (melody-and-accompaniment or chorale/hymn) textures--but also reveal how Beethoven solves the structural and formal problems by mitigating contrasts between principal and subsidiary themes and lessening goal-directed processes in the development. In addition, the exploration of the signifieds of the singing style--nature, beauty, simplicity; the amateur and the feminine; and private domains as well as sociability--helps us understand how Beethoven’s singing-style sonata-form first movements function in their socio-cultural and historical contexts, while also revealing a significant humanist value—loving communication and brotherhood—that is worthy of further research. The investigation of the singing style in Beethoven’s music contributes to a better understanding of Beethoven as an artist, especially as a countermeasure to the dominance of the heroic in Beethoven reception.

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