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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 13 C-Minor Moods
Richard Taruskin

As we may remember from the previous chapter, it was the key (or mood) of C minor that got Beethoven into trouble for the first time. We can get the whole story now from Beethoven’s pupil Ferdinand Ries, who claimed to have had it from Beethoven himself. It took place around the end of 1793 or the beginning of 1794, when Beethoven, sent to Vienna by his earliest patron Count Waldstein “to receive the deceased Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands,” had been living in the capital for about a year.11 Now it was time to make good on the count’s happy (but for Beethoven, perhaps, somewhat unnerving) prediction. “It was planned,” Ries wrote in a memoir published in 1838,

to introduce the first three Trios of Beethoven, which were about to be published as Opus 1, to the artistic world at a soirée at Prince Lichnowsky’s, to whom they were dedicated. Most of the artists and music-lovers were invited, especially Haydn, for whose opinion all were eager. The Trios were played and at once commanded extraordinary attention. Haydn also said many pretty things about them, but advised Beethoven not to publish the third, in C minor. This astonished Beethoven, inasmuch as he considered the third the best of the Trios, as it is still the one which gives the greatest pleasure and makes the greatest effect. Consequently, Haydn’s remark left a bad impression on Beethoven and led him to think that Haydn was envious, jealous and ill-disposed toward him. I confess that when Beethoven told me of this I gave it little credence. I therefore took occasion to ask Haydn himself about it. His answer, however, confirmed Beethoven’s statement; he said he had not believed that this Trio would be so quickly and easily understood and so favorably received by the public.12

Note that, contrary to a frequent but unjustified interpretation of this incident, Haydn is not portrayed as disliking or misunderstanding the Trio himself, only as anticipating a poor reception from the paying public. Haydn himself had recently had a sour experience with a piece in C minor. His Symphony no. 95, for the first London series, was the only one without a slow introduction and the only one in a minor key. The public didn’t like it; and as Elaine Sisman puts it, “he didn’t make the mistake again.”13 So, far from wishing to suppress a young rival, he was in all likelihood motivated by concern for his former pupil’s reputation and commercial prospects. Additional reasons for that concern are not difficult to surmise. They had to do with the genre in which Beethoven was making his debut.

Today’s standard nomenclature for late-eighteenth- and nineteenth-century chamber ensembles of three or more, or pieces written for them, is based simply on the number of instruments participating: for example, string or piano “trio,” string or piano “quartet,” “quintet,” and so on. In the eighteenth century, however, as we have already observed in chapter 8, ensembles with fully notated piano parts were generally deemed to be amplified or “accompanied” piano sonatas. What we call a violin sonata (say, by Mozart) would have been called a piano sonata with violin; and what we call a piano trio by Mozart or Haydn would have been called a “sonata con violino e basso,” or a “sonata pour le piano-forte avec accompagnement de violon et violoncello,” to quote from the title page of a set of three such pieces by Haydn that was published in London in 1794, the same year as the tryout of Beethoven’s op. 1.

(French was often the language of such title pages, no matter where published, because the piano trio genre was traditionally deemed a French one, going back to the Pièces de clavecin en concerts—“Harpsichord pieces arranged in sets with accompanying parts”—by Jean-Philippe Rameau, published in 1741.)

In such pieces the violin occasionally got to sing its own tunes, but the cello part was largely confined to doubling the piano left hand. That is because the accompanied piano sonata was, in its origins and usual aim, an unambitious and undemanding household genre. Further evidence of its modesty was its traditional brevity. Except for two early specimens (one of them never published during his lifetime), Haydn’s typically huge output of forty-one trios never exceeded three movements, and nine of them, including a pair composed in the 1790s, have only two. Mozart’s eight trios (one of them with clarinet in place of violin) all have three movements.

Not only that, but the use of minor keys was extremely rare in such pieces, as it was in all domestic entertainment genres. Mozart never wrote a trio in the minor mode, and Haydn wrote only six. The one that shared Beethoven’s key of C minor, composed in the late 1780s, compensated for its seriousness by being cast in only two movements, of which the second (and longer) one was demonstratively marked “gay and witty” (Allegro spirituoso) and cast in C major to dispel the gloom. Weightiness, agitation, dark moods—such characteristics were simply not associated with the genre. They were implicitly undesirable. That is what Haydn was getting at.

Now compare Beethoven’s op. 1, no. 3. All three trios in op. 1 have four movements—that is, they all have both a slow movement and a minuet between ample allegros, as in a symphony. That amplitude of form was already unprecedented, and so was the willingness it implied to transgress the obligations of genre in the interests of expression—or of making an impression. (Not for nothing did Haydn once refer to Beethoven, behind his back, as the “Grand Mogul from Bonn.”)14 To compound the infraction by the use of C minor, a key associated not with home amusements but with theatrical pathos, was to put op. 1, no. 3, for Haydn, altogether beyond the pale of decorum. From the older composer’s point of view, the younger one was committing an act of gratuitous, arrogant aggression against his potential audience. Haydn, who spent his life as a sort of courtier, failed to foresee that Beethoven’s public would respond to his aggression with delight. He can be forgiven.

For it was indeed that grand theatrical pathos, vulgar in courtly eyes, to which Beethoven was aspiring. This is evident from the very beginning of the Trio, in a theme that plays a very conspicuous but ambiguous role in the work (Ex. 13-1). It is not hard to see that it is modeled directly on the ominous opening theme of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 24, K. 491, composed in 1786, one of only two minor-mode Mozartean concertos out of a total of over fifty. (The fact that both are among Mozart’s most famous works—the other is the Piano Concerto no. 20 in D minor, K. 466—could be read either as a simple mark of their quality, or, more complexly, as a sign that Mozart’s works have been selectively valued by a posterity that knew Beethoven.)

Note particularly the way the dominant degree (G) is circled in both themes by half steps on either side (A♭, F♯), so that a dissonant augmented sixth—or its inversion, an even more dissonant diminished third—is built right into the theme. It is almost as if Beethoven were announcing that what had been a mood of extreme rarity—or of rare extremity—in Mozart or Haydn would be “normal” for him.


ex. 13-1a Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 1, no. 3, I, mm. 1–10


ex. 13-1b W. A. Mozart, Piano Concerto in C minor, K. 491, opening theme

Beethoven’s theme, with its portentously theatrical fermata, plays a somewhat ambiguous role in the first movement of the Trio. It is not exactly the “first theme” in sonata form. That role is taken by the theme that immediately follows the phrase quoted in Ex. 13-1, a melody built up out of repetitions of a restless motive beginning with a long upbeat of three eighth notes. (We shall see later what a characteristic “Beethoven rhythm” this motive is!) That is the theme from which Beethoven derives most of the movement’s continuity. The opening idea, rather, seems reserved for almost the opposite purpose, that of interrupting—or actually disrupting—the course of the music for important announcements, many of them ending with fermatas, and most of them involving chromatic turns—or wrenches—in harmony. Its role is an essentially dramatic or rhetorical one, as befits the theatrical pathos of its style.


ex. 13-2a Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Trio in C minor (Op. 1, no. 3), I, mm. 29–36


ex. 13-2b Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Trio in C minor (Op. 1, no. 3), I, mm. 138–49


ex. 13-2c Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Trio in C minor (Op. 1, no. 3), I, mm. 224–35

In m. 31, for example, the “announcement” theme returns in the form of a deceptive cadence that leads almost immediately to a weird F♭-major arpeggio that can only in retrospect be interpreted as the Neapolitan sixth of the relative major, the key of the second theme (Ex. 13-2a). At the beginning of the development section (m. 138), the theme comes back again (Ex. 13-2b) to nudge the harmony from its comfortable cadence on E♭ toward the Far Out Point, by substituting the parallel minor and leading from there, very briefly, into the mysterious territory of the flat submediant (here spelled enharmonically, as B major). And in the recapitulation (mm. 214 ff), after announcing the double return, the theme makes another abrupt harmonic turn (Ex. 13-2c; just where, as Haydn probably pointed out, the listener least expects it) into the actual key, not just the chord, of the “Neapolitan” degree, ♭II (D♭ major). Thanks to these surprising modulations, the tonic key has been shadowed on both sides by chromatic half steps, just the way the dominant is shadowed by the notes of the theme itself. More harmonically abandoned than this, music rarely got before the nineteenth century, and never in a trio.

Of course the “announcement theme” gets to announce important events of a more structural kind as well. As we have seen, it introduces the recapitulation. Broken down into motives, it sustains the first part of the development section, as earlier it had provided the exposition with its climax. In all its functions it serves as the vehicle, or channeler, of high rhetoric. Despite its ambiguous structural role, it provides the music that makes the most lasting impression on the listener.

And Beethoven needs to make sure that the impression lasts, for with the arrival of the impetuous prestissimo finale, we are confronted with another bold “announcement theme” (this time replete with “Mannheim rocket”) that ends, like the one in the first movement, on a dominant half cadence that is underscored by a fermata (Ex. 13-3a). With something of a start, we realize that this theme is not merely similar in function to the theme heard at the Trio’s outset. It is an actual variant of the earlier theme, in much the same way that the earlier theme had been a variant of a theme from Mozart’s concerto.


ex. 13-3a Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Trio in C minor (Op. 1, no. 3), Finale, mm. 1–8


ex. 13-3b Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Trio in C minor (Op. 1, no. 3), Finale, end

Thus Beethoven uses a single “basic melodic shape” or Grundgestalt (to use an apt term invented a century later by the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg) to secure the entire four-movement structure, at once more sprawling and more tautly unified than had previously been the norm. That tandem of unprecedented rhetorical amplitude and tight structural control would remain the Beethovenian standard. Following romantic theories of esthetics that likened works of art to living organisms in their properties of growth, it quickly became known as Beethovenian “organic” form—the norm against which the work of all composers would soon be measured, up to Schoenberg’s time and even beyond.

After all the stormy impetuosity of the outer movements, the end of the Trio comes as another calculated surprise. After hitting a peak of energy with a passage based on a sequential extension of the opening “rocket” motive to a point of great harmonic tension on a diminished-seventh chord, the movement subsides by degrees. Sforzando accents apart, there is no dynamic marking above piano in the last 86 measures of the Finale. The music seems palpably to deflate in a marvelously calculated unison descent that implies a sophisticated harmonic pun: treating the dominant as if it were an augmented sixth chord (a technique that would become much more common in the early nineteenth century), allowing the tonal structure almost visibly to “sag” a semitone.

The end of the movement (and the trio) is given in Ex. 13-3b. The task this coda must perform is that of gradually building back up from B to C, but the effort seems costly. Emotional fatigue seems implicit in the obsessively repeated half-step descents to the tonic C, until the string instruments, seemingly drained of the energy it takes to play a theme, can only vamp the notes of the tonic triad, while the piano deploys its last remaining strength in a series of tonic scales, pianissimo.

The tonic, it will certainly not be missed, has relaxed into the major, invoked here, it would seem, as a symbol or metaphor of final repose, or possibly of resignation. Beethoven duplicated this final mode switch, from C minor to C major, many times over the course of his career, in many emotional contexts. Its persistence shows that this heavily fraught progression, according as it did with Haydn’s monumental example in the Creation, was as much a part of Beethoven’s “C-minor mood” as the choice of tonic key itself. The move from minor to major, often played out over a large multimovement span, was not only a spiritually symbolic device but also Beethoven’s ultimate unifying stratagem, encompassing complex works within a single narrative or dramatic unfolding.

What is most remarkable is the variety of emotionally resonant stories Beethoven was able, in this way, to tell. By projecting emotionally engaging tonal narratives or dramas over ever longer musical spans, Beethoven forever changed the nature of instrumental music, and the expectations it aroused in audiences. If at the beginning of his career Beethoven seemed careless of those expectations, it was because he sought in the end to transform them. That goal is evident even in his op. 1.


The choice of C minor as a key that would play a central role in enunciating Beethoven’s heroic stance was no surprise. It was virtually mandated by its traditional theatrical associations and reputation. These were well summed up by Francesco Galeazzi (1758–1819), an Italian violinist and composer who between 1791 and 1796 published an encyclopedic music treatise called Elementi teorico-pratici di musica (The Theoretical and Practical Elements of Music).

The key of C minor, Galeazzi wrote, was “the tragic key, suitable for expressing great misfortunes like the deaths of Heroes (morti di Eroi).”15 Though Galeazzi was writing out of the tradition of Italian opera, his description of the key accords so tellingly with Beethoven’s use of the key in his instrumental music that it almost seems to sum up Beethoven’s achievement in transforming the instrumental genres of his day into virtual dramas.

Twice, in fact, Beethoven used the key to portray exactly the occasion for which Galeazzi proclaimed it best suited. One is already familiar: the end of the second movement of the Eroica Symphony, which is cast as a Marcia funebre, a Funeral March in C minor, literally marking the death of a Hero. An even more pointed and “literary” use of the key to symbolize heroic tragedy comes in the Overture Beethoven wrote in 1807 to Coriolan, a Trauerspiel or “mourning play” by the Austrian poet Heinrich Josef von Collin (1771–1811).

Though sometimes translated simply as “tragedy,” the word Trauerspiel connotes (in the words of John Daverio, a cultural historian of German music) an unmitigated “display of human misery, wretchedness, and suffering.”16 It arose in the mid-seventeenth century as a typically fulsome manifestation of “baroque” theater, dealing, in the words of a contemporary observer, with “nothing but killings, despair, infanticide and patricide, conflagration, incest, war and commotion, lamentation, weeping, sighing, and suchlike.”17 Now there is a list of C-minor moods!

Collin’s Trauerspiel concerned the fate of the Roman general Gnaeus Marcius Coriolanus as related by Plutarch. (Shakespeare’s tragedy Coriolanus is a treatment of the same story.) He made his fame (and earned his name) by capturing the Volscian city of Corioli, but was then expelled from Rome for tyrannical acts. Joining with the Volscians, his former enemy, he avenged himself by attacking Rome, which he would have destroyed, but was dissuaded by the tears of his wife and his mother. For his fatal vacillation the Volscians condemned him to death by torture.


ex. 13-4a Ludwig van Beethoven, Coriolan Overture, mm. 1–21


ex. 13-4b Ludwig van Beethoven, Coriolan Overture, mm. 52–75


ex. 13-4c Ludwig van Beethoven, Coriolan Overture, end

Beethoven’s overture to this dismal play encapsulates its desperate emotional content, beginning with ponderous unison Cs and slashing chords that wed the blunt opening of Haydn’s Creation Prologue to the restless harmony of Mozart’s C-minor Concerto, K. 491 (Ex. 13-4a). A second theme offers major-mode relief, but comfort is short-lived; C minor, and with it the “C-minor mood,” quickly reasserts itself (Ex. 13-4b). That second theme, however, offers a possible way to achieve C major in the recapitulation, and the promise seems briefly to be kept. The even quicker quashing of the major, however, where its retention and eventual exaltation might have been expected, epitomizes, more eloquently perhaps than any words could do, the hopelessness of the drama. The return of the violent opening gesture, the hollow unisons now reinforced with additional winds, seems virtually to portray the Hero’s murder, and in the final coda, with its composed deceleration of the “first theme” music from the exposition, we seem to witness the wasting of his energies and his anguished demise (Ex. 13-4c).

This is horror music. And the horror is conveyed as much by what does not happen, by what is deliberately withheld, as by anything that actually occurs. The trajectory from C minor to C major is cut off as palpably as the Hero’s life. All the more powerfully, then, does the completed narrative sound forth in what has to be regarded as the Coriolan Overture’s counterpart: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, op. 67, the most famous symphony in the world.

Its status was confirmed, almost from the beginning, by E. T. A. Hoffmann, who cast his most extensive blast of romanticist propaganda in the form of an extended description of the Fifth. This famous essay of 1810 stands today as an early landmark of music analysis, a then wholly new form of writing about music, in which technical observations were linked up directly with expressive interpretations, in a manner that emphatically paralleled and positively reinforced the equally novel (and equally zealous) intentions of contemporary composers. Where composers proceeded from causes to effects, exegetical critics like Hoffmann endeavored to work back from the effect to uncover the cause.


fig. 13-1 Sketches for the third movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

In the case of Hoffmann himself, who was not only a musician but an outstanding literary figure as well, analysis (to paraphrase a famous remark by the musicologist Manfred Bukofzer) could fairly be described as “composition in reverse.” It became the distinguishing feature of German instrumental music that it attracted this sort of exegetical interpretation. Alongside verbal interpretations like Hoffmann’s (and later Robert Schumann’s), there also arose the “interpretations” of master performers, including the first baton (“maestro”) conductors. In this as in so many other ways, Beethoven’s music was the preeminent catalyst, remaking the world of music in what we still recognize today as its modern image.

Hoffmann used the Fifth to demonstrate, on the “micro” level, the organic unity of the composition; and on the “macro” level, the expressive power to which that unity gave rise. Very significantly, if a little predictably, he finds Beethoven’s truest forebear in Shakespeare, worshipped by German romantics as the greatest of all dramatists. It was a romantic mission to rescue Shakespeare from the low status to which he had been consigned by the dogmatic “neoclassical” critics of the French Enlightenment, who (basing themselves on Aristotle’s authority) charged him with formlessness. Hoffmann’s task, then, was to demonstrate the organic growth of tree from seed in order to certify Beethoven’s supreme mastery, not only of compositional technique, but of transcendent expression as well. The two, Hoffmann strongly argued, were the two sides of a single coin, and the Fifth offered the ultimate proof:

Can there be any work of Beethoven’s that confirms all this to a higher degree than his indescribably profound, magnificent symphony in C minor?…No doubt the whole rushes like an ingenious rhapsody past many a man, but the soul of each thoughtful listener is assuredly stirred…. The internal structure of the movements, their execution, their instrumentation, the way in which they follow one another—everything contributes to a single end; above all, it is the intimate interrelationship among the themes that engenders that unity which alone has the power to hold the listener firmly in a single mood. This relationship is sometimes clear to the listener when he overhears it in the connecting of two movements or discovers it in the fundamental bass they have in common; a deeper relationship which does not reveal itself in this way speaks at other times only from mind to mind, and it is precisely this relationship that prevails between sections of the two Allegros and the Minuet and which imperiously proclaims the controlling force of the master’s genius.18

In this remarkable paragraph Hoffmann has alluded both to the “micro” and the “macro” structures of the symphony and suggested both the ways in which the levels are mutually reinforcing or “synergistic,” and the ways in which structural unity and powerful expression exhibit in Beethoven a comparable synergy. Indeed, there is synergy between composition and critique as well, for surely there is no work by Beethoven (or by any other composer) that so flaunts the derivation of the whole from a single “germinal seed,” the four notes proclaimed at the very outset in the gruff unison so endemic to the C-minor mood.


(11) Album inscription, quoted in Thayer’s Life of Beethoven, ed. Elliot Forbes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), p. 115.

(12) Ferdinand Ries, Biographische Notizen über Ludwig van Beethoven (1838), in Beethoven: Impressions By His Contemporaries, ed. O. G. Sonneck (New York: Schirmer, 1926), p. 74.

(13) Personal communication to author.

(14) A. C. Kalischer, Beetnoven und Wien (Berlin, 1910), p. 8.

(15) Quoted in Rita Steblin, A History of Key Characteristics in the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1983), p. 109.

(16) John Daverio, Robert Schumann: Herald of a “New Poetic Age” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 345.

(17) Martin Opitz, Prosodia Germanica (ca. 1650); quoted in Daverio, Schumann, p. 345.

(18) E. T. A. Hoffmann, “Beethoven’s Instrumental Music” (1813), in Oliver Strunk, Source Readings in Music History (New York: Norton, 1950), p. 778.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 13 C-Minor Moods." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 23 Apr. 2019. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-13002.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 13 C-Minor Moods. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 23 Apr. 2019, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-13002.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 13 C-Minor Moods." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 23 Apr. 2019, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-13002.xml