We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 13 C-Minor Moods
Richard Taruskin

Schopenhauer was the most radically romantic thinker in Germany during the last decade of Beethoven’s life. Like Beethoven a lonely man, he evolved an influential philosophy of pessimism. As manifested in the strivings of individuals, he taught, the Will produces inevitable strife and frustration, dooming all inhabitants of the world to a life of unsatisfied cravings and spiritual pain. Ultimately the only way out was renunciation of desire, implying transcendence of the individual will—an idea for which Schopenhauer was indebted to Buddhist teachings, making him one of the earliest European bridge-builders to Asian culture. Short of full renunciation, some temporary assuagement of worldly pain can be found in philosophy and art—particularly in music, whose inherent faculty of transcendence could model, and perhaps even induce, the spiritual quiescence at which Schopenhauer’s philosophy aimed.

These ideas, which found their first expression in The World as Will and Representation, a treatise that Schopenhauer published in 1818 at the age of thirty, would seem likely to appeal powerfully to a spirit as thwarted and tortured as Beethoven. We have no direct evidence of Beethoven’s contact with Schopenhauer’s philosophy or its “Eastern” antecedents, only the tenuous circumstance that intellectual Vienna was talking about it. But there is at least one late work of Beethoven’s that seems to prefigure a Schopenhauerian Weltanschauung, or outlook on life, and that is the last of his piano sonatas, No. 32 in C minor, op. 111, composed in 1821–22 and consisting of two large movements: one in the titular key of C minor, and the other in C major.

We have seen Haydn’s primal dark/light opposition of C minor and C major played out by now in several very different Beethovenian narratives. In op. 1, no. 3, the major came gently, as relaxation or solace. In the Fifth Symphony it came spectacularly, as victory, symbolized by the finale’s fifty-four-bar coda, consisting of nothing but manically reiterated tonic cadences and triads (one of the most fanatically adored and, in consequence, fiercely lampooned pages in all of symphonic music). In the Coriolan Overture it never came at all, betokening in its withholding the tragic outcome of the drama.

Now, in op. 111, C major assumes a luminous (or, in the quasi-sacred terms Beethoven probably intended, a numinous) aura. It serves as the medium for metaphysical disclosure, conjuring an oceanic vista in which the desiring subject can finally lose itself. The late-Beethovenian religious impulse, already observed in the previous chapter, that found expression not only in sacred compositions like the Missa solemnis but in secular ones as well (the Ninth Symphony; the Quartet in A minor, op. 132, with its “Heiliger Dankgesang”), here reaches an early pinnacle.

That religiosity, betokening a turning-away from the world and its vicissitudes, found its most conspicuous (or most conspicuously musical) outlet in Beethoven’s sudden infatuation with the fugue. By the end of the eighteenth century, fugal writing was a decidedly archaic device that had only one surviving application in a living genre: the Mass or oratorio chorus. Before 1815, that was where Beethoven had used it, with a single well-known exception: the finale of his Quartet in C major, op. 59, no. 3 (the last of the “Razumovsky” set, composed in 1806), in which the fugal technique, applied to a rollicking subject, set up a tour de force of performance virtuosity. Thanks to the fugal organization, listeners knew in advance that the cello was going to have to play at a tempo that was already taxing enough for the violins. This kind of whimsical fugalism was of a piece with the kind found occasionally in the quartets of Haydn (op. 20) and Mozart (K. 387).

From 1814–15, however, there was a big change; and it is impossible not to suspect a connection between the change in Beethoven and the political changes that took place over that momentous year of post-Napoleonic Restoration. As noted in the previous chapter, Beethoven contributed an oratorio, Der glorreiche Augenblick (“The glorious moment”), to the festivities that greeted the reactionary Congress of Vienna.

Letting Go

fig. 13-2 Masked ball in the Redoutensaal (Vienna) celebrating the Congress of Vienna, following performances of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and Wellington’s Victory, or “Battle” Symphony

The offering ended with a grandiose and sentimental finale in which the chorus, divided into separate groups of Frauen (sopranos and altos) and Männer (tenors and basses), is joined by a choir of Kinder (child sopranos and altos of both genders). The three groups first step forward one by one to pay a quasi-religious tribute to the assembled crowned heads of Europe:


Es treten hervor

die Schaaren der Frauen,

den glänzenden Chor

der Fürsten zu schauen,

auf alle die Kronen

den heiligen Segen

der Mütter zu legen.

Now we step forward,

the host of women,

to behold the shining

throng of princes,

and to lay a holy

mothers’ benediction

on all the crowned heads.


Die Unschuld als Chor,

sie wagt es zu kommen,

es treten hervor

die Kinder, die frommen,

Herz, Himmel und Scepter

mit Blumengewinden

zusammen zu binden.

Innocence itself

now ventures to come forth

in a choir of children, all

righteous and meek, to bind

heart, heaven, and scepter

together with

garlands of flowers.


Auch wir treten vor,

die Mannen der Heere,

ein Kriegrischer Chor

mit Fahnen und Wehre,

und fühlen die höchste

der Vaterland’s-wonnen

sich also zu sonnen.

We, too, come forth,

we men of battle,

in martial chorus

with arms and colors flying

and feeling the highest

delight in our Fatherland,

thus we bask in its glory.

All then come together in a rousing choral fugue (Ex. 13-13) that invokes Vienna by its ancient Latin name: “Vindobona, may you prosper! World, your great moment is at hand!”

Letting Go

ex. 13-13 Ludwig van Beethoven, Der glorreiche Augenblick, final Presto, beginning of fugal exposition

The poetry is doggerel. The music, hurriedly composed, is undistinguished. Overall, Der glorreiche Augenblick (no doubt owing in part to its political message, so offensive to modern liberalism)is commonly regarded as Beethoven’s closest approach to drivel. And yet despite its occasional nature, its repugnant sentiments, and its artistic insignificance, the work may hold a key to some of Beethoven’s most sublime utterances—provided we remember what the adjective “sublime” properly connotes.

The Latin epithet (“Vindobona!”) and the choral fugue had a similar import. Both were archaic references that invoked antiquity—that is, long-lastingness, which is ultimately to imply the timeless or eternally valid. That, of course, was precisely the political import of the Congress of Vienna: the purported reinstatement of ancient, divinely ordained, and timeless principles of social order in place of novel principles arrogantly conceived by the rational mind of man and still more impudently instituted on earth by the likes of Napoleon. It was a fierce reactionary rebuke to the Enlightenment, and so was much of romanticism.

In place of the optimistic, melioristic Enlightened vision, lately come to grief, political and philosophical romanticism offered a sentence of stasis, terrible or comforting depending on one’s point of view. The world has been created for all time by God. It cannot be improved (said political romanticists), only at best secured. It cannot be improved (said philosophical romanticists), only at best escaped. Both safeguard and escape signal acceptance of the status quo, or at the very least, resignation to it.

Perhaps the best way of viewing Beethoven’s post-1815 fugal frenzy, then, would be to regard it as having been induced or inspired by political romanticism, to which Beethoven is known to have responded with pessimistic gusto. In conversation with Ferdinand Hiller shortly before his death, he mocked the great watchword of political reform: Vox populi, vox Dei, “The voice of the people is the voice of God.” (It is attributed to Charlemagne’s adviser Alcuin.) “I never believed it,” Beethoven scoffed.23 It was a disclaimer many disillusioned or nervous former champions of democracy were making. At the same time Beethoven declared Handel, the supreme master of the political fugue, to have been the greatest of all composers.

The resigned, disappointed public temper of post-Napoleonic Europe, with its hankering after the security of a timeless social order, found a private echo in the context of Beethoven’s instrumental music. Fugues began turning up in bizarre profusion—and in the strangest places. What, for instance, could be an unlikelier place for a fugue than the finale of a cello sonata? And yet that is how Beethoven’s fifth cello sonata (in D major, op. 102, no. 2) ends. It was composed in 1815, almost immediately after Der glorreiche Augenblick was first performed (Ex. 13-14a).

It was the first of many. The next year, 1816, Beethoven wrote a fugal finale for the Piano Sonata in A major, op. 101 (Ex. 13-14b). In 1818 there followed a truly colossal fugue, the one that caps the “Hammerklavier” Sonata, op. 106 (Ex. 13-14c). In between, perhaps most tellingly of all, came 1817, Beethoven’s most barren year, in which he managed to complete only one work, and an insignificant one at that. And yet that one completed composition was still and all a small fugue (for string quintet, published posthumously as opus 137). All through this period Beethoven sketched as well at other, uncompleted, fugues. Example 13-14 gives the subject and answer from the expositions of the three main “finale fugues” of the period.

Letting Go

ex. 13-14a Ludwig van Beethoven, late fugue subjects, Cello Sonata in D, Op. 102, no. 2 (Finale)

Letting Go

ex. 13-14b Ludwig van Beethoven, late fugue subjects, Piano Sonata in A, Op. 101 (Finale)

Letting Go

ex. 13-14c Ludwig van Beethoven, late fugue subjects, “Hammerklavier” Sonata in B-flat, Op. 106 (Finale)

Later there would be fugues in the Piano Sonata in A♭ (op. 110, 1822), the Diabelli Variations (op. 120, 1819–23), and the very Handelian Consecration of the House Overture (op. 124, 1822), as well as in two quartets: the C♯ minor, op. 131 (first movement), and the B♭ major, op. 130 (finale, later published separately as the Grosse Fuge, op. 133). Nor do even these exhaust the list.

The idea of incorporating fugues into sonatas is in some ways an incongruous one. To put it very bluntly, a fugue is a one-idea piece while a sonata is a two-idea piece. Consisting as it does of a single subject viewed as it were from all sides, a fugue is contemplative and, when sufficiently big, monumental. Consisting as it does of a tonal and (usually) thematic polarity worked through to a reconciliation, a sonata is dialectical and, when sufficiently big, dramatic. So different do the genres appear in their implications that in 1913 an influential German scholar named August Halm published a book, Von zwei Kulturen der Musik (“On the two cultures of music”), that tried to cast the entire history of music in terms of their opposition.

Before Beethoven’s late period, no one had really tried to reconcile the two genres, or use them in genuine tandem. When Haydn or Mozart wrote “fugal” sonata movements (or when Beethoven himself did it up to the quartets of op. 59), all that it usually meant was casting the first theme in the form of a fugal exposition, and then recapitulating it with a new countersubject, often ingeniously derived from another theme. Alternatively, it could mean casting the development section, or part of it, in the form of a fugato. “Real” thoroughgoing fugues were simply (and rightly) thought impossible to reconcile with the dynamics of sonata form.

Partly it is a matter of the structure of the theme itself. As we have long known, but as the subjects in Ex. 13-14 (especially the immense one from the “Hammerklavier” sonata) will remind us, a typical fugue theme has a well-etched beginning but a very hazy ending. Fuguelike themes typically recede into an evenly flowing “time-river.” Resisting dynamism, they cannot be brought to climax except by patently artificial means—mounting sequences, inflated dynamics, tacked-on codas, or the like.

It is not surprising, then, that Beethoven’s late fugal preoccupation focused at first on finales, where the fugue could stand in for the traditional rondo—a form that was, like the fugue itself, monothematic in content and episodic in form. The periodic fugal expositions provided an easily comprehended analogy for the recurring rondo theme. No conceptual damage was done. But when the fugue form takes over the first-movement function, as it does in the Quartet in C♯ minor, op. 131, we can really sense an invasion of rhythmic and tonal quiescence, pessimistically usurping the place of a dynamic process that had formerly homed strategically (and optimistically) in on a dramatically satisfying closure.

The greatest “conceptual damage” done by fugue to sonata in late Beethoven occurs in the first movement of the Piano Sonata in C minor, op. 111, which is unequivocally in sonata form and not overly burdened, except in the development section, with imitative counterpoint. It is therefore, strictly speaking, not a fugue at all. But in some very telling ways it behaves like one, and by doing so signals the fundamental changes that have taken place in Beethoven’s whole musical (and cultural, and political, and social) outlook.

The sonata begins with a slow introduction (maestoso) that almost seems an intensified replay of the famous slow introduction to another C minor sonata (op. 13, subtitled “Pathétique”) composed almost a quarter of a century earlier (see Ex. 13-15). Both introductions feature dramatic diminished-seventh harmonies directed at the dominant and tonic in turn. The later sonata—by dispensing with the preliminary tonic, by resolving the second diminished seventh not to the tonic but to a strained “V of iv,” by spacing the harmonies so that they seem to cover the length and breadth of the keyboard, and by piling on additional diminished-seventh chords in bewildering profusion—boosts the pathos level beyond anything Beethoven (or any composer) would have imagined or dared in 1797.

The exaggerated pathos, as we will discover, is a dramatic foil. Meanwhile, the main body of the movement, the Allegro con brio ed appassionato, establishes itself (Ex. 13-16a) with a cluster of signs we have long associated with “C-minor moods”: unison writing, fermata (m. 20), a melodic diminished seventh (m. 21, preceded by an even more dissonantly “C-minorish” diminished fourth in m. 20). But the theme behaves like no sonata theme we have yet encountered. The unison writing goes on at extravagant length (more than ten measures, from m. 18 to m. 28), and the phrase that descends a diminished fifth (first heard in mm. 21–22) is on two further appearances (mm. 22–23, 30–31) marked portato (separated by dots within a slur, normally a bowing indication for strings) and poco ritenente, “holding back slightly,” to emphasize its doleful, “cast down” effect.

Letting Go

ex. 13-15a Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata no. 8, Op. 13 (“Pathétique”), beginning of the slow introduction

Letting Go

ex. 13-15b Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata no. 32, Op. 111, beginning of slow introduction

The headlong dash so typical of Beethoven’s sonata expositions is being deliberately frustrated, not only by the poco ritenente, but also by the theme itself, which is so obviously structured like a fugue subject. Instead of driving forward, it peters out into a time-river of steady sixteenth notes. And yet the expected fugal answer, normally prepared by the rhythmic dissolution of the subject, never materializes. The whole movement is one unconsummated gesture after another. It never manages to define itself either as a fugue or as a sonata. Forever frustrated in its immediate purposes, it is forever in search of a way out, symbolized here (as in the Ninth Symphony) by a brief second theme (m. 50 ff) in the “Elysian” key of the submediant. Here, as everywhere, cadences are highly attenuated: the only complete A♭-major triads in the section of the piece nominally in that key are placed in weak metrical positions, and in unstable inversions to boot. The cadence in the secondary key (m. 69) is made only at the end of another fuguelike time-river passage all’unisono.

The development, exceedingly brief or even stunted, begins with a number of gambits that go nowhere: first, a sort of passus duriusculus formed by repeating the diminished fourth from the first theme in a chromatic descending sequence; next, a passage that before petering out in yet another time-river negotiates the circle of fifths with a series of imitative, quasi-fugal entries on a countersubject to the same theme, now stretched to encompass a diminished seventh instead of a diminished fourth; finally, another go around a circle of fifths by way of retransition, each stage of its progress stabbed out with a diminished-seventh chord, sforzando. Of all Beethoven compositions, this one must be the most saturated with diminished-seventh harmonies, making it the most pungently and pervasively dissonant movement Beethoven (or anyone since Bach, who had very different reasons) had ever composed.

Letting GoLetting Go

ex. 13-16a Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata no. 32 in C minor, Op. 111, I, mm. 17–31

Letting Go

ex. 13-16b Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata no. 32 in C minor, Op. 111, I, mm. 146–end

And suddenly (m. 92) the struggle leaves off. The recapitulation repeats all the same futile gestures previously assayed in the exposition. As in the Coriolan Overture, the parallel major takes the place of the secondary key (mm. 116 ff), providing a brief ray of light or hope, but one that is dispelled even more quickly than in the Overture, and with the same dispiritingly “tragic” effect. Finally, as in the Trio, op. 1, no. 3, C major returns (Ex. 13-16b) in conjunction with a concluding diminuendo to end the movement, somewhat unexpectedly, on a note of alleviation or relief.

Or escape. In the Sonata, unlike the Trio, the strangely abrupt mood of serenity into which the music is suddenly allowed to relax does not end the composition. It is, rather, picked up and sustained throughout the movement that follows. More than twice the length of the first, the second movement of op. 111 is a set of variations on a pristine binary theme (Ex. 13-17a); but it carries a significant subtitle, Arietta, a simple song or hymn. Like the Cavatina in the Quartet in B♭, op. 130 (Ex. 12-10), or the Song of Thanksgiving in the Quartet in A minor, op. 132 (see Ex. 12-12), the movement conveys the impression of an especially immediate and personal utterance, even if the nonsustaining piano tone cannot impersonate a human voice as naturally as strings.

Letting Go

ex. 13-17a Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata no. 32 in C minor, Op. 111, II, Arietta (mm. 1–18)

It is also one of the slowest and “raptest” pieces Beethoven ever wrote, despite the seemingly paradoxical use of tiny note values. At times the music practically reaches a point of stasis or suspended motion, as if Beethoven were putting into practice the advice he gave an aspiring composer, one Xaver Schneider, in a letter of 1812: “Continue to raise yourself higher and higher into the divine realm of art; for there is no more undisturbed, more unalloyed or purer pleasure than that which comes from such an experience.”24

Just so, we can almost hear Beethoven taking imaginative leave of the world, retreating—or, as he would no doubt have preferred to put it, ascending—into the higher realm of art, where quiet ecstasy abides. (And now recall all the depressingly reiterated melodic descents in the first movement to which the lofty ascent of the Arietta is an answer.) To paraphrase a famous remark of Friedrich Schiller, the poet of the Ninth Symphony’s “Ode to Joy,” the movement stands as an “effigy of the ideal,” perhaps the most literal embodiment Beethoven ever gave to the “longing for the infinite” that E. T. A. Hoffmann identified as the romantic essence of his art.

The attempt to adumbrate the infinite can be viewed in many dimensions. The most puzzling aspect of the movement, its notation, seems to be an effort to overwhelm the player or reader of the score with what Kant called the “mathematical sublime”—awesome, ungraspable profusion, as preeminently represented for Kant (in a passage Beethoven copied out and underscored) by “the starry sky above.” Notating the op. 111 variations in miniaturized time, with the beat falling on the dotted eighth, gives the page a similarly uncanny, immeasurably proliferous look. By the time the third or fourth variation is reached, the beat has been progressively divided into sixteenths, thirty-seconds, and sixty-fourths. Finally, triplets of thirty-seconds turn every beat into a miniaturized version of the full measure (Ex. 13-17b). Single measures stretch across whole systems in the score and one is faced, so to speak, with as many notes as there are stars in the sky.

Nor is this the only way in which Beethoven tries to represent what is normally measured in music as immeasurable. The next stage of rhythmic diminution, finally reached after a little cadenza into which the fourth variation dissolves, is the unmeasured trill—a kind of aural vanishing point, in which all sense of countable time is lost (Ex. 13-17c). The most arresting effect comes in mm. 112–114, a triple trill (almost impossible—that is, infinitely hard—to perform) that lasts for seven beats, during which time seems to come literally to a halt despite the repeated notes in the bass.

This symbol of infinite duration or boundless time returns in m. 160 to accompany the last, exalted statement of the theme in its original note values, bringing things full circle—or rather, full spiral, since the trills unmistakably signal a higher, transfigured mode of existence (Ex. 13-17d). As the latest, greatest philosophical romanticist, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), later put it of the similarly indefinite tremolando rhythms at the beginning of the Ninth Symphony, to listen is to feel oneself “floating above the earth in an astral dome, with the dream of immortality in one’s heart.”25 The trills serve another purpose as well, and one that is equally sublime. The ones in Ex. 13-17c introduce the only modulation ever to intrude, in this movement, upon the limpid C-major tonality of the whole. The triple trill takes place on a harmony that can only be interpreted as the dominant of E♭ major; and, after a virtual eternity of trilling, chromatically (and timelessly) ascending into the musical ether, the tonic of that key finally materializes in m. 118, somewhat weakly but nevertheless definitely expressed (in first inversion), and confirmed by an allusion to the second phrase of the original melody.

Letting Go

ex. 13-17b Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata no. 32 in C minor, Op. 111, II, mm. 72–80

Letting Go

ex. 13-17c Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata no. 32 in C minor, Op. 111, II, mm. 106–20

By analyzing a number of late works (along, in some cases, with their sketches), the pianist and Beethoven scholar William Kinderman identified the combination of high pitch and a modulation to E♭ as Beethoven’s “symbol for the Deity,” directly related to (or inspired by) Kant’s invocation of the starry sky.26 That is a private meaning and an arcane one, deducible not from listening but only by dint of scholarly inquiry. What is available to every listener, though, and overwhelming in its effect, is the virtually fathomless distance that separates the pianist’s hands at this point: almost five octaves where E♭ is first invoked, and almost five and one-half octaves on the next downbeat, where the right hand’s melodic arc reaches its zenith. That is yet another kind of musical infinity. It conjures up another sort of boundlessness—not of time but of space.

It is also a recollection of the first movement—or rather, a reference to what in retrospect now stands revealed as a forecast in the first movement of the second movement’s oceanic vista. In mm. 48–49 of the first movement, and again in mm. 114–115 (see Ex. 13-18), the pianist’s right hand is required to traverse the whole breadth of the keyboard in great arcs, approaching and then exceeding five octaves in expanse. These sublime moments introduce the second theme in the exposition and the recapitulation respectively. The latter, actually the biggest registral leap in the entire sonata, takes place immediately before the one brief foretaste in the first movement of C major—the tonality that, in the second movement, will finally supplant its agonized C-minor contortions with a transcendent, rapturous stillness.

Letting Go

ex. 13-17d Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata no. 32 in C minor, Op. 111, II, mm. 160–69

Letting Go

ex. 13-18 Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata no. 32 in C minor, Op. 111, I, mm. 48–49, 114–116

With its extremes of rapidity and stillness, its ability to make rapidity seem to merge with stillness, and its uncanny quality of hovering (most spectacularly in Ex. 13-19, mm. 89–92), the second movement of op. 111 was one of many romantic attempts—and perhaps the first fully conscious and considered one—to render the infinite palpable through music. If Hoffmann was right to insist that romanticism was music’s natural birthright, it would have happened anyway without Beethoven; we will never know.

Letting Go

ex. 13-19 Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata no. 32 in C minor, Op. 111, II, mm. 89–92


(23) Quoted in Forbes, ed. Thayer’s Life of Beethoven, p. 1046.

(24) Quoted in Beethoven: Letters, Journals and Conversations, trans. and ed. Michael Hamburger (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1960), p. 151.

(25) Friedrich Nietzsche, Menschliches Allzumenschliches (1878); Music and the Historical Imagination (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), p. 61.

(26) See William Kinderman, “Beethoven’s Symbol for the Deity in the Missa solemnis and the Ninth Symphony,” 19th-Century Music XI (1985): 102–18.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 13 C-Minor Moods." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-13004.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 21 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-13004.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 21 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-13004.xml