Solution to a Beethoven Mystery

In my previous post (“A Big Surprise in Beethoven”) I called your attention to a phrase–the climactic one in the first movement of Beethoven’s “Harp” quartet–that has the uncanny quality of sounding at once new and familiar (one of the deeper things music can do). The familiarity part is no illusion, since the phrase is anticipated earlier in the movement. But its anticipation isn’t the easiest thing to recognize–and last week I invited you to find it.

The phrase has its genesis all the way back in the stirring theme that, after a slow introduction, begins the movement proper (at 2:09 in this YouTube clip). Note, in particular, the “dotted rhythm” portion of the theme (in red here). Now fast-forward to a thrilling stretch in the movement’s development section where, beginning at 5:13 in the clip, Beethoven hones in on that dotted rhythm portion, passing variants of it between the first violin and the cello. One of these dotted-rhythm variants has an unsuspectedly auspicious future.  Here’s the variant I mean (it’s stated twice, at 5:15 in the cello and 5:21 in the first violin).

Now jump ahead to the climactic phrase at the end of the movement. (It occurs at 8:48 in the clip.)  In a simple-seeming but utterly transformative move, Beethoven has taken the melodic shape of the dotted-rhythm variant and given it an entirely new rhythm, one surpassingly suitable to the variant’s new role as the hymn-like crown of the movement. (Scratch “transformative;” insert “transfigurative.”) If we feel as though we’ve heard this “crown” before, it’s because we have (even as we haven’t, quite). In this recasting of spirited phrase as glorious crown, we see musical creativity at its whitest Beethovenian heat.

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