“What Beethoven might have learned from J.S. Bach”

Abstracts: New Beethoven Research Conference
New Orleans, Oct. 31-Nov. 1, 2012
Wednesday morning, October 31, 9am-12:00pm, Bayside A
Joel Lester, professor, Mannes College of Music

“What Beethoven might have learned from J.S. Bach”

Beethoven was the first major composer to have grown up knowing the music of J.S. Bach, playing The Well-Tempered Clavier (vol. 1 only?) before his teens.  Haydn was largely unaware of Bach’s music, and Mozart was a “mature composer” when he encountered it.  How might this early exposure have influenced Beethoven?  Beyond his well-known use of counterpoint and fugue, I argue that Bach’s influence perhaps pervades three aspects of Beethoven’s music:

1) Vigorous Rhythmic Energy.  Bach’s metric hierarchies often feature vibrant energy at all levels, including contra-metric groupings, as in the C-major Prelude’s figuration, where the pattern projects significant activity in half-notes, quarter-notes, eighth-notes, and a contra-metric 2+3+3 grouping of sixteenths.  Beethoven frequently creates metric hierarchies with significant activity at several metric levels as well as contra-metric groupings:  e.g., in the Fifth Symphony’s opening theme group (where the eighth-note pulse features contra-metric 1+3 and 1+2+1 – but never 2+2 – groupings) and at the “Ghost” Trio’s ff opening (where four-note scale-fragments begin off the beat in a displaced 2/4 metric that contradicts other factors supporting the notated 3/4).  Such rhythmic/metric complexities, common in Beethoven, are different from active rhythms by Haydn and Mozart.

Bach’s double fugues feature subjects with strikingly different rhythmic features (e.g., the C#-minor Fugue in WTC I).  Beethoven uses strikingly different rhythmic profiles for different themes in sonata-form movements, so that, as in Bach’s music, musical interactions and cross-references occur because of rhythmic as well as melodic motives.  In the Fifth Symphony, e.g., the first theme group completely lacks quarter notes, whereas quarter notes are ubiquitous in the second key area; then as the recapitulation begins, the new bassoon counterpoint’s quarter notes are a rhythmic reminder of the second theme.  Again, this Bachian/Beethovenian feature is absent in music by Haydn and Mozart.

2) Reinterpreting Unaccompanied Opening Thematic Material.  Bach’s fugue subjects are as famous for what they omit as for what they contain, allowing multiple interpretations as the piece unfolds.  This is also true of many unaccompanied Beethoven openings:  e.g., the Fifth Symphony’s opening motive lacks C (so that it can be heard in Eb upon the exposition’s literal repeat), and the opening motive of Beethoven’s first string quartet (strikingly similar in melodic profile to Bach’s C-minor Fugue’s subject) waits until m. 4 to announce its mode.

3) Heightening Rhetorical Processes Culminating at a Movement’s End.  Bach’s fugues often end with a contrapuntal tour-de-force (e.g., the Bb-minor Fugue, where the concluding stretto’s five voices replicate the exposition’s entrances).  Beethoven’s codas often include an apotheosis of a theme or motive left incomplete earlier (e.g, the “Ghost” Trio’s first movement coda that ends as the hitherto incomplete opening motive leads to a conclusive motion).