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Title:Beethoven: Sonata No.12 in A-flat Major, Op.26, "Funeral March" (Lewis, Kovacevich, Buchbinder)

If you’ve been following this series of Beethoven sonatas for a while and (God forbid) you’ve actually been reading all the analyses, you’ll have noticed that structural unity is sort of B.’s thing. His movements tend to be connected by all sorts of motivic tissue, linkages and affinities and backward glances, plus boundaries between movements get fuzzier as we reach the late sonatas, and themes more concentrated and abstract.

But you also have this sonata, standing in spectacular isolation. It’s not just that it has no movement in sonata form; it’s that the first movement is in *Theme and Variation* form, which, in lacking literally any tonal tension whatsoever, is as far from sonata form as you can get. And the theme, which in Beethoven is usually designed to be a sort of rich motivic/developmental mine rather than an attractive thing in itself, is here just flat-out-beautiful. And so all the forward movement in this movement comes only from the theme's unfolding and elaboration, nothing else.

There is also the fact that the four movements aren’t motivically linked at all. The first movement does in one way relate to the rest, in that in contains the outlines of the entire sonata’s structure: the theme and Var.1 are the first movement, the impish Var.2 is the Scherzo, the tragic Var.3 the funeral march, and the lyrical/grazioso/ecstatic Var.4 the finale. But the point is that this sonata works because its movements are different, not because they are similar – a pretty extraordinary conception of what a sonata can be. The first movement’s calm is erased by the scherzo, with its silly passing pretentions to f minor. Then a funeral march wipes away any attempt at joviality, and the finale comments with some irony on the heavy-handedness of the march.

MVT I, Andante con Variazioni
00:00 – Theme. Beautiful and rather Schubertian melody in ABA form (Op.142 No.2)
01:26 – Var.1. A glowing, warm melodic elaboration, featuring quartet-like writing
02:50 – Var.2. A pointillistic decomposition of the theme, which, depending on how you play it, can sound daintily languid or quite exciting, especially with the unexpected accents in the bass
03:56 – Var.3. A wonderfully still, enigmatic variation, with some clever harmonic progressions
05:23 – Var.4. A wryly elusive variation that never decides which register it wants to be in. Taken at a faster tempo, it turns into something like a scherzo, but at a slow tempo becomes funny in a rather self-deprecating kind of way.
06:34 – Var.5. Triplet movement which later turns into demisemiquavers. The melody blossoms into something quite moving. It *just about* hints at the sorts of ecstatic textures B. would explore in his late sonatas.
07:56 – CODA

MVT II, Scherzo. Allegro molto
08:44 – Scherzo, Strain I. Opens with surprising Fm chord, closing at first into wrong key (Eb), which then rights itself.
08:56 – Scherzo, Strain II. Based on opening figure of Strain I. Long anticipatory tail on dominant of (vi), pretending to close into either F min or F maj. But:
09:18 – Scherzo, Strain III enters – in Eb/Ab (what else?) with counterpoint in treble and melody in bass (with a new chromatic passing tone that will significantly colour the whole section). Melody and bass switch places.
10:15 – Trio
10:59 – Scherzo da capo

MVT III, Marcia Funebre
11:56 – FUNERAL MARCH. 8-bar melody under monotone, closing into Cb maj (relative major)
12:28 – Cb maj becomes Cb min, written as B min. At 12:48 we pause on the subdominant, which then leads to D maj(!). It’s an extremely distant key from Ab min, yet we don’t seem to have gotten there via any unusual means.
12:59 – Violent enharmonic return to the home dominant, via the dominant of the dominant, since single bar which is insisted upon another two times.
13:17 – The main funeral march theme returns. This time it passes through (iv) to the Neapolitan, then back to the dominant.
13:58 – TRIO. Drumrolls + salutes
14:59 – FUNERAL MARCH da capo
16:58 – CODA, featuring eerie dissonances.

MVT IV, Allegro
17:38 – THEME/A Section. The first four semiquavers in the RH form a Motif (M1)
18:09 – Transition, featuring M1 in LH punctuated by loud chrords
18:14 – EPISODE 1/B Section, in (V). Note inverted M1 in LH, then RH
18:37 – THEME/A Section
19:09 – EPISODE 2/C Section, in (iii). C min, then G min, F min, and eventually Eb, the home dominant. Once Eb is reached a chromatic figure winds upward, eventually morphing into M1
19:39 – THEME/A Section
20:11 – Transition. Note addition of contrary motion in LH, Bb min (instead of maj) at 19:08, which the new material at 20:17 “corrects”
20:22 – EPISODE I/B Section, in tonic.
20:41 – CODA/A Section. M1 is woven into a 4-bar phrase coloured by (IV) and (ii). Over a tonic pedal the figure descends, eventually leading the sonata to simply evaporate.


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