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Study Day - Beethoven's Sonata Form


University of Oxford

This event was our first official study day, which attracted 11 participants from such institutions as City, Durham, RCM, Royal Holloway, and as far away as the Fryderyk Chopin University of Music (UMFC) in Warsaw! Our study day was divided into three sessions: 1) a reading group; 2) an analytical case study; and 3) a writing club. We devoted our first two sessions to Beethoven’s piano sonatas, beginning with three different accounts of the ever-perplexing Tempest sonata by William Caplin, James Hepokoski and Steven Vande Moortele. While Caplin’s and Hepokoski’s approaches differ significantly as one might expect, most of us seem to prefer Vande Moortele’s historically informed perspective, where he offers a refreshing account drawing on Dahlhaus’s interpretation with reference to the 20th century Formenlehre discourse. Coming from a performer perspective, James Lipka (RCM) and Violeta Casero (UMFC) were particularly intrigued by Vande Moortele’s analysis-based suggestions to performance, in which he illustrates how the issues of formal organisation can be articulated through various characterisations; this follows Schmalfeldt’s influential idea of ‘becoming’, addressing the potential connection between formal studies and performance. Sunbin Kim (Durham) pointed out the tangled relationship between tonality and rhetoric, a problem with Caplin’s form-functional theory is often confronted with. Although the tonality-rhetoric non-congruence is often conceived as characteristic of the Romantic repertoire, it bears on the issue of form in Beethoven’s piano sonatas.


For the final writing-club session, participants were divided into groups of three according to their research interests to peer-review each other’s pre-submitted writings. Although the participants’ interests differ, they nevertheless deal with a similar repertoire or adopt a similar approach within their respective groups, which consequently led to a constructive discussion that lasted for as long as two hours! As winter was approaching, a delightful trip to the pub was perhaps the best way to endure the early darkness. We finished our study day with a rewarding pint after a productive and long day well spent in Oxford!

             Issues as such were brought forward to our analytical case studies of op.13 (‘Pathétique’)/I and op.54/I. While the role of the introduction’s refrains has been ambiguous in op.13/I, Bozhidar Chapkanov (City) perceived it to be a process of integration. He utilised Schmalfeldt’s idea of becoming and suggested that the introductory material is gradually becoming part of the sonata form. In contrast, Dan Elphick (Royal Holloway) regarded the introduction and its refrain as what Adorno called ‘extra-territorial’ and considered them as ‘malfunctioning’ introduction-coda frames. Apart from the introduction, Sarah Moynihan (Royal Holloway) took issue with the subordinate theme as well – she interpreted what could otherwise be heard as the closing section (from bar 89 onwards) as a second subordinate theme. This is not without precedent; Mozart ended the exposition of his Symphony no.41/I with a new theme, which calls into question the role of a ‘closing section’ altogether. As we proceeded, Op.54/I engendered even more doubts in terms of not only its formal organisation, but also the idea of sonata as a genre. While no one in the room would consider it as a sonata-form movement, Ivan Penev (City) spotlighted the problem that analysts sometimes presupposes sonata form in a sonata and yet the sonata as a genre does not necessarily refer to its formal codification. This thought-provoking distinction between genre and form led us to rethink our professional practice as analysts, which thereby brought a natural end to our Beethoven discussion.

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