Let’s look at the A theme in Beethoven’s first symphony.
We’ve already talked about his incredible opening, and how he used a secondary dominant in the subdominant region, breaking with all of the norms.
Tonal harmony & harmony functions
The A theme in Beethoven’s first symphony is in the key of C major. Let’s set the map to the key of C, and set the level at basic diatonic just to start.
As we’ve mentioned ad nauseam, this map shows the three regions in tonal harmony. The tonic – our home , the subdominant – shown as the mountain region, and the dominant – represented by a boat on a rough sea. These three regions are always present in any tonal piece, and the functions are always located in the same exact place.
If we view the map functionally, we can see the I and the vi belong to the tonic region in the major key. The i, the bIII and the vim7b5, are the tonic functions in a minor key. Remember, the map shows major and minor keys simultaneously, since composers often borrow chords from the minor mode when in major, and sometimes vice versa.
The IV chord is a subdominant, as is the ii. And in the dominant, we find the V7 – both in major and minor keys. These functions are always in the same place. The V is always at one o’clock in the dominant region, and the IV is always at 11 o’clock in the subdominant region.
A harmonic progression is then exactly as walking around the map from function to function. When we take an often used path, the map shows it, telling us this is something well known in harmony. V7 to I shows this arrow – we all know as the perfect authentic cadence.
Or a IV to I shows this arrow – indicating this is another very often used path we call plagal.
How Beethoven creates a theme
To create a theme Beethoven – or I should say; any composer writing a tonal piece –
needs to accomplish two main tasks: create a memorable melody and, establish the key. To create a memorable melody Beethoven will use his favorite technique: Motivic Development. Beethoven motives are usually very short and simple, we could say they are atomic. In his first symphony the motive is just three notes G B and C.
This motive offers some nice properties, since the notes themselves trace an authentic cadence. The degrees 5 7 1 (or Sol Ti Do) are already helping to establish the key. Another interesting property is that the last note in the motive could be used as the first note of the motive, turning it into C G B C, with the last note playing the role of the first note again, overlapping two consecutive motives C-G-B-C-G-B-C. The way Beethoven creates a theme from this motive, is also using one of his favorite grammar techniques: Idea, Repetition & Variation.
We explain this concept in depth in the video.
Basically Beethoven uses a grammar structure to construct a theme based on a simple motive. The theme is built by loosely, or literally, repeating the motive one time and then introducing a variation of the motive with a conclusive extension. We call this grammatical structure: The Trinity – made out of three parts. In this theme the idea is the motive G B C – again, the last C could be interpreted as the first note in the motive C G B C. It’s worth noting that music offers this property, that allows us to overlap words, where the end of a word may be used as the beginning of the next word. Listen to the first development of the motive.
There’s the idea the repetition and variation with a conclusive extension.
How to develop a motive in music
Notice how the variation is built by developing the motive. Developing a motive is a curious combination of creativity and skills (or techniques.) Some of the techniques you can use include: rhythmic development, retrograde, inversion, and so on.
These techniques allow you to take essential properties of musical elements and transform them to create musical statements that are somewhat related to the original idea. There are no rules on which transformations one should apply to an idea though. Ultimately it will be your creativity, practice and taste, that dictate the final outcome. We can learn a lot about a composer when we study the different techniques he or she uses to develop musical ideas.
In our examples, Beethoven got rid of the dotted eighth note followed by a sixteenth, introducing some rhythmic development to the motive, by changing them into straight eighth notes.
Also, he adds a repetition of the C note. So now we have c c g b c c g b c. This allowed him to get a constant stream of eighth notes, while at the same time, conserving the proportion of the c note against the g and the b notes. This stream of eighth notes increases the amount of movement, which is then slowed down – with the conclusive extension of the variation – by just using quarter notes.
Beethoven’s mastery, unquestionably shows in the incredible capacity of developing the motive using the russian nesting dolls effect, in which the variation, is in itself contained in an idea – repetition – variation Trinity. Even the conclusion of the variation is in itself in that format. And even further, the last three notes in this conclusion is the motive – by way of quarter notes.
Every single note supports every other note in this motivic development. Simply amazing! An essential property of this new and extensive motive, is the harmonic progression embedded in it, which is just a C chord throughout the tonic.
How to establish the key
You must understand this isn’t always the case. Beethoven will sometimes create motives with more complex harmonies embedded but, in this case it’s just a I chord. Beethoven must now establish the key. Remember, as a tonal composer, you must take the listener for a ride across the landscape and, in order to do that, you must somehow show them where home is. The best way to do this is to give them an initial tour around the map. Just imagine telling them: “So here’s your home, and this is the mountain region, and there’s the rough sea.”
This setup is essential. Only after the listener understands this landscape, can you begin to tell your story. Your theme is the character. So now that Beethoven has extended the motive – the protagonist of our story. He simply takes it for a ride across the map and you, as the listener, in some way, become this character and experience the story firsthand throughout the music. And interestingly enough, the three regions of the map are themselves a trinity. And Beethoven uses this property to create an even bigger russian doll, to develop the new extended motive into an even more complex idea – repetition – variation theme we call: Theme A.
How does Beethoven take you around the map then? Very simple. He uses the most often used traveled roads in the landscape: I ii V7 I. Basically he says: “Here’s the tonic. This is the subdominant. And this is the dominant. And now we’re back to the tonic.”
A beautiful way of seeing this is imagining the motive as your character. The character feels at home here. Then he travels to the mountain region – the subdominant. And this is how he feels here.
Then he goes to the dominant region. He then returns home – not without taking a final look at the entire landscape.