[Smt-talk] Beethoven's Sonatas

nancygarniez at tonalrefraction.com nancygarniez at tonalrefraction.com
Fri Feb 24 14:08:35 PST 2012

Dear List:
A very wise piano teacher (Hans Neumann) alerted me to the extent to which words denoting expression are descriptive of the musical event itself not of anything extra-musical, whether an emotion or pictorial or poetic reference. An example was his likening of "espressivo" to "watch out" or "listen carefully." I find this advice to be deeply insightful as the extra attentiveness itself evokes a special state of mind in the player, thus in the listener. 

An example I have observed is the term "agitato," generally taken to evoke a state of agitation. In my experience, particularly in the sonatas of Beethoven, it denotes the presence of a triple-meter undercurrent within the notated duple meter. Treating the meter as ambiguous in this way imparts an agitation far more difficult, more compelling and thus convincing than any attempt to conjure up (a la Harpo Marx) an enactment of agitation. I cite especially the Moonlight Sonata, last movement in which the right-hand sixteenth notes produce a powerful line when thus played, even more powerful because invisible to the conventionally-trained rhythmic sensibility.

Nancy Garniez

-----Original Message-----
From: Dunsby, Jonathan [mailto:jdunsby at esm.rochester.edu]
Sent: Thursday, February 23, 2012 10:08 PM
To: 'smt-talk'
Subject: Re: [Smt-talk] Beethoven's Sonatas

I wish I truly knew what you mean by 'emotion.' Human feelings seem to be incredibly complex. How do you know you're even asking meaningful questions about what happens when people need music?

Pinning a word to an abstracted musical object seems, well, doubly, utterly weird, although music-cognition people do it all the time. I personally think they are fantasizing, but there we are.

You carry on. Who knows what you may discover?

You might find Naomi Cumming's The Sonic Self interesting, in its warnings about mentalist preconceptions?


Jonathan Dunsby
Chair, Music Theory Department
Professor of Music Theory
Eastman School of Music


From: Joshua Albrecht
Sent: Thu 2/23/2012 11:46
To: smt-talk
Subject: Re: [Smt-talk] Beethoven's Sonatas

Dear list,

Perhaps I should post some clarification. A number of you have responded to my question about the emotional expression of excerpts from the Beethoven sonatas with concern about the subjective nature of any response you could give, paired with some suggestion for approaching the question from within a given theoretical framework. In actuality, I am interested in your subjective experience of Beethoven, because what I'm really curious about is how to look at subjective experience more objectively. What I'm really after is a set of excerpts that have the potential to be strongly evocative of different emotions for a range of listeners. The research indicates that despite the individual differences between listeners in how they approach an excerpt, there is quite a lot of agreement about the emotional expression perceived in a given excerpt. In order to study this more in depth, I'd like to get a number of excerpts from a limited repertoire (in this case Beethoven sonatas) that cover a broad range of emotions.

One way of doing that would be to randomly sample excerpts from all of Beethoven's piano sonatas. The downside to this approach is that I may not get a lot of variety in the emotions expressed. In other words, many of the excerpts could express the same emotions (or worse, not be particularly expressive at all). Another approach (the one I'm using) is to ask a panel of experts about what excerpts are particularly evocative of various emotions. Getting a pool of excerpts would allow me to actually test any number of theories about how musical structures contribute to emotional expression in Beethoven's sonatas.

Thanks again for your thoughts!

Joshua Albrecht
School of Music
Ohio State University

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