Beethoven’s Rondo in C Major Analyzed and Annotated

by Constantin Von Sternberg

Ludwig von Beethoven – born in Bonn on the Rhine, December 16, 1770, died in Vienna, March 26, 1827, – was one of those heroic figures in the history of music whom we mentally associate with J. S. Bach, Handel, Haydn and Mozart, although his similarity with these illustrious anteriors consists of no other quality than what may be called soul caliber. His family, though originally Belgian, had lived in Bonn on the Rhine for two generations before he was born. In his younger years he was assistant organist and viola player in the orchestra of the Grand Elector, Frederic William; the shabby treatment he suffered at the hands of this prince was perhaps a tributary cause of turning Beethoven at an early age into an arch-democrat, which he remained until his death.

Simple as it may appear to be a democrat in our present age, in his days it meant not only a thinker, a seer into the future of humanity be a character of oak like sturdiness, for in those times the rulers of their countries were masters over life and death of their “subjects”, and this in a still higher degree than those who were recently dethroned. Beethoven’s democracy manifested a soul which, in spite of custom and governmental power, was conscious of its human right of liberty and civil equality.

When a certain publisher, in buying one of Beethoven’s manuscripts, tried to lower the price by telling him that his Sonatas did not “sell” and that he was not a good “risk” for a publisher, he replied: “I do not write for publishers; I write for hearts. Remember that!” His purse proud brother once left a note for him which, as a mark of disdain for Ludwig’s profession, he had signed: Frederich van Beethoven, Land Owner. The composer signed his reply, Ludwig van Beethoven, Brain Owner! Wealth and social station never made upon his democratic mind the impression desired by the respective possessors. Behind all the tinsel of wealth or station he saw always the human being and esteemed and treated his as such; kindly, when worthy; very bristly, when otherwise.

At seventeen years of age he visited the – then – great musical center, Vienna, where he was treated with marked distinction. Five years later he moved to Vienna again, but this time it was to stay there permanently.

His Work in General

To speak in detail of the unexcelled merits of Beethoven’s works would be somewhat like enlarging upon the correctness of spelling in great poems. The greatest value of both lies in their truthfulness, and in that they came from the deepest recesses of the soul. Speaking analytically, however, the merits of Beethoven’s works may be summed up in the statement that – as in all truly great works – their form and content are always in perfect balance. Where they are difficult of execution they are not needlessly so; there are no superfluous notes in them – none that may be added, none omitted without injury to the composition and without missing its musical message. There is no “padding”; every measure, every note is there for a definite purpose.

The Rondo in C Major

The Rondo in C Major is numbered Opus 51, though this number but indicates the time of its publication – after the Kreutzer Sonata and the great Romanze for violin. It is fairly certain that it was written a number of years before; it shows but little of the depth which the works just mentioned reveal, but it compensates for its absence by freshness, youthful vigor, naive cheerfulness; and it exemplifies with absolute perfection  the three fundamental principles of all the arts; unit, variety and symmetry (balanced form).

The Rondo form and the compounded song form overlap so frequently as to make it at times difficult – even to the composer, himself – to distinguish precisely. Such is the case in this Rondo. While the first main theme recurs with sufficient frequency to justify the designation as Rondo, yet, all the other themes have so pronounced a character of their own and are so grouped or placed as to justify the term “compounded song form” equally well and to make it preferable for purposes of analysis.

Thus we have a first main theme in the tonic of C major (occupying 17 measures), a modulating part of 7 1/2 measures forming a bridge to the first side theme in the dominant (G major). With the third beat of measure 34 begins the preparation (called the “return”) for the re-entrance of the first main theme (measure 43) which in measure 51 closes and completes the “simple” song form. On the third beat of this measure opens a new part which – like the first part – contains two themes in appropriate tonality relation: the first, which we must now call the second main theme (that is: the main theme of the second part) in C minor, the parallel in tonality of the first main theme, and a side theme in the relative major key of the preceding; each of these themes fills eight measures, after which – with abbreviation – the second main theme in C minor returns and thus completes another perfect “simple song form”. We have thus two complete musical entities. Were it not for the organic unity of the whole piece and for the beautiful “bridge” part beginning at measure 72 these two song forms could be played as two separate pieces and each would be complete in itself. There follows now a “return” – the bridge just referred to – leading to a resumption of the first part which re-opens in the middle of measure 91, but omits the recurrence of its side theme and puts in its place a cadenza like Coda which concludes the piece with a last reminder of the first main theme (measure 131 in the left hand).

Every phrase in this piece occupies two measures. The meter of it begins with the third beat and ends on the second beat of the second next measure. The only exception to this is the side theme of the second part (beginning in measure 59) which consists of phrases of one measure. It may be needless to say that in the measures 34 to 38 there is a rhythmical relation to measure 1 to 8, and that this passage serves as a preparation for the return of the first main theme; still, the relation between the two passages should be in the player’s mind in order to induce such an articulation as will bring the relation also to the auditor’s perception. The antithesis to the first eight measures (measures 8 to 10) furnishes the model after which several other melodic passages in this piece are formed, as will be seen in those which begin on the third beat of measures 17, 59 and 83.

Technic Not Too Complicated

The first main theme demands for its melody a clinging pressure touch. For the accompaniment the principle of chord accumulating must be applied. It would not do to play – or rather to “hold” – the left hand notes strictly as eighths; it would sound choppy. They should be held somewhat longer in order to combine with the following eighth and so complete the harmony. This principle – unless otherwise indicated – is applicable to all kindred places where, for certain considerations, the pedal may not be resorted to for the accumulating. In this piece the principle finds application in measures 18, 19, 20, 21, 22 and 23, where the keys should be held down – also after being struck again – until the respective chord is completed; it also is to be applied in the measures 59 and 65 and all similar places.

The contrast between the first main theme and the first side theme should bear not only upon the dynamics, but also upon the touch which in this side theme should be light and, yet, not devoid of “body”. The robustness of touch, required for the second main theme (measure 51 third beat) should be agreeably contrasted by a singing and clinging touch for the second side theme (measure 59 third beat) while the aforesaid chord accumulating should be done here again by the left hand.

Attention may be called to the accent marks in the left hand of measures 52, 53, 56, 57, 67, 68, 110 and the five measures following. These accents are indispensable if the auditor is to understand the timing. Another matter, and one which is only too often wrongly treated, is the note that ends a melodic phrase, such as the B in measure 4 and kindred notes upon which the phrasing slur ends. The students’ negligence in this particular matter may have induced some teachers to say that the note under the end of a phrasing slur should be played staccato and in some editions it is even marked with a staccato dot. This is, of course, wrong, or at the best it is a gross exaggeration. What should be done is merely a very slight curtailing of the time value of such notes. To illustrate by the first note in measure 2, it may be held for about three eighths, while the fourth eighth is supplied by a breathing pause. Or, taking the B in measure 4 as an example of a note which in itself is of short duration, it may be lightly but gently taken off after half of its proper duration; but it should not be an outright staccato, nor even resemble one.

A safe way to learn the proper enunciation of a phrase is to sing it with some words that fit the meter, and then play it as it was sung; for when we use words we desist by instinct from putting an emphasis upon a weak syllable. The student should ever be mindful that a musical phrase is a song with the words left out – but suggested. He – and she – should never play the piano without investing the mind and the poetic imagination, especially when studying a piece by one of the classic grand masters like Beethoven.