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Analysis of Beethoven's Sonata in Eb Op. 31/3 (Minuet/Trio)

Last Updated: December 26, 2010 / by Michael Kinney


In the following I will discuss Beethoven's Sonata in Eb.  We will first understand the piece in terms of its phrase structure and overall form.  Once these elements are understood, I will highlight the ways in which the minuet and trio contrast.  Finally, I will identify any similarities that exist between the two parts.

In order to understand the overall form of the piece, we must first analyze the phrase structures that make up the minuet and the trio.  We will begin with the minuet which consists of three separate phrases within two sections.  The first phrase in the first section ends with an imperfect authentic cadence in Eb in measure four.  The second phrase ends with a half cadence (Bb) in measure 8.  Though these two phrases do not form a period, they do seem to go well together because of their similar characteristics.  For example, they both end with some form of an open sounding cadence.  The first ends with an imperfect authentic cadence and the second (more open) ends with a half cadence.  In addition, both phrases begin with a similar rhythmic figure (a dotted 8th followed by a 16th).  Finally, on beat one of each of the phrases' beginning two measures, the same note is repeated on beat one of the next measure.  (i.e., the first phrase's repeated note is Eb while the second phrase's repeated note is Bb)  The phrase that begins the second section of the minuet is much different than the two previous phrases.  The most obvious distinction is that it is longer than our previous four measure phrases.  If we look carefully at this phrase we can distinguish it as a sentence.  It contains an idea (mm.9-10), a repetition of that idea (mm.11-12), and finally a movement from the idea that leads us towards the authentic cadence (mm. 16) ending on the tonic (Eb).  When considering both sections of the minuet, we can see that the minuet is binary in form.  Section one ends with an open cadence (half cadence in Bb maj), and section two ends with a closed, authentic cadence in Eb major.

The phrase structure within the trio is different than that of the minuet.  The opening phrase in the first section is four bars and ends with a half cadence in measure 20.  As we will soon see, this phrase is repeated later in the trio at measure 31.  The second phrase of the trio, which is also 4 bars in length, modulates to an authentic cadence in Bb major on measure 24.  We first notice the phrase's modulation with the occurrence of an A natural in measure 21.  These two phrases together form a period since the first cadence is open and the second is closed.  The first phrase of the trio's second section quickly returns to the original key of Eb major by picking up the Ab again.  This phrase is unlike the previous two phrases since it is six bars in length ending with a half cadence in measure 30.  Also, the phrase stands alone since it does not form a period like the two sets of phrases surrounding it.  The phrase following the stand-alone (mm.31-34) is the same phrase found in mm. 17-20 ending with a half cadence.  This is followed by the final phrase of the trio (mm.35-38) that ends with an authentic cadence in the original key of Eb major.  These last two phrases also form a period since the first ends with an open cadence and the final phrase ends with a close cadence.  This period is much like the first period of the trio except that it does not modulate.  When looked at as a whole, the trio may be understood as a rounded binary since it has a stand-alone phrase (mm.25-30) that is surrounded by two periods each having repetitive features.

Now that we have understood the phrase structure and form both the minuet and trio separately, we can make a conclusion about the overall form of the piece.  As with all minuet-trio movements, the overall form is ternary.  This form consists of the minuet ending with a closed cadence, followed by the trio which also ends in a closed cadence.  Finally, we get the minuet again which also ends in a closed cadence.  More simply, we can understand this movement as an ABA form. 

Knowing that the piece is in ABA form, we can now analyze the ways in which the A section (the minuet) contrasts from the B section (the trio).  To begin, the minuet is much more soothing and graceful than the trio.  I believe this is because of its inherent major sound as well as its continual forward movement.   This major sound is created by using notes that are from the diatonic collection.  We do, however, get one important non-diatonic note by way of chromaticism in the second section of the minuet.  This Cb (the first one appears in measure 9) is an upper neighbor to the Bb creating a minor ninth interval that causes tension unknown to the minuet's first section.  When you have this intervallic relationship surrounded by diatonic notes you get a resulting tension that is increased and released with the chromatic note.  (We might consider the resultant uneasy sound as a precursor of what is to come in the trio)  Further, the forward movement inherent in the minuet is created through the consistent 8th notes in either the right or left hand allowing for a continual movement of sound.  This forward movement is also complemented by the use of dynamics.  In the minuet, there do not exist moments where the dynamics change rapidly, rather, it is to be played (p) the entire time with one crescendo beginning in measure five.  Without significant changes in dynamics, the minuet retains its soothing, continuous sound.  In contrast, the trio contains dynamic markings that allow it to be much more forceful and unpredictable.  It begins with (p), and then moves to a crescendo beginning in measure 18.  This is followed by (sf), (p), and finally (f) to end the first section.  If we look at the second section of the trio, the same sort of dynamic contrast holds true.  This unpredictable nature gives the trio its darker, more scary sound.  In terms of harmony, the trio also uses diminished-seventh chords to add to this uneasy feeling.  Much like with the use of the Cb, these diminished-seventh chords create tension especially when they are preceded by chords from the diatonic collection.  (Ex. mm.21 beat 4 and mm.22 beat 4 are both diatonic chords preceding this diminished sound)  By providing these consonant sounds followed by dissonant diminished-sevenths, Beethoven achieves a nice tension and release effect.

In addition to the use of chromaticism in the minuet and in the trio, we can also find other features that the two have in common.  To begin, we notice that both the minuet and trio share Eb as their common tonality.  Furthermore, even though the trio modulates in its first section, if we look closely we see that the first section of the minuet cadences on the same chord as the first section of the trio.  In addition, the modulation in trio is short-lived anyway since we return back to Eb at the very beginning of the third phrase.  This third phrase in the trio is also similar in function to the third phrase in the minuet.  Both begin the second sections of the minuet and trio and both are not periods like the pairs of phrases that surround them.  In addition, these phrases create tension through their use of chromaticism.  This tension allows for a nice contrast between the parts in the piece that have a more diatonic and gentle sound.

To conclude, by looking at the phrase structure and form of the piece, we can gain a better understanding of how each of the sections relate and differ from each other.  The sharp contrast in feel between the minuet and trio gives the piece more texture allowing the listener to be unsure of what mood may emerge next.  As we have seen, the sections also share certain aspects which I think allows the piece to be more cohesive as a whole.  Even though we have these dramatically different sections, each is still tied together by certain deliberate features.  In other words, it is not as though we are selecting two songs each in the same key and playing them one after the other.  Instead, Beethoven uses subtle hints such as chromaticism which prepare the listener to make connections between the various sections of the piece.


About the Author: Michael Kinney

I have played piano since I was 5 years old. I started in classical and then quickly moved to blues and jazz. I studied at the collegiate level and have played professionally since I was 16. My favorite piano players (if I had to pick 3) include Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson and Herbie Hancock). I own several keyboards but always prefer to play on a Steinway if one is available! I live to perform as much as I like to teach.


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