Beyond the Beethoven Model: Sentence Types and Limits

Shea, Matthew Bailey

It is quite likely that no other form in the history of Western music theory
has been so strongly associated with a single musical example as the sentence.
Most forms are not defined by a single locus classicus - no one piece
serves as the ultimate paradigm of sonata form, no single phrase represents
the virtual embodiment of the period. When it comes to the sentence, however,
one example is consistently privileged above all others: Beethoven's
Piano Sonata in F Minor, op. 2, no.1, first movement, bars 1-8 (ex. I).
The most obvious reason that this example is so favored is that Arnold
Schoenberg himself used it as the primary exemplar of the form.!
(Schoenberg, of course, "discovered" the sentence.) Since then, nearly every
theorist who has written about the sentence has mentioned the Beethoven
theme as a model example.2 It would be inaccurate, however, to assume that
theorists continue to emphasize this example simply because Schoenberg
used it first. After all, the theme does provide an excellent example of many
standard sentence features. Bars 1-4 contain a common tonic-dominant
alternation-what William Caplin refers to as "statement-response repetition"
(1998:37-39). The continuation includes typical features such as
motivic fragmentation and acceleration of harmonic rhythm, and the sentence
concludes with a conventional half-cadence. The overall metric grouping,
moreover, is the usual 2+2+4, and the continuation contains a typical
embedded grouping of 1 + 1 + 2.
Yet when we consider how theorists have written about this theme, it
becomes clear that the example is not privileged because of these generic
qualities alone.



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Columbia University
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November 5, 2014