A Darker Turn: Post-Transition Minor-Mode Excursions as Stylistic Device

Presentation Video: https://youtu.be/DVdg_G-GkN8


In the first movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in C Minor, op. 13, the music after the medial caesura, which “should” inaugurate a secondary theme in the mediant (E-flat major) instead initiates a thirty-eight-bar excursion in E-flat minor that takes place over an unstable dominant pedal. A similar situation occurs in the first movement of Louise Farrenc’s Trio for Piano, Flute, and Cello in E Minor, op. 45 where a six-bar phrase prolonging the dominant in the minor mediant (G minor) follows the medial caesura. Both of these minor-mode interjections are followed by passages in the major mediant which lead to authentic cadences in their respective keys.

Although these instances may seem like formal quirks, they descend from a late-Baroque and early-Classical practice that used the minor mode to provide modal contrast in major-mode movements. Shifts between parallel major and minor keys occur frequently in the works of Vivaldi and continue to be used in early-Classical works like the finale of Haydn’s String Quartet in E-flat major, op. 1, no. 2. Although in the eighteenth century this one finds this device primarily in major-mode movements, a precedent for Beethoven and Farrenc’s minor-key adaptations of it occurs in Carlos Seixas’s Sonata in E minor. This paper recognizes the historical precedents for the examples by Beethoven and Farrenc and transforms them from seeming anomalies to updated versions of a well-established structural and stylistic device.

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