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Thread: Is Beethoven really being tonally ambiguous?

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    Senior Member caters's Avatar
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    Default Is Beethoven really being tonally ambiguous?

    I have heard arguments that the introduction of Beethoven's first symphony is an example of tonal ambiguity from several people, but the first one I heard it from was Chairat Chongvattanakij, a youtube channel that has analysis videos of 6 of Beethoven's 9 symphonies. Specifically I heard it in this video, not surprisingly, an analysis of Beethoven's first symphony:



    But I disagree. Instead, here is my perspective on the situation.

    First measure emphasizes the subdominant, but we don't know it yet. There is then further emphasis on the submediant and the dominant. But we don't know until towards the end of the introduction that that is what is going on. Still, the harmonic motion is too clear for it to truly be tonal ambiguity. True tonal ambiguity would involve harmonic motion that isn't as clear as it is in Beethoven's works, and more likely, the whole tone scale or the pentatonic scale. Only 1 composer I know of did this on a regular basis, that one being Claude Debussy.



    So what else could explain this fleeting C major that isn't confirmed until the Allegro? Modulation. I think this is what is going on, starting from the cadence on F. It would explain why C major is only there in fleeting moments before it goes back to being in A minor or whatever. It isn't until the last measure with its long G chord and its fast downward scale that leads straight into the Allegro that C major is confirmed as the key. Further evidence that this is modulation and not tonal ambiguity? Basically any of Beethoven's works, they all involve lots of modulation, including moments where the modulation is almost constant.



    A great example of this though is his Rondo a Cappricio, which modulates a lot and has this moment of constant modulation where the key moves from B major to Ab major, through a bunch of seventh chords, most of them being diminished 7ths on the leading tone of the key they lead to or in third inversion. The sequence of vii°7 -> I is interrupted by G#°7, a chord that is treated like a B°7 that leads to C minor. This then leads to another sequence of V7 -> vii°7 4/2 -> V7 -> I, which ends on Ab major. In fact, I could analyze this entire piece, and perhaps I should.

    But getting back to his first symphony, I think modulation is the answer. The harmonic motion is too clear to be tonal ambiguity, yet the C major is too fleeting to sound like the tonic in the introduction. The only thing that explains both of these things is modulation.

    Here is the symphony with the score, so that you can see the fleeting C major:



    And here is Rondo a Cappricio so that you can see why I think it is modulation and not tonal ambiguity that is the answer:



    Do you think modulation is the answer as to why C major doesn't feel like the tonic in the symphony introduction, or do you think Beethoven truly is being tonally ambiguous?

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    Senior Member Woodduck's Avatar
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    I agree with you that the opening of Beethoven's 1st Symphony is not tonally ambiguous. There's simply some momentary suspense, since we aren't sure what the tonic is going to be until we hear a distinct dominant in bar four. The whole progression, I7 - IV - V7- vi - V7/V - V - V7, is easily comprehended in the home key of C.

    Tonal ambiguity isn't the same thing as simple uncertainty about where we are at the moment or where we're going. If that were the case we could describe a large portion of tonal music as tonally ambiguous, making the concept rather useless.
    Last edited by Woodduck; Aug-07-2019 at 06:19.

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    Senior Member millionrainbows's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Woodduck View Post
    I agree with you that the opening of Beethoven's 1st Symphony is not tonally ambiguous. There's simply some momentary suspense, since we aren't sure what the tonic is going to be until we hear a distinct dominant in bar four. The whole progression, I7 - IV - V7- vi - V7/V - V - V7, is easily comprehended in the home key of C.
    I disagree; I think that Beethoven IS exploiting the harmonic ambiguity of the C major scale, with its tendency to want to go to F via the leading tone E-F, and the general instability of the note F in the C major scale.

    Tonal ambiguity isn't the same thing as simple uncertainty about where we are at the moment or where we're going. If that were the case we could describe a large portion of tonal music as tonally ambiguous, making the concept rather useless.
    To the contrary, in this sense much of tonal music is tonally ambiguous, and this is built-in to the system with the C major scale and its unstable "F" note. But call it what you will; that's irrelevant to the facts of what is going on in diatonic music using the major scale.
    If you'd rather save the term "tonally ambiguous" for other purposes, fine; but this Beethoven example clearly demonstrates that CP tonality relies on a constant harmonic tension, and a tendency to move out of the tonic key into the subdominant. In fact, this is a "built-in" feature of the C major scale.
    Last edited by millionrainbows; Aug-07-2019 at 14:20.
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    Senior Member Bwv 1080's Avatar
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    Ok so now we get the Lydian Chromatic Beethoven? LOL. You have to wait until op132 for that. Why did Beethoven feel the need to flatten the ‘second leading tone’ by making the opening chord a dominant seventh?

    ‘Tonally ambiguous’ is a relative concept within a particular style - can not compare LvB to Debussy. Relative to classical period norms, the intro is ambiguous, particularly with the opening dominant chord which was unprecedented for music of that period

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    Senior Member millionrainbows's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bwv 1080 View Post
    Ok so now we get the Lydian Chromatic Beethoven? LOL. You have to wait until op132 for that. Why did Beethoven feel the need to flatten the ‘second leading tone’ by making the opening chord a dominant seventh?
    Yes, "The Lydian Chromatic Beethoven" proves that this is an underlying principle of tonality, not just George Russell's concept.

    The presence of a flatted seventh is not essential; the ascending leading tone takes care of everything. The net result, root movement a 4th up (we hear 4ths as 'root on top') is sufficient. Nice try, though. When will you see that I'm right?

    ‘Tonally ambiguous’ is a relative concept within a particular style - can not compare LvB to Debussy. Relative to classical period norms, the intro is ambiguous, particularly with the opening dominant chord which was unprecedented for music of that period
    I agree. So reserve the term for other things, and tell this to the thread-starter. Now, quit quibbling about terminology, and address the question at hand.
    "The way out is through the door. Why is it that no one will use this method?"
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    Senior Member isorhythm's Avatar
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    million, as Bwv 1080 pointed out, the beginning sounds like it might be in F because Beethoven wrote B flat. In other words, because he made it not Lydian. It literally shows the opposite of what you're claiming.

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    Quote Originally Posted by millionrainbows View Post
    I disagree; I think that Beethoven IS exploiting the harmonic ambiguity of the C major scale, with its tendency to want to go to F via the leading tone E-F, and the general instability of the note F in the C major scale.

    To the contrary, in this sense much of tonal music is tonally ambiguous, and this is built-in to the system with the C major scale and its unstable "F" note. But call it what you will; that's irrelevant to the facts of what is going on in diatonic music using the major scale.
    If you'd rather save the term "tonally ambiguous" for other purposes, fine; but this Beethoven example clearly demonstrates that CP tonality relies on a constant harmonic tension, and a tendency to move out of the tonic key into the subdominant. In fact, this is a "built-in" feature of the C major scale.
    As your "call it what you will" acknowledges, this is really a semantic, not a substantive, argument. How much uncertainty about where we are in a musical discourse we want to call "ambiguity" is mostly just a terminological preference. If we want to call any degree of uncertainty as to a passage's direction "ambiguity," then Beethoven isn't any more ambiguous here than much of Western music is, and the word isn't very useful. Personally, I'd reserve "ambiguous" for harmony that distinctly suggests alternative destinations and alternative readings, and keeps us in suspense for more than a few seconds as to what choice might be made. The opening of the 1st symphony uses such common chords, stays so close to the tonal center, and clarifies its destination so swiftly that after hearing it once we can't experience even momentary uncertainty. This is quite unlike the opening of Tristan, which never loses its intended quality of ambiguity no matter how many times we hear it.

    I think Bwv 1080 stakes out a sensible position when he says "‘Tonally ambiguous’ is a relative concept within a particular style...Relative to classical period norms, the intro is ambiguous, particularly with the opening dominant chord which was unprecedented for music of that period."

    As for your present obsession with proving that the major scale is inherently ambiguous and unstable - a theory popping up here as it seems to everywhere of late - I have to continue to reject the whole notion that there is any "tendency to move out of the tonic key," or to move anywhere at all, built into any scale. Tendencies of notes to move or resolve to other notes are functions of the laws of tonal systems, not of scales. Scales are not tonal systems but only the raw materials out of which tonal systems are made, and any scale can be the basis of more than one tonal system. The third note of the major scale has no desires, but is perfectly content with its lot, until and unless it becomes part of a chord needing a resolution - typically to IV or ii - of which the movement from the third to the fourth tone is an element.

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    Beethoven was (at times) a harmonic rascal. I'm sure he chuckled as he decided to start the first symphony with a secondary dominant seventh that delayed the sense of the real tonic. So he faked us out for a short time. But that's all. C major is fully heard soon after. I personally would not call those opening bars "tonally ambiguous".
    "Music in any generation is not what the public thinks of it but what the musicians make of it"....Virgil Thomson

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    Quote Originally Posted by isorhythm View Post
    million, as Bwv 1080 pointed out, the beginning sounds like it might be in F because Beethoven wrote B flat. In other words, because he made it not Lydian. It literally shows the opposite of what you're claiming.
    I'm talking about his root progressions by a 4th upward (C-F), not 5th (Bb-F).
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    Quote Originally Posted by Woodduck View Post
    I have to continue to reject the whole notion that there is any "tendency to move out of the tonic key," or to move anywhere at all, built into any scale. Tendencies of notes to move or resolve to other notes are functions of the laws of tonal systems, not of scales.
    I disagree, completely.
    "The way out is through the door. Why is it that no one will use this method?"
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    "In Spring! In the creation of art it must be as it is in Spring!" -Arnold Schoenberg

    "We only become what we are by the radical and deep-seated refusal of that which others have made us." -Jean-Paul Sartre

    "I don't mind dying, as long as I can still breathe." ---Me

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    Senior Member millionrainbows's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bwv 1080 View Post
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    Just a little lower, and he might disappear into a dark vortex.
    "The way out is through the door. Why is it that no one will use this method?"
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    "In Spring! In the creation of art it must be as it is in Spring!" -Arnold Schoenberg

    "We only become what we are by the radical and deep-seated refusal of that which others have made us." -Jean-Paul Sartre

    "I don't mind dying, as long as I can still breathe." ---Me

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    Quote Originally Posted by millionrainbows View Post
    I'm talking about his root progressions by a 4th upward (C-F), not 5th (Bb-F).
    Why stop at F? In your model, Beethoven's use of a Bb should shift the "tonal gravity" to Bb Lydian, no?

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    Senior Member Bwv 1080's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by millionrainbows View Post
    I'm talking about his root progressions by a 4th upward (C-F), not 5th (Bb-F).
    Nice try, its Bb-A in an upper voice, not the root movement - so answer the question - why flat the 'second leading tone'? would not C-F in the bass plus B-C in an upper voice have more LCC tonal gravy than C-F/bass Bb-A/upper voice?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Bwv 1080 View Post
    Nice try, its Bb-A in an upper voice, not the root movement - so answer the question - why flat the 'second leading tone'? would not C-F in the bass plus B-C in an upper voice have more LCC tonal gravy than C-F/bass Bb-A/upper voice?
    You're missing the underlying point. The tendency to modulate up a fourth (C-F) is a tendency which is also manifestly inherent in the C scale by its very note-content (as a harmonic tendency), so he doesn't have to use a leading tone; the mere harmonic presence of the 4th scale degree, in any major scale, is enough to suggest this tendency. Beethoven was a harmonic thinker.

    I keep saying, over & over, "F is the culprit," yet nobody recognizes this obvious fact.
    Last edited by millionrainbows; Aug-08-2019 at 11:44.
    "The way out is through the door. Why is it that no one will use this method?"
    -Confucious

    "In Spring! In the creation of art it must be as it is in Spring!" -Arnold Schoenberg

    "We only become what we are by the radical and deep-seated refusal of that which others have made us." -Jean-Paul Sartre

    "I don't mind dying, as long as I can still breathe." ---Me

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