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Beethoven’s Wordless Recitatives

Ludwig van Beethoven may not be the first composer who comes to mind when considering recitative- the sung dialogue that links arias and other musical numbers in an opera or oratorio. Beethoven wrote only one opera, Fidelio, which uses more spoken dialogue than recitative. He spent almost ten excruciating years revising the work, writing four different overtures, and enduring harsh criticism, until finding success with the final 1814 version.

So it’s interesting that operatic recitative occasionally and inexplicably surfaces in Beethoven’s instrumental music. The most famous example is the opening of the final movement of the Ninth Symphony, where the cellos and basses suddenly make an impassioned proclamation. It’s a wordless recitative, but listen closely and you might get a sense of what is being “said.” One by one, the themes of the preceding movements emerge and are cut off by the sometimes gruff recitative. This recitative voice delivers a resounding “No” to the old themes, opening the door for the transformative “Ode to Joy.” Then there’s the sudden, shocking oboe cadenza in the recapitulation of the first movement of the Fifth Symphony. There’s no dramatic storyline in sight, but this lone voice still has something important to say. Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 17, “The Tempest,” opens with the kind of chord which often sets the stage for recitative. Later in the movement, stormy D minor ferocity gives way to this almost time-stopping recitative.

These are a few famous examples. Now, let’s explore three more Beethoven excerpts which feature recitative:

Piano Sonata No. 31

A haunting operatic recitative opens the final movement (Adagio ma non troppo) of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat major, Op. 110, written in 1821. This solemnly contemplative opening sets in motion music of monumental proportions: a lamenting arioso, a three-part ascending fugue built on a motive from the first movement, the return of the arioso, a fugue inversion, and a sudden, blazingly heroic coda. The complex perfection of the fugal counterpoint might remind you of the music of J.S. Bach. But, as American pianist and writer Charles Rosen points out, the fugue is used dramatically:

“Beethoven does not simply represent the return to life, but persuades us physically of the process…For the first time in the history of music these hackneyed devices have become the elements of a dramatic scenario.”

Listen to Daniel Barenboim’s performance of the final movement of Sonata No. 31 and see if you agree. Listen to the way the entire movement grows out of the opening recitative:

String Quartet No. 15, Op. 132

Recitative emerges again in the strange world of Beethoven’s Late String Quartets. Here are the final two movements of String Quartet No. 15, Op. 132: a short Alla Marcia filled with quirky musical conversations and off-center rhythm followed by a restless and edgy Allegro appassionato (notice the jarring dissonances). The two movements are connected by a recitative that is so overtly dramatic that it seems almost comic. How did this sudden burst of opera end up in the middle of a string quartet? What do you think these conversing voices are saying?

Piano Concerto No. 4

Can you hear the seeds of the Ninth Symphony’s recitative in the stern utterances of the strings in the second movement of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto? Listen to the way this musical conversation between two contrasting characters unfolds. As with so many of the wordless recitatives we’ve heard, there’s a tinge of lament in these voices and a sense of time slowing down. At the end of the movement, both voices share a moment of profound mystery:

Recordings

  • Beethoven, The Complete Piano Sonatas, Daniel Barenboim iTunes, Amazon
  • Beethoven, String Quartet, Op. 132, Borodin Quartet iTunes, Amazon
  • Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58, Mitsuko Uchida, Kurt Sanderling, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra iTunes, Amazon

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