A troublemaker in the octet: A hermeneutical approach to Beethoven’s op. 103

December 1, 2005


In the opening “Allegro” movement of his Wind Octet in E-flat major, Op. 103, Beethoven perpetrates a bit of mischief at the expense of the listener—and the analyst. In this paper, we will examine some analytical puzzles of this movement, then attempt to solve them by exploring a possible hermeneutical interpretation and applying Schenkerian techniques.

The hermeneutical narrative that we will attempt to apply here represents only one possible interpretation, but it is useful because it provides an accessible context for dealing with problematic elements (we will deal with an oddly recurring melodic motive, some unexpected harmonic turns, and a formal deformation). The Schenkerian techniques are effective here for identifying and explicating the essential harmonic motion.

A motivic troublemaker

Troublemaker motive
"Troublemaker" motive

The first riddle of the Allegro is a trill-like motive (example 1) that dominates the opening of the movement. It appears in the first oboe, repeated in each of the first four measures. We will investigate a possible hermeneutic role of this motive: the impish troublemaker. (The troublemaker motive remains closely associated with the first oboe, though the first oboe also plays a part as a fully cooperative member of the ensemble. The oboe isn’t the troublemaker; the motive itself gets the blame.)

The motive occupies a place of apparent prominence—seeming on the surface to be the driving force behind the first theme. It is rhythmically more active than any of its surroundings; indeed, the only sixteenth notes in this movement (save brief flourishes by the first clarinet and second horn in the recapitulation) are within this motive. The motive also predominates registrally and texturally, appearing in the octet’s highest voice and wholly unaccompanied.

A critical look at the motive itself, however, reveals hints of its real role. The motive consists, in essence, of nothing more than a single note, ornamented with lower and upper neighbors. Like many troublemakers, it is charming but ultimately lacking in substance or direction.

Application of Schenkerian techniques confirms the inability of this motive to participate meaningfully in the unfolding of the first theme. Though the first oboe controls the highest voice through nearly the entire theme, it fails to provide a good kopfton. The first convincing primary tone on scale degree 3 in the first oboe appears in measure 22, after the first theme has already achieved its conclusive cadence (m. 17). The first passable primary tone on scale degree 5 occurs even later, at measure 27.

To find a credible primary tone, we must ignore the troublemaker’s tricks. Closer inspection of the first few measures reveals the true opening melodic material of the first theme—a subtler tune beginning in the first clarinet, who has trouble getting a word in edgewise between the troublemaker’s witticisms. With the clarinet line as primary melodic material, we find our kopfton in an agreeable place, right in the first measure, and can relegate the troublemaker to his rightful place as an inner voice.

Example 2: First theme, mm. 1-17. Troublemaker as inner voice.
Example 2: First theme, mm. 1-17. Troublemaker as inner voice.

As soon as the octet plays the conclusive cadence in measure 17, ending the first theme, the troublemaker reemerges. His caper this time is to drag the tonic chord down by successive thirds, diluting the effect of the cadence. The octet must summon its full fortissimo forces to restore the cadence’s integrity (mm. 20-28), but succeeds only just in time to begin the transition to the dominant key area for the second theme.

That the troublemaker reappears (m. 28) just as the harmony is thrown again into confusion is surely no coincidence. The octet, having already arrived decisively in B-flat major in measure 28, now staggers through G minor (mm. 31-33), grasps at the tonic to right itself (mm. 34-35), and finally arrives successfully at the dominant B-flat in measure 39.

Summary of first theme, mm. 1-38

m. 1 E-flat major theme is inroduced in the first clarinet, despite the first oboe “troublemaker” motive’s bid for attention.
m. 17 PAC; close of the first theme proper.
Feint toward a more distant key area.
m. 20 Reaffirmation of the tonic cadence.
m. 28 Transition through G minor and E-flat major, toward dominant B-flat major.

The octet begins the second theme seemingly determined to prevent any further hijinks. They seem especially bent on maintaining the prominence of the Urlinie tone, avoiding a fiasco like the obscured kopfton of the first theme; there are only a few brief moments in the second theme proper when the structural scale degree 2, F, is not sounding emphatically in at least one inner voice.

Example 3: Second theme, mm. 39-64.
Example 3: Second theme, mm. 39-64.

As the second theme begins, the troublemaker appears to have given up. But his silence really means, of course, that he is up to no good. In measure 47, he attempts his most brazen stunt yet—bringing his own first-theme material into the middle of the second theme (shown again as an inner voice in example 3). Once again he wishes to disrupt the harmony, this time making a determined effort toward C minor. The octet rallies quickly, and prevents the troublemaker from getting any farther than a secondary dominant in that key (mm. 49-50). The awkwardness of the tug-of-war in these measures is reinforced by parallel fourths in the ensemble.

Having succeeded in preventing a harmonic coup by the troublemaker, the octet returns to B-flat major via a tidy progression (mm. 51-55). In measure 55, the troublemaker makes a repeated attempt, but is rebuffed in the same way as before. The second consecutive win convinces the octet that their victory is complete, and the theme closes with a perfect authentic cadence in measure 63. The horns and second bassoon ardently prolong the dominant note B-flat through measure 68, while the troublemaker’s tantrum, a harmonized version of the motive with alternating natural and flatted sixth scale degree, only underscores the thoroughness of his defeat.

Summary of second theme, mm. 39-69

m. 39 B-flat major theme is introduced.
m. 47 Troublemaker motive from first theme returns. Unsuccessful move toward C minor.
m. 55 Repeated move toward C minor, again unsuccessful.
m. 63 PAC in B-flat major. Cadence’s arrival is accompanied by the “tantrum” variant of the troublemaker motive.

A change of heart?

As the octet catches its breath upon completing the exposition (m. 68), the troublemaker sees an opportunity and takes it. He moves decisively into C minor, finally fulfilling his intent from the second theme.

The troublemaker refuses to participate in real developmental activity at this time, submitting only to some perfunctory transpositions to the chord tones of C minor. The harmony here is defiantly stubborn in its prolongation of C minor, first alternating between a C minor chord and its dominant (mm. 71-75), then C minor and its subdominant (mm. 76-79).

Already bored with his uncontested success in the development, the troublemaker muses idly (mm. 80-85) on what a rhythmic motive from the second theme (m. 40, bassoon I) might have sounded like, had he been successful in his C-minor bid. He drifts to A-flat major.

Here, a most surprising thing happens—a new theme, in A-flat. It is a gently cascading, piano theme—could it be that the troublemaker is feeling a twinge of regret over his unruly behavior? The introduction of strikingly new thematic material within the development suggests a breakthrough, which could alter the course of the recapitulation; the new theme is more profound than the troublemaker’s trill-like motive, and will require some closure.

This new theme continues into E-flat (mm. 90-94) and then C minor (95-101), as if retrospectively comparing the polite tonic with the troublemaker’s C minor naughtiness. This leads to a remorseful outburst as the tantrum version of the troublemaker motive returns in C minor (mm. 102-106), followed by an acceptance of E-flat major (m. 109) and its dominant (m. 111).

But the change of heart is not quite complete yet. The troublemaker motive returns once again, though weakened by rhythmic augmentation (mm 112-120). The troublemaker is tempted by distant keys, but overcomes each and returns to the dominant key of B-flat major. The first temptation is E-flat minor (mm. 112 and 114), which sounds foreign but is relatively close in terms of voice leading: the note B-flat is shared between both triads, and the E-flat and G-flat of E-flat minor are each only a half step from B-flat’s D and F. The next temptation is more severe—a C-flat minor triad (m. 117), more polar in its voice-leading relationship to B-flat. The C-flat temptation recurs in measure 119, but the troublemaker steels himself against the dissonance with a firm B-flat pedal.

Example 4: Development, mm. 70-125.
Example 4: Development, mm. 70-125.

The octet celebrates the troublemaker’s conversion (mm. 120-125) with some material from the first theme (mm. 5-6), in B-flat major, becoming a dominant of E-flat to herald the recapitulation.

Summary of development, mm. 70-125

m. 70 Direct modulation to C minor.
Development of troublemaker motive.
m. 80 Development of a rhythmic idea from the second theme.
m. 83 Direct modulation to A-flat major.
m. 86 New “breakthrough” theme in A-flat major.
m. 90 Direct modulation to E-flat major.
m. 96 Direct modulation to C minor.
m. 102 More development of troublemaker motive.
m. 107 Modulation toward B-flat major begins.
m. 111 Cadence in B-flat major.
m. 112 Troublemaker motive, rhythmically augmented.
Prolongation of B-flat major, with neighboring chords of increasing dissonance.
m. 120 Reaffirmation of B-flat major as dominant of E-flat.

Troublemaker reformed

The opening material returns at the recapitulation (m. 126), including the former troublemaker’s motive. But the troublemaker has clearly changed his stripes. Instead of steering the harmony in an unwanted direction like he did in the expository first theme (mm. 17-19), he leads the octet directly into its cadential IV—>IV6—>V7—>I pattern (mm. 130-136).

The troublemaker’s transition from first to second theme does appear again in the recapitulation, but now it has been embraced by the group. The motive is passed from clarinet (m. 138) to bassoon (m. 140). The second theme arrives in the tonic key (m. 149). Is it coincidental that this transition, which, in the exposition, was in G minor and E-flat major, is now transposed down a fifth C minor and A-flat major, the pivotal key areas of the development and the site of the troublemaker’s reform?

At measure 154, we reach the point where, in the exposition (m. 47), the troublemaker made a strenuous effort to commandeer the harmony and move to C minor. In the corresponding place in the recapitulation, the octet seems to be daring the troublemaker to make mischief, repeating its phrase three times, more boldly each time, interspersed with virtuosic bravado from the clarinet and horns (mm. 154-160). The clarinet cannot resist egging the troublemaker on (mm. 162-163).

When the troublemaker responds (m. 165), it is not with his mischievous motive, but rather his repentant breakthrough theme from the development. Then troublemaker and octet replay their C-minor disagreement from the exposition (mm. 47-62), transposed to F minor for the recapitulation (mm. 169-184), but, in light of all that has transpired, this recurrence seems more an expression of a lesson learned than a real disagreement. The conclusive cadence of the movement takes place in measure 185.

Exposition and recapitulation compared

m. 1 First theme (E-flat major). m. 126 First theme (E-flat major).
m. 17 Feint toward a more distant key area.
m. 20 Reaffirmation of tonic cadence. m. 130 Affirmation of tonic cadence.
m. 28 Transition through G minor and E-flat major toward dominant B-flat major. m. 138 Transition through C minor and A-flat major, back toward tonic E-flat major.
m. 39 Second theme (B-flat major). m. 149 Second theme (E-flat major).
m. 154 Progression stalls.
m. 165 Breakthrough theme from development (E-flat major).
m. 47 Unsuccessful move toward C minor. m. 169 Unsuccessful move toward F minor.
m. 63 Cadence in B-flat major. m. 185 Cadence in E-flat major.


It seems possible that Beethoven used the “troublemaker” concept as a catalyst for generating the problems and solutions of this movement. But whether or not any narrative content was intended, judicious application of a possible hermeneutical reading provides a useful frame of reference for revealing underlying motivic and harmonic procedures.

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