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


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.)

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Paul Hindemith and the Trio Op. 47: Steps toward a mature style

Paul Hindemith was born in Hanau, Germany, in 1895. Unlike most of his composer contemporaries, who came from the privileged classes, his origins were humble ones.

Hindemith’s father, Robert, was a manual laborer and amateur zither player, who, despite a necessarily tight budget, saw that Paul and his siblings received musical training. Robert Hindemith raised his children with strict discipline, especially in terms of their music education. He took them to the local opera house, often on foot, and quizzed them on the way home, rewarding unsatisfactory answers with spankings. Later, Herr Hindemith organized his children into the Frankfurt Children’s Trio. Guy Rickards suggests that it was “despite” this “exploitative” upbringing that Paul and his brother Rudolf both went on to successful musical careers.

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Dvorák’s “New World” and jazz music: Heirs to a common heritage

In 1892, Czech composer Antonín Dvorák came to the United States. He came at the invitation of a Mrs. Jeannette Thurber, a wealthy music lover who wanted him to head up her latest pet project—a conservatory of music meant to rival the famous conservatories of Europe.

Dr. Dvorák, already known for his use of traditional Czech musical elements in his compositions, arrived in the New World to find it rich with ethnic music. He was particularly impressed with the spirituals of the black slaves:

I am now satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States. When I first came here last year I was impressed with this idea and it has developed into a settled conviction. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are American. . . . In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music. . . . There is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot be supplied with themes from this source.

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Anton von Webern’s Quartet for violin, clarinet, tenor saxophone, and piano, op. 22

The composer

Anton von Webern was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1883. (The predicate von identified those of aristocratic heritage until a 1918 revolution outlawed its use; the composer’s works were published under the name Anton Webern.) His father’s career in mining engineering caused the von Webern family to move several times during Anton’s youth; in Klagenfurt at the turn of the century he studied piano and music theory under Edwin Komauer. He also learned to play the cello and participated in community orchestras. His earliest compositions, for piano and cello, date from this period. In 1902 he was deeply impressed by performances of several Wagner operas, and entered the University of Vienna to study musicology and composition. Before receiving a doctoral degree in 1906, he began studying privately with Arnold Schoenberg.

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