An Analysis of the Finale from Beethoven's Eighth Symphony

by Richard Blocker

April 9, 1986

Perhaps the most striking event in all of Beethoven's Eighth Symphony is the C-sharp in measure seventeen of the finale. After sixteen bars of extremely quiet music in F-major, ending with a half-cadence (on C-natural), this fortissimo C-sharp in bare octaves comes as such a surprise that one is not quite sure what has happened. What comes as even more of a surprise is that the music which immediately follows seems to have not been effected at all since it is simply a parallel consequent phrase to the first sixteen bars' antecedent, cadencing not on C but on F (tonic). Beethoven could have left out this C-sharp and the music, up to this point, would make just as much (or more) sense from the standpoint of traditional harmonic practice in the classical style.

There is, however, much left to be said. Anyone who knows Beethoven's music knows that it is intensely logical and that nothing in it is merely affectation. How ever great the affective response elicited by the surface detail may be, it is always heightened by Beethoven's ability to incorporate the surface detail into the large-scale fabric of the work. In the case of this finale, the C-sharp does indeed startle the listener, but as the music unfolds one understands that it has a much more profound effect on what follows than at first appears. The way in which this seemingly alien element is treated in the larger context of the movement will serve as the main focus of the analysis which follows.

The form of this movement exhibits aspects of the traditional rondo final movement of a symphony in that it may be divided into six sections arranged as follows: three occurrences of a "rondo" section, each separated by a "diversion", ending with a coda (see Figure 1). From the standpoint of a listener unaquainted with the work, however, this formal scheme is at first somewhat obscure. This is because each of the rondo sections is divided into two contrasting thematic areas (A and B in Figure 1) which might be perceived as the themes of a simple "sonata-allegro". The movement is indeed much like a sonata-allegro until it reaches what would be the recapitulation (m.151) where, not only is Theme-A in the "wrong key"(A-major), but the theme is also abruptly cut off in mid-stream only to return suddenly in the "right key" (m.161). Then the "exposition" is repeated, with only the changes one would expect in a "recapitulation", and leads into a second "development". By this time, if not before, it is apparent that the movement is not a sonata-allegro and when Theme-A returns (again in a "wrong key" which is similarly treated), the aspects of rondo form become more clear.

Figure 1: Formal Outline
Measure Nos.SectionTheme
98-161XMotive from Theme A
224-355X'Transformed motive from Theme A

If one were to construct a paradigm for a two-theme rondo in the most rudimentary and traditional classical manner, it would probably look much like Figure 2. Here Theme-A each time appears in tonic, Theme-B appears twice in dominant and the last time in tonic, and each "diversion" (X and X') begins in some related key and finds its way to a dominant preparation for the return of Theme A. In the movement in question, however, the composer has created a much more complex set of key relationships (Figure 3). Here we see that Theme-A appears, in whole or in part, in no less than five keys and that Theme-B appears in four. The way in which these key areas interact and the reasons for their great number will be dealt with momentarily. First it should be pointed out that all of the non-diatonic key areas, excepting one (F-sharp minor), stand in mediant relationships to either tonic or dominant of F-major (Figure 4). One should also note that the "alien" C-sharp which occurs between the two appearances of Theme-A in each R section is the enharmonic equivalent of the lowered submediant of F-major (bVI). It cannot be merely coincidence that this is so. Beethoven is clearly exploring mediant key relationships in this movement in such a way as to give them a functional importance which seems to go beyond what a Schenkerian analyst might see as dividing of the space between tonic and dominant or tonic and sub-dominant.

Figure 2: arrows indicate modulation; dashed arrows: through many keys

Figure 3: key areas of main themes appear in open noteheads

Figure 4: mediant relations to tonic and dominant

One reason for this is that every mediant related major key of the tonic F, both diatonic and lowered, is utilized as a dominant substitute. Specifically, each of the first two appearances of Theme-B (m.m.48-56 and m.m.224-232) is in either A-flat or D-flat major when one would expect them, in simplest terms, to be in C major (dominant). Another place where one would expect the dominant is at the end of either of the quasi-developmental "diversions", but instead Theme-A appears, the first time in A major and the second in D major (m.m.151-155 and m.m.345-349 respectively).

However, one can return for a moment to the perspective of the first time listener mentioned above and note that the second appearance of Theme-B, in D-flat, does not seem terribly unusual as an element of a sonata-allegro recapitulation. It stands in a tonic relationship to the "exposition's" dominant and, since it modulates to the tonic of F major (just as the A-flat modulated to the dominant), it could very well round out the tonal implications of the movement (aside from a few peculiarities of the "development"). So it would seem that this mediant key is not a substitute for dominant but for tonic. The movement does not, however, end at this point. If it did, the anomalous C-sharp would remain just that: an anomaly which had only a few curious effects on the keys of the movement.

Instead, Beethoven integrates the C-sharps and the key areas into a powerful climax in the final rondo section. He does so by allowing the C-sharp to have an immediate effect on what follows its, by this time expected, appearance; that is, it becomes the dominant of the F-sharp minor statement of Theme-A. This ties up all the loose ends of the harmonic "peculiarities" because, not only does F-sharp complete a V/V-V-i progression in relation to the previous statements of Theme-B (its appearances in A-flat and D-flat), it also stands in the same mediant relationships to the appearances of Theme-A at the end of the development sections as F-major does to the appearances of Theme-B in A-flat and D-flat (Figure 5). All of these relationships are made clear in the music in two ways: by motivic association (a more middleground level), and by direct harmonic motion (on the surface of the music).

Figure 5

To illustrate this, let us look at the way the work unfolds in time. Theme-A begins in a normal classical manner: A ten bar phrase divided into two sub-phrases of 4+6, ending with a half-cadence in measure ten. Following this there is a reiteration of the dominant through eight bars in which the head-motive of Theme-A is fragmented and which reduces in dynamic level to pianississimo. Then, on the up-beat of bar seventeen, the fortissimo C-sharp suddenly appears and just as suddenly disappears as Theme-A returns, this time fortissimo and in the full orchestra, on the up-beat of bar eighteen. As mentioned earlier, the next ten bars are a parallel consequent phrase to the first ten bars, ending with a full, perfect-authentic cadence on the tonic (m.28). Following this are eight bars of cadential confirmation (2+2+2+2) plus twelve bars of modulation to C-major. In these bars of confirmation/modulation there are only the slightest of hints that the C-sharp ever occured: Beethoven "borrows" a vii°7/V and a ii° from F minor in bars 29 and 30 respectively. Thus, on a very local level, the notes A-flat, G, D-flat and C (second violins, m.m.29-31) relate to important key areas of the movement. This occurs again during the modulation, in the key of C major, during bars 37-39 (E-flat and D in violas; A-flat and G in second violins). At the end of the modulation, the dominant is once again extended, this time of C major, but now it is a full dominant-seventh sonority which resolves "deceptively" to A-flat major where Theme-B begins (m.48). This is, of course, a parallel movement to that of C to V-sharp.

Theme-B unfolds as two repititions of an eight bar phrase (4+4) separated by a modulation four bars in length (m.m.48-68). The modulation is effected by treating the A-flat as a Neapolitan of V in C major which moves to V7/V, then V, and finally tonic (m.m.56-60). Consequently, one hears the reverse of the semitone motion G to A-flat along with the direct sub-mediant to tonic relationship of A-flat to C. Both of these relationships are emphasized: the semitone by dwelling on the dominant just before moving to A-flat (or C-sharp during Theme -A) and the mediant by the pedal points which occur under the statements of Theme-B (A-flat and C).

Following Theme-B is what may be termed a closing theme which simply reiterates tonic (C) through linear motion from C to G and back (m.m.68-76). This is repeated more forcefully, but this time when the final dominant seventh is reached, it is extended for two bars, moves to a dominant seventh of F major for two bars, then finally to tonic (now in F-major). The rapidity with which this modulation takes place greatly weakens the tonic cadence and when the "diversion" begins in the same manner as the movement proper it seems, once again in the ears of our unenlightened listener, that perhaps the "exposition" will be repeated. There are several reasons, however, why it would by highly unlikely that these first ninety bars could be the exposition of a traditional sonata-allegro, not the least of which is its small size. At the "Allegro vivace" tempo indicated in the score (84 bars per minute), this point is barely over one minute of music. This, coupled with the fact that the music continues on in the tonic key as the "development" section (X) begins, would make for a less than typical sonata exposition. Beethoven seems to have been in a particularly jovial mood in this movement since he could hardly have been unaware of the confusion that he was creating both formally and with the sudden C-sharp out-bursts.

At any rate, this first "diversion" (m.m.90-161) develops a motive taken from the second leg of Theme-A (Figure 6) in a quasi-fugal treatment which moves through many keys. The key which receives the most emphasis is A-major, which is not surprising since it is the goal of this section (m.m.151-157). This emphasis is very subtle but cannot be overlooked. It first takes shape in bars 112-116 where the motive occcurs twice in its characteristic descending-fifth shape (E to A) in both the dux and the comes voices. This reiteration of the motive in A-major, plus the cadential oboe and bassoon lines in m.m. 113-114 & m.m.115-116 and the sustained octave A's in the second violins and violas, makes this key area stand out; especially since it is the first new key since the return to F major at measure ninety.

Figure 6: motive developed in X

There is, however, no real closure because the harmonic and rhythnic motions continue. The next key area is D major and it receives just as much emphasis as the preceding A-major. D major is also an important key area, as we know, but what seems to be most important about its appearance in this local context is that it emphasizes the begining of a descending-fifth harmonic progression which is continued through G-C-F and B-flat (m.m.122-129). After the B-flat is reached, the perfect fifth becomes a diminished fifth (B-flat to E) which in turn becomes a perfect fifth (E to A). Here again we see a subtle emphasis on A-major since this progression (B-flat to E to A) turns the circle of fifths back on itself at a point where it will return to its point of origin by way of a progression which parallels that of the modulation between the two statements of Theme-B discussed above. This is also the mid-point between where A-major first appeared (m.112) and where it will mext appear (m.151).

The decending-fifth progression continues from this, but when it reaches G (m.136), although the actual pitches a fifth apart are present in each bar, the harmony no longer adheres clearly to a descending-fifth progression and the linear voice leading elements become the primary shapers of forward motion. In other words, the vertical sonorities assume a secondary role as it becomes decreasingly possible to distinguish between "harmonic" and "non-harmonic" tones which adhere to any logically functional tonal progression. This culminates in the rocking motion alternating D-sharp and E in m.m.148-151 which prepares the entrance of Theme-A (first leg only) in m.151. Each time that this theme appears at the end of either of the developmental "diversions" it is over a dominant pedal relative to its tonality rather than the tonic pedal which characterizes its appearances at the beginning of a section (again, relative to its tonality). In both of these appearances at the end of section, after the first four bars of the theme come abruptly to an end, all that is left is the dominant pedal alternating in octaves for eight quarters (m.m.151-157 and 349-351), which just as suddenly shifts to the pitch F in alternating octaves for sixteen quarters (m.m.157-161 and 351-355). This in turn becomes the tonic pedal beneath the first leg of Theme-A when it begins R' and R". The abruptness of these shifts makes one feel as if something has gone awry (again, as if the return of Theme-A was in the "wrong key") and the music is starting over again in an attempt to set things straight.

So far in the movement the prominent key areas, aside from tonic and dominant, have been upper mediants of F major (A-flat and A). In the next two sections (R' and X') they are all lower or sub-mediants (aside from tonic and subdominant). This is brought about by simply not modulating to the dominant in the part of A' which is analogous to the confirmation/ modulation between Theme-A and Theme-B of R. Therefore, instead of arriving at a V7/V just before Theme-B' arrives in R', the harmony is a V7 in F major (m.223). From this point until the end of X' (m.251) all of the key areas which are associated with either of the themes are simply a fifth lower than before. This, in a sense, "resolves" the dominants and dominant substitutes of R and X to their respective "tonics" in R' and X'. This is not to assert that there is any true plurality of key in the movement, but to point out that at this point in the music (the end of X') there has been an association made between key areas of analogous thematic statements (occuring at formally significant points which parallels that of dominant moving to tonic. The relationship which these keys have to tonic has not yet been made clear in any functional sense. There is still one omportant step left before this final tonic is reached.

Before we proceed to that tonic, however, let us look briefly at X'. The first major difference between it and X (aside from key) occurs in bar 277 where the first leg of Theme-A is fragmented and sequenced upward to effect a modulation to D-minor. It is apparent that the underlying key structure here is the same as before (only a fifth lower) and that it is mainly the surface motivic structure which has been varied. The jagged rhythms of X have been smoothed into flowing legato lines which are treated in the same fugal manner as before. Along with these lines there is a rhythmic ostinato, also taken from Theme-A, which begins almost imperceptibly but grows until at m. 342 the entire orchestra save the 'basses and 'cellos has been taken over by it. This then drives forward into the return of Theme-A in the key of D major, the important aspects of which have already been discussed. The character of this "diversion" (X') is such a dramatic change from that of the rest of the movement that it almost seems to be the reverse of "comic relief", that is, "tragic relief". It seems strange and, indeed, ironic in the context of the rest of the movement, but it adds an emotional depth and sense of tragedy which are hallmarks of Beethoven's music.

The jovial mood is soon regained, however, as the D major statement of Theme-A is halted and the abrupt shift back to F major takes place. As has been pointed out, in this repitition of Theme-A the C-sharp does not merely disappear once it has made its appearance. Instead, it keeps coming back until it "forces" the second statement of Theme-A into the key of F-sharp minor (m.m.379-390-). The theme appears here nearly in its entirety, the exception coming when the ninth bar is reached and instead of cadencing in F-sharp minor, the previous two bars are repeated twice. In the second repitition a truly marvelous modulation takes place which seems to be brought about by the sheer force of the F-natural octaves in the brass and timpani (m.391). Of course, the reason it seems so is because this moment has been carefully prepared. If one inspects the preceding points which are analogous to the point at which these octaves enter, one notices that the F-natural has always been there (spelled enharmonically as E-sharp, on the second quarter of bars 387 and 389 in 'basses, violas and bassoons) as the leading tone in F-sharp minor.

The preparation goes much deeper than this, however, because the entire movement is in a sense a preparation for this moment. This is the point where the mediant relationship of D-flat to F is finally resolved. What is interesting is the way in which the resolution takes place. In the key of F-sharp minor, the functional sonority built on C-sharp (D-flat) is that of the dominant seventh chord. At the point where the modulation takes place, it is indeed a dominant seventh of F-sharp minor which is the structural harmony. What Beethoven does is to take advantage of the fact that a dominant seventh sonority is the same as that of the so-called "German-sixth" chord. This dominant seventh is reinterpreted as an augmented-sixth in F major (Figure 7).

Figure 7

This is the first occurence of this particular progression in the movement although there have been two occurences of a similar progression. The modulations between the repititions of Theme-B in R and R' are in effect simply elongated versions of the same motion; the only difference is that the A-flat and D-flat sonoritios respectively are not functioning in the local contexts as dominants but as tonics. Therefore they are more stable and in order to destabilize them, Beethoven does not merely add a minor seventh above their roots but moves the harmony through a series of chords in relation to which they function as Neapolitan pre-dominant sonorities (Figure 8).

Figure 8

It is as though Beethoven is preserving this specific progression for the climactic moment in the movement since the key areas which are utilized within the movement are fertile with possibilities for this progression to proliferate. Between any two statements of a theme where the second statement is a major third above the first this progression would be possible. There are four such instances in the movement (Figure 9). This concept of preserving a progression is also applicable to the key of F-sharp minor. If one constructs a table of the tonic triads of the keys in which the main themes have appeared prior to the F-sharp appearance, then "destabilizes" those triads by adding a minor seventh above their roots and then resolves those resulting sonorities as both dominant sevenths and "German-sixths", one notices that, of the resulting triads, only three are not themselves tonic triads of major thematic key areas (Figure 10). What is of further interest about this table is its relationship to the order of appearance of these key areas within the movement. It has already been noted that in R' and X' all thematic appearances, after A', are a perfect fifth lower than in R and X and that this in a sense "resolves" those previous appearances or at least subordinates them since their primacy is undermined in relation to a new "tonic" area. There is no problem in seeing the C-major and F-major of Theme-B in this light since it is a "normal" syntactical relationship in the key of F-major. By parelleling this "normal" relationship in the mediant key areas (A-flat to D-flat and A to D), Beethoven emphasizes the importance of the mediants and raises them to the status of structurally functioning key areas. However, their function is not clarified on the surface of the music until the "alien" C-sharp resolves to F-sharp minor which lies in a tonic relationship to both D-flat as a dominant seventh and D as an augmented-sixth. The F-sharp is also the logical outcome of these long range relationships since it is the only key area among the possibilities illustrated in Figure 10 which is not utilized prior to this point (the bracketed triads all serve as dominants in some local context).

Figure 9

Figure 10

In the long range relationships, then, there is an inherent movement toward not only F-major but also F-sharp (Fig. 11) ( in this case minor, probably because the minor mode is less stable and its tonic is more closely allied with that of F-major since they share a common pitch). This double motion is kept alive on the surface of the music by the sudden appearances of the C-sharps, the spelling of which now makes sense in the larger context. The appearances of Theme-A in A-major and D major make sense as well in this context, leading to F-sharp minor, just as the Theme-B appearances in A-flat and D-flat lead toward its final appearance which is entirely in the key of F major (m.m.408-431).

Figure 11

Following this final appearance of Theme-B, it seems as though Beethoven cannot resist one final outburst of humorous good nature. Instead of cadencing on the expected tonic on bar 432, the entire orchestra blares out a fortissimo F dominant seventh chord which is accompanied by the motive from the first leg of Theme-A. This harmony suddenly resolves in the manner of an augmented-sixth (this time to V instead of I64 ) to an E major triad which then moves to dominant in F-major. Immediately following this is the coda where Theme-A appears, finally, with no C-sharp outbursts.

One final plea may be made for the innocence of our listener who was at first confused as to the form of this movement. It has been mentioned that there are certain aspects of the form which seem, in retrospect, to be intentionally confusing: the two themes of section R, the beginning of the first "diversion" as if it were a repeat of the "exposition", and the return of Theme-B in R' in keys a perfect fifth below the keys in R. All of these things have similarities to sonata-allegro conventions. It does not seem too far fetched, however, to see the movement as a combination of rondo and sonata-allegro forms. By adding another dimension to the inherent tonic/dominant dichotomy of functional tonality, Beethoven has extended the essential dramatic aspects of sonata-allegro and at the same time has fused this essence with the conventions of rondo structure. The rondo aspects of the form seem to be side-effects of this extension of sonata-allegro to include two developments and two recapitulations in order to resolve both the tonic/dominant dichotomy and the mediant relationships.

To summarize, the C-sharp "interruptions" of R and R' and the subsequent resolution to F-sharp minor are not only motivic surface features but are also the logical outcome of syntactical harmonic relationships which have been incorporated into the large scale formal plan of the movement. Incorporating these relationships constitutes an extension of conventional harmonic practice of Beethoven's day in such a way as to make this "rondo" seem a broadened "sonata-allegro"; thus, in his own masterful way, Beethoven has synthesized the two into one coherent whole.

About this document.