Ambiguity and Unity in the Rondo-Finale to Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique

by Jay Hodgson

Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique in C minor, opus 13, has achieved such popularity that even the most stubborn listener cannot help but recognize either of its first two movements. The fierce pathos in the opening Grave theme of the first movement, and the yearning lyricism of the Adagio cantabile, have been widely charted and analyzed by scholars, yet the Allegro finale movement of the sonata is either overlooked or, when it is recognized, addressed in a summary manner. Donald Tovey, in the introduction to his analysis of the movement, writes that “the Sonata Pathétique....begins with a magnificent piece of Homeric fighting; but if we overestimate the tragic quality of such fighting we shall crassly underrating the rest.”1 To underrate “the rest” would indeed result in a crass oversight, for it is in the Rondo-finale movement that Beethoven continues the fight begun in the opening two measures of the Sonata Pathétique and emerges from the ring, as it were, with both hands in the air.

When I listen to the Sonata Pathétique, I am never quite sure how the tensions that Beethoven introduces throughout the sonata are somehow resolved during the Rondo-finale. Repeated exposure to the Rondo-finale movement over the course of my research for this paper has led to my accustomization to the movement’s various twists and turns, yet I am still never quite sure exactly what it is that I am listening to. I certainly do not hear a clear cut rondo, though I know that it is indeed a rondo of some sort (it says so in the score). This ambiguity, however, is corrected by unities within the Rondo-finale movement and within the sonata that it concludes itself. This paper may be somewhat selfishly motivated then. I will begin by arguing that the ambiguities of the Rondo-finale’s formal design are attributable to the “pathetic style” that Beethoven undoubtedly had in mind when he composed the sonata, one of the few that he named, in order to ascertain what rhetorical function these seeming formal ambiguities might play in resolving the pathos of the Sonata Pathétique. I will then chart organic unities within the movement itself, using Heinrich Schenker’s theory of linkage and Arnold Schoenberg’s concept of the Grundgestalt, and draw connections between the sections of the rondo theme as they are developed throughout the movement. I will then explore how these developments relate this last movement to the overall design of the Sonata Pathétique. Indeed, the Rondo-finale’s theme and couplets are interconnected; they could not exist without each other. I have therefore divided this paper into two sections: (1) “Ambiguities,” in which I will explore the formal design of the Rondo-finale movement and (2) “Unities” wherein I chart the development of motivic materials throughout the movement in order to ascertain how these are motivically related together within the Rondo-finale movement and the function that this fulfills in resolving the pathos of the Sonata Pathétique.


There are a number of avenues to interpret the formal design of Beethoven’s Rondo-finale movement. The term “rondo” signifies a set of formal conventions to anyone familiar with the term’s musical meaning that Beethoven must have felt were satisfied by the movement. The Rondo-finale, however, also plays a key role in the overall design of the Sonata Pathétique that exerts an influence over how Beethoven structured the movement in relation to the rest of the sonata. I will therefore examine the movement with a two-fold lens: (1) as a rondo and (2) as the finale movement to the Sonata Pathétique.


The formal design of the Rondo-finale movement concurs with William Caplin’s assertion that “all rondo forms in Western art music display a basic pattern of formal organization. A principle thematic idea -- the “rondo theme” or “refrain” -- alternates regularly with two or more contrasting passages, termed “couplets,” “episodes” or “digressions.”2 The rondo theme appears throughout the finale movement at the following measures: mm. 3/8 1-17, 3/8 62-78, 3/8 120-133, and 170-192. Whether the couplets of the movement feature enough divergences from the rondo theme, or from each other, to consider them “contrasting” is debatable however. The movement’s first two couplets, for example, end by an identical three-measure run from a high F to B natural three octaves below. The figure is marked at least at a forte dynamic during both occurrences:

Figure 1.1

Caplin’s criteria for a “rondo theme” calls for conclusion by a perfect authentic cadence. “The refrain is almost always a conventional, tight-knit theme closing in the home key with a perfect authentic cadence,”3 Caplin writes, later adding that “a rondo theme always closes with a perfect authentic cadence, never a half cadence.” Caplin’s insistence that a rondo theme end by a perfect authentic cadence has to do with the sense of closure that such a cadence provides to apportion the theme from its couplets. According to Allan Cadwallader and David Gagné, rather than a sense of closure, a half cadence instead “exhibits a kind of dual nature, it achieves a certain degree of repose, but also embodies a sense of continuation.”4 Though the rondo theme of the Rondo-finale movement concludes by a perfect authentic cadence, it does not provide the adequate sense of closure by which every rondo theme in a “five-part” rondo must conclude by according to Caplin. The “two bars of final chords,” as Tovey calls the conclusion of the rondo theme, instead crescendo rapidly to a brief resolution to C minor for only the downbeat of measure 18 (Figure 1.2). The thematic materials of the four measures that lead to these final chords (mm. 12-16) are then continued three beats later. The ambiguity that is so characteristic of this movement is already present by the conclusion of this first theme. The rondo theme ends by a perfect authentic cadence, as every rondo theme should according to Caplin, but rather than providing the refrain with a sense of closure Beethoven instead concludes it with “a certain degree of repose” coupled with “a sense of continuation.”

Figure 1.2

The form of the rondo theme itself is also unorthodox. Rather than the “tight knit theme” that Caplin argues defines a rondo, the Rondo-finale features a rather open rondo theme with three distinct parts. I shall call these a (mm. 1-4), b (mm. 5-8) which repeats with grace notes leading to the pitches A flat and G in the melody excised and replaced by octaves below these pitches between measures 9 and 12 (b'), and c (mm. 12-17). These are marked in Figure 1.3. This imbalanced design -- a, b, b’, c -- of the rondo theme contributes to the “sense of continuation” that the “two bars of final chords” provides for the Rondo-finale.

Figure 1.3


Caplin continues to define what he terms a “sonata-rondo” variation of the “five-part rondo” form with which the Rondo-finale concurs. According to Caplin’s criteria, these principle concurrences are as follows: (1) due to “the complex organization” of a sonata rondo, it is used “almost exclusively for fast finale movements.” (2) The rondo theme and first couplet “constitute a sonata exposition” even though this exposition is not repeated in its entirety as it would be in conventional sonata form. (3) The third appearance of the rondo theme and the following couplet “constitute a complete recapitulation of the prior exposition.” (4) Finally, “the coda is a required element of sonata-rondo, because that section includes the final return of the [rondo] theme.”5

Donald Tovey’s analysis of the Rondo-finale concurs with Caplin’s criteria for the “sonata-rondo” form.6 According to Tovey, the Rondo-finale is divisible into the following sections:

The similarity of Tovey’s analysis of the Rondo-finale to conventional sonata form is argued by Caplin to be a shared characteristic of all “sonata-rondos.” “It is only when the music begins to depart the plan laid out in the exposition that the listener can confirm an interpretation of rondo form,”7 he writes. In many rondos, the listener already knows, from the nature of the rondo theme, that what they hear is indeed a rondo, even before the appearance of a couplet. As we have seen, however, the rondo theme in this case does not conform to standard parameters for a rondo theme. In the case of the Rondo-finale movement, then, it would seem that it is only when the rondo theme is interrupted at m. 135, and the first couplet is recapitulated in the tonic major instead of another distinct or “contrasting” couplet, that “the music begins to depart the plan laid out in the exposition.” The rondo form that is articulated during the “exposition,” however ambiguous, here resembles sonata form in which the exposition is conventionally recapitulated after a development section (in this case the second couplet). Taken with the imbalance of the rondo theme, and its conclusion by a “sense of continuation” rather than the normative sense of closure of a traditional rondo theme, the oversight of the secondary theme before the development of the Rondo-finale further compounds the movement’s formal ambiguity.

Pathetic Inversion

It is useful at this point to remind ourselves that the Rondo-finale was composed by Beethoven to conclude the Sonata Pathétique. A possible explanation for the ambiguity of the movement’s formal design may be found simply by marking the title of the sonata which, as I have previously noted, was one of the few that was provided by the composer himself. According to Elaine R. Sisman, the logic of the “pathetic style always stands in opposition to something else.”8 In this case, the logic of the Rondo-finale may serve to invert the normative formal conventions of the late eighteenth century pianoforte sonata. The “something else” that this movement “stands in opposition” to is the traditional formal design of a sonata composition, the sequence of the Rondo-finale bearing marked similarity to conventional sonata-allegro form for the opening movement of a sonata. Donald Jay Grout offers the following criteria as a “textbook” example of this conventional opening movement form:

An exposition (usually repeated), incorporating a first theme or group of themes in the tonic, a second more lyrical theme in the dominant or relative major, and a closing theme also in the dominant or relative major -- the different themes being connected by appropriate transitions or bridge passages; (2) a development section, in which motives or themes from the exposition are presented in new aspects or combinations, and in the course of which modulations may be made to relatively remote keys; (3) a recapitulation, where the material of the exposition is restated in the original order but with all themes now in the tonic; following the recapitulation there may be a coda.9

The Rondo-finale is marked at an allegro tempo, and would fit tidily into Grout’s “textbook” criteria were the secondary theme to recur during the reiteration of the exposition. Where my interpretation of the movement differs from Tovey’s (italicized in the following table), the similarity of the Rondo-finale to these “textbook” conventions of sonata form are even more explicit. The rondo theme (A) in the tonic minor transitions to a secondary theme (B) in the relative major tonality (E-flat major). This is followed by a retransition that urges the couplet back to the dominant of the home key, which is followed by a repetition of the rondo theme but not the secondary theme. The second couplet (C) develops, most explicitly, measures 5 to 12 of the first theme in the keys of A flat and G major. The exposition, as it was initially presented to the listener, is then chronologically recapitulated in the tonic keys of C minor and C major minus the movement’s first transition (A’-B’-retransition’-A’’). The movement ends with a coda from measures 194-210, concluding briefly in A flat major before iterating a final perfect authentic cadence in the home key:

These divergences from Tovey’s analysis are based on a straightforward reasoning. I disagree with Tovey’s contention that the tonality of the movement’s second couplet (C) remains in A flat major throughout. Tovey describes the return of this couplet to the rondo theme as “fourteen bars of preparation on the home dominant.”10 These fourteen bars are actually begun four measures before, at measure 102. The preceding twenty-four measures, marked at a surprisingly listless piano dynamic for a second couplet, develop measures 5 to 12 of the rondo theme. At measure 102 a prolongation of this development begins, leaping to a forte marking at the specific moment that this prolongation commences. This audibly distinguishes the bass pattern begun at this point in the couplet from the preceding twenty-four measures, cycling by fifths as well but ending this time with a chromatic passage of F to the root of the new G-major tonality in which the remainder of the couplet proceeds. An octave below the lowest note previously achieved in the bass is added at this point to further reinforce the distinction.

Whereas Tovey sees no transitions between the rondo theme and couplets of the movement, I feel that the materials that Beethoven has chosen to shift to and from the tonic of the Rondo-finale are interrelated by characteristics that are shared with what precedes and follows them. These transitions serve too integral a function to subsume within the couplets of the Rondo-finale. The first transition, for example, shares many key resemblances with the materials that Beethoven introduces during the last six measures of the rondo theme. The movement of B flat-A flat in the melody over the major third (E natural) of the secondary dominant (C7) of the subdominant (F minor) at measures 13 and 15 of the rondo theme recurs within the first transition in opposite registers. This relationship is transposed sequentially down a major second at measure 22, creating a new harmony that closes in the relative-major tonality of the movement’s first couplet.

Figure 1.4

The retransition back to the first return of the rondo theme is similarly constructed by Beethoven. The transposition of the concluding materials from the rondo theme within the first transition at measure 22 is exploited again by Beethoven to form the closing theme of the first exposition from measures 44 to 50. This is prolonged from measure 12 to 58, though here the materials lead the couplet from the relative major back to the home dominant (Figure 1.5).

Figure 1.5

With these transitions and retransitions, the formal design of the Rondo-finale movement bears marked similarity to what Grout refers to as “textbook” conventions of sonata form. According to Sisman’s criteria for the “pathetic style,” which she explores in relation to this specific sonata, it is entirely feasible that Beethoven’s decision to cast the finale movement in “sonata-rondo” form was influenced by the resemblances of this form to conventions for a first movement of a sonata.

Schenker Rondo

There is one final avenue by which to interpret the formal design of the Rondo-finale movement. Heinrich Schenker argues that a rondo is in fact “two three-part song forms” combined so that “the last part of the first three-part form simultaneously becomes the first part of the second three-part form.”11 Schenker argues that it is due to this ontology that the second couplet of a rondo “is sometimes confused with the development section as it would be found in sonata form.”12 It should be noted that Schenker does not argue that the second couplet of a rondo can never be heard as a development section in sonata form, rather his comments demonstrate the potential for audible correspondence between these two forms as they are “sometimes confused.” It is important, however, to question whether Schenker’s theory allows for similarities between the first two couplets of a rondo; these are plentiful in the Rondo-finale movement. If there is room for correspondence between these couplets in Schenker’s definition of the rondo form, then the Rondo-finale fits quite tidily within his theory, giving rise to another question: is the Rondo-finale “two three-part song forms” with distinct digressions, or two variations of the same “three-part song form?” Viewed in terms of Schenker’s theory of the rondo, the Rondo-finale movement would be derived from the following “three-part song forms:”

Once fused, these “three-part song forms” create a sequence that is similar to the formal design of the Rondo-finale movement. It should be noted that the B of the second “three-part song form” becomes C within the new design due to its relocation into the fusion of the new rondo. The couplet that is derived from the first “three-part song form” B precedes the couplet from the second C. Fused together as a rondo, these “three-part song forms” would create the following sequence:

The refusal of the movement to reiterate its first couplet after the first return of the rondo theme could be explained by Schenker’s theory, as could the absence of the first transition during the recapitulation. The refusal to reiterate the first couplet after the first return of the rondo theme, according to Schenker’s hypothesis, is attributable to the fact that the first return functions to conclude the first “three-part song form” and to introduce the second “three-part song form” at the same time. In this respect, B is not a secondary theme but a digression within the first “three-part song form.” The absence of the transition to B during the recapitulation (mm. 121-194) could also be explained by the fact that the rondo theme is derived, by this point, from the second “three-part song form” which features no transition. Of course, whether transitions are acceptable in Schenker’s theory at all is questionable. If a rondo is derived from two “three-part song forms” why should transitions be involved?
I do not feel that Schenker’s theory adequately demonstrates the interconnectedness of the first two couplets and the rondo theme, nor does it account for the presence of transition materials. His theory lends itself instead to a rondo in which the first two couplets are “contrasting.” It is via the interconnectedness of the first two couplets, however, that the Rondo-finale achieves the sense of a sonata that serves so integral a function for the “pathetic style” inversion of expectations for a finale movement that Beethoven achieves by the Sonata Pathétique. I have examined the movement using Schenker’s criteria because it provides the clearest of definitions of the form of the Rondo-finale on paper. Due to the audible correspondences between the Rondo-finale and “textbook” sonata-allegro form, which serves a rhetorical function in the “pathetic style” of the Sonata Pathétique by appearing within the finale rather than opening movement, Caplin’s definition of the “sonata rondo” form best captures the formal complexity of the movement. The “sonata-rondo” form that Caplin describes allows for the ambiguities that are present in Beethoven’s Rondo-finale, and the movement’s couplets, to all serve an integral structural and rhetorical function. The question remains, however: what function does the “sense of continuation” of the rondo theme fulfill?


Beethoven achieves an organic unity from the seeming ambiguity of the Rondo-finale’s formal design by a number of methods. The sections of the Rondo-finale are in fact interrelated and unified by a series of organic relations between thematic materials and the manner by which they are developed in each. To access these relationships I will use Arnold Schoenberg’s concept of the Grundgestalt and Heinrich Schenker’s theory of linkage. The observations that I will make using the concept of the Grundgestalt are indebted to Barbara Louise Hampson’s critical comparison of Schoenbergian and Schenkerian analytic methods in her graduate thesis published by McMaster University in 1993.13 Before proceeding with my analysis I will provide a working definition of these two concepts, beginning with a brief comparison of the two theorists’ perspectives on music that motivated their formulations of these concepts.

Grundgestalt and Linkage

InSchoenberg and Schenker,” Carl Dahlhaus provides a good explanation of how Schoenberg’s and Schenker’s perspectives of music differed. According to Dahlhaus, “traditional theory was rejected by both Schenker and Schoenberg, but on opposite grounds: Schenker denied the concept of ‘essential’ dissonance and Schoenberg that of the ‘incidental.”14 Dahlhaus further explains that “Schenker, for whom the nature of matter is comprehended in its origin, seeks the law behind the manifestation. Schoenberg on the other hand, aspiring more to ends than to origins, follows the consequences that emerge from a musical idea.”15 Thus, as Hampson points out, even though these two theorists approached analysis from perspectives that seem to be diametrically opposed, “both Schoenberg and Schenker seek to discover the unifying idea, or shape governing the surface events of a composition.”16
Grundgestalt is explained by Patricia Carpenter by the following two-fold definition:

I use “musical idea” in a sense taken from Schoenberg: that which a piece of music is “about.” By Grundgestalt or “basic shape” I mean the concrete technical aspect of the idea.17

Schoenberg is quoted by Bryan Simms as saying “I believe in the availability of only a single motive” to composers for any particular composition.18 “Inasmuch as almost every figure within a piece reveals some relationship to it, the basic motive [Grundgestalt] is often considered the ‘germ’ of the idea,”19 Schoenberg writes. He further argues that because “every subsequent musical figure” of a composition includes it one might consider the “basic motive” (Grundgestalt) to be the “greatest common factor” of a composition as well as its lowest common denominator. Hampson’s definition is clearest: “Grundgestalt....shows how the same tonal areas are generated by form and controlled by an initial idea, or basic shape.”20 I would define Grundgestalt as the base condition governing all the musical expressions that are articulated by a composition.
According to Schoenberg, “an idea in music consists principally in the relation of tones to one another....a relation [that] already exists between the tones themselves.”21 The modulations of a composition into various tonal regions, according to Schoenberg, are therefore generated by “pre-existing relations among the tones” of the Grundgestalt. Schoenberg’s Grundgestalt reveals that tonality is not a self defined collection of pitches, nor is it merely a scale, but a center by which every pitch is interrelated. As Carpenter further notes:

The function of a single tone is signified by the degree of the scale it represents. The function of a chord depends upon its root, which is, in turn, the scalar degree upon which the chord is constructed....If we want to grasp the idea of a composition that is “about” F, for example, we shall want to know how each pitch that arrives in the course of the piece is related to the tonic.22

Tonality is therefore established through the conquest of its “contradictory elements.” This conquest is complete when these “contradictory elements” have been assimilated into the tonal whole in such a way that each of these elements is given a function in relation to the tonality. The Neapolitan region, for example, in the C minor tonality therefore “proves” the sovereignty of C minor when Db is assimilated into the C minor tonal whole.

While Schoenberg would explain the unity behind the Rondo-finale’s seemingly ambiguous formal divisions according to a Grundgestalt that is established at the beginning of the movement, Schenker’s concept of “linkage” is not so restricting. William Renwick defines “linkage” (Knupftechnic) as “the often hidden means by which separate sections of a composition are “organically” connected to one another. Typically a subordinate motive at the end of one section becomes the seed of a new section, but the means by which linkage can be achieved are limitless.”23 According to Schenker’s theory of “linkage” then, the Grundgestalt might be seen as the embryonic germ or seed from which the Rondo-finale was “grown,” but the shape that this “growth” takes is by no means restricted to that of the Grundgestalt.

Rondo Theme

The rondo theme of the Rondo-finale is divisible into three sections that are located at measures 3/8 1 to 4, 5 to 12 and 12 to 17. These were previously labelled a (mm. 3/81-5), b and b' (mm. 5 -12) and c (mm. 12-17). By the half cadence at measure four, Beethoven has established the C minor tonality of the movement as well as two of the three primary motives that he will expand and develop through the composition (Figure 2.1) The passing of the root to the minor third (C to E flat) of the minor tonality in the melody, and back down at measure 2, encapsulates what Rudolph Réti considers the “prime motive” of the Sonata Pathétique (C to E flat) ([a] in Figure 2.1) and the “prime motive in inversion.Réti argues that the “prime motive in inversion” is introduced during this last movement (E flat down to C) (a' in Figure 2.1).24 It is from these two motives that Beethoven develops the Rondo-finale movement and by which he provides the Sonata Pathétique with adequate closure according to Réti, thus unifying both the sections of the finale movement and the sonata of which it is part. Réti also considers the chromatic neighbors C and B natural in the bass of the first two measures to be a motive that is peculiar to the movement: a “rondo motive” (b in Figure 2.1).25

Figure 2.1

The half cadence at measure four ends a “hidden” outline of an E flat/G major third from the first note of the movement to its brief repose an octave above. When the melody reaches its conclusion on the high G at measure 3, the note is repeated three times while its accompaniment in the bass passes from a natural third of the home dominant down an augmented second (through A flat) to the root of the dominant. This melodic motion and its accompaniment form the Grundgestalt of the Rondo-finale movement: an E flat/G major third with its upper chromatic neighbor (A flat) (c in Figure 2.2). From the Grundgestalt Beethoven also extrapolates the potential of the C-minor triad, the movement’s tonality, with both upper and lower chromatic neighbors that are outlined by the melody and accompaniment of the first four measures (d in Figure 2.2). Taken together, the “prime motive” of the sonata (C/E flat), its inversion in the finale movement (E flat/C) and the “rondo motive” (C/B natural) form the minor tonality of the C minor triad as wells as its leading viio7 harmony (e in Figure 2.2). The “hidden” outline of the Grundgestalt is therefore accompanied by the potential for the C minor tonality which is superimposed over its leading viio7 harmony.

Figure 2.2

The basic contrast of the three sections of this rondo theme, and the movement as a whole, is a play with thirds. The Grundgestalt (E flat/G-A flat) that is established within the first four measures is reinterpreted during sections b, b' and c of the rondo theme to represent the flat 3-5 (E flat/G) of the tonic minor with a flat 6 (A flat) upper chromatic neighbor. The upper neighbor of the Grundgestalt (A flat) functions then as either b6-5 of the C minor tonality , in which the Grundgestalt is reinterpreted as flat 3-5 of a C-minor triad, or 4-3 of the Grundgestalt. The next eight measures (mm. 5-12) of the rondo theme further explore and outline the Grundgestalt, “linked” to the first four measures most explicitly by the melodic motion of A flat to G -- called “the corner interval of the [rondo] theme”26 by Réti -- and to the rest of the sonata by encapsulating the concluding motion of the rondo theme of the Adagio cantabile movement. (Figure 2.3) This melodic motion, accompanied by a harmony of iv to i6 in the C minor tonality, reinterprets the upper neighbor of the Grundgestalt as b6-5 of the home tonic triad. Already occurring in the rondo theme, this reinterpretation of the Grundgestalt in the minor tonality is a hypothesis that the major third of the Grundgestalt (E flat/G) can be “assimilated” into the C-minor tonality. Beethoven is making a compelling argument here, rhetorically “linking” what he has previously introduced in the sonata to draw conclusions in this finale movement: the first four measures of the Rondo-finale will relate to the “prime motive” of the sonata introduced during the opening movement and its “pathetic style” inversion within the Rondo-finale, to be followed by materials thematically related to the opening theme of the sonata’s second movement. The harmonic implications of “the corner intervals,” which are 4-3 of the Grundgestalt, must be “assimilated” into the tonality or, as Schoenberg describes it, “conquered” by the key of C minor.

Figure 2.3


During b, b' (mm. 5-12) the potential for the C-minor triad within the Grundgestalt is explored by Beethoven, presenting the lower and upper chromatic neighbors of the triad that together resolve to the tonic minor triad in first inversion both times at measures 6 and 10 (Figure 2.4). When the melody reaches its height of A flat, the accompaniment outlines both times the upper and lower chromatic neighbors of the C-minor triad in an overt back-to-back fashion. This extends the “rondo motif” of C and its lower chromatic neighbor, and introduces the viio7 of C minor as a tension within the C-minor tonal whole that must be resolved for all of the musical elements that are introduced over the course of the Rondo-finale to be assimilated by the C-minor tonality.

Figure 2.4


The next five measures (mm.12-17) of the rondo theme, defined by both Tovey and Réti as a “codetta,”27 bear the seed of the transition to the first couplet of the movement, the couplet itself, and the retransition back to the first return of the rondo theme. The secondary theme of the Rondo-finale in fact opens with an inversion of the melodic contours of these four measure within the new E flat major tonality. Beethoven’s task during the first couplet is to find the means to prove conclusively that the key of E flat major -- the key of the Grundgestalt -- may be assimilated into the C-minor tonal whole:

Figure 2.5


The combined melodic and bass contours of these measures (mm. 12-17) combined express the second extension of the Grundgestalt, into the Neapolitan region, which resolves to the subdominant of the C-minor tonality. According to Carpenter, the Neapolitan region is of critical significance for establishing the sovereignty of a composition’s tonality. “A theme resembles a scientific hypothesis which does not convince without a number of tests,” she writes, “without presentation of proof.”28 Following Carpenter’s analogy, by extending the Grundgestalt into the Neapolitan region, Beethoven is testing his hypothesis that C minor is indeed the tonal whole of the Rondo-finale movement. This extension is incomplete, however, lacking the upper chromatic neighbor to C that would clearly demarcate the appearance of a D-flat secondary dominant resolving to the subdominant as it does according to Schoenberg’s theory of the Grundgestalt. “The nondiatonic, “contradictory” tones acquired from [the Neapolitan region] are only distantly related to the tonic,” Carpenter writes, “their assimilation constitutes a problem.”29 What Beethoven does here is to leave an argument hanging in the air unresolved until the second couplet of the Rondo-finale movement, wherein D flat is clearly established as a relative of A flat (Figure 2.6):

Figure 2.6


The proof for this hypothesis (that D flat may be assimilated into the C-minor tonality by relating it to A flat) which Beethoven provides at this point is far too brief to provide conclusive support for this theory. As the second couplet modulates to G major, thereby prodding “the corner intervals” into the gravitational pull of the C- minor tonality, Beethoven concedes that his initial discovery of D flat will need to be further researched before the proof for this hypothesis can be presented in full. The second couplet’s concern for what Réti considers the “corner interval of the [rondo] theme,”30 however, first expressed between measure 5 and 12 of the rondo theme, further “links” these two sections together with the second couplet and its transitions as it moves to and from the first couplet. On the surface, then, it would appear as though this finale movement is more concerned with materials from the Adagio cantabile than it is with the “prime motive” of the sonata. This is illusory. The tonal regions through which the finale movement propels these thematic materials encapsulate the “prime motive,” (C/E flat) the “prime motive in inversion” (E flat/C) and also the Grundgestalt with its upper chromatic neighbor (E flat/G-A flat) and the “rondo motive” (C/B natural/C) in the internal voices. This is another reason why the movement of tonality from A flat to G major within the second couplet is important to note. The organic relationship between these materials, however, remains “hidden” at this point.

Figure 2.7


This harmonic motion falls within the tonal regions of the Grundgestalt, according to Schoenberg’s definition of it, as follows:

Figure 2.8


As Beethoven works through the “corner intervals” initially derived from the Adagio cantabile, he “links” these materials to the “prime motive” of the first movement and the “prime motive in inversion” that the Rondo-finale introduces by developing the themes through the aforementioned tonal regions. This concludes the initial exploration of the Grundgestalt, and the possibility that this Grundgestalt presents for establishing a lasting relationship between D flat and A flat under the sovereignty of the C-minor tonal whole. Beethoven is clearly exploring the possible integrity of these materials as a unit, expressing a quest for the means to prove his hypothesis that will provide the means to resist “the suffering nature of the Grave.” As Sisman argues, this resistance is essential to the “pathetic style.” This further concurs with Adelung’s criteria for the “pathetic style” upon which Sisman bases her argument, offering to listeners a “crowding together of ideas -- their impetuous course, the quick succession of short sentences, the repetition of the same idea in different forms,”31 and their transcendence from fragmented articulations of sorrow into the potential for a synchronic and strong unity.
The final “two bars of chords” of the rondo theme (mm. 16-17), as Tovey labels them, end by articulating again the “prime motive,” “prime motive in inversion” and the “rondo motive” together within the internal voices. The movement of the rondo theme through the Grundgestalt and its potential for the C-minor triad is thereby motivically related or “linked” back to the “prime motive” of the Sonata Pathétique. The rondo theme builds to its climax during these final “two bars of chords,” offering only a brief repose before Beethoven continues developing these motives throughout the remainder of the movement (Figure 2.9).

Figure 2.9

The Rondo-finale now appears as a song (the rondo theme) within a song (the movement itself) within a sonata. The final articulation of the sonata’s “prime motive” in A flat major during the coda organically relates the movement to the sonata that it concludes. The coda finally achieves, or “proves,” the upper chromatic neighbor of the subdominant, from the extension of the Grundgestalt into the Neapolitan region. The distant nondiatonic pitches acquired from the Neapolitan region, or the “contradictory” elements as Carpenter calls them, are conquered by the new tonality. In other words, D flat becomes essential to the “prime motive” and “prime motive in inversion” of the sonata. The choice of A flat major to conclude the movement and the sonata, although most obviously related to the Adagio cantabile movement of the sonata, also forces the D flat upper chromatic neighbor to C in the melody as it iterates the “prime motive” and the “prime motive in inversion” in the A flat major tonal region. This “links” all the sections of the rondo theme together in an integral relationship that may only be achieved in the A-flat major tonal region. The sonata that begins in C minor at a forte marking concludes by a tranquillo e semplice recapitulation of all the materials of sorrow with which Beethoven sparred throughout the sonata in an integral unity in A flat major. It is from this unity that the necessary strength is drawn for the final three bars which rush from a high E flat down to middle C, crescendoing from a double to triple forte dynamic, at which time Beethoven articulates a perfect authentic cadence in the home key to provide the movement, and the sonata, with the adequate sense of closure that, until this point, is so noticeably absent.

Figure 2.10

To reach this conclusion, to articulate what he had only hypothesized before, Beethoven must first provide one more proof. The five measures leading to the coda extend the “prime motive” as it was first introduced in the closing theme of the first movement of the Sonata Pathétique. Within the closing theme of the sonata’s first movement, the third extension of the Grundgestalt is presented in its integrity with both E natural and D flat upper and lower chromatic neighbors resolving to the subdominant. When it appears in its guise within measures 187 to 192 of the Rondo-finale, however, the D flat upper chromatic neighbor is again excised. It does not appear until five measures later, as it urges the movement towards a held E flat triad which acts as the home dominant of A-flat major only after it is resolved (Figure 2.11). This motion of E natural to E flat “proves” that the E natural may be assimilated by the tonic after all. In fact, E natural must necessarily be assimilated in order to reach the conclusion of the coda. It is by this chromatic step down that we reach the dominant (E flat) of the coda’s A-flat major tonality. Without the dominant (D flat) seventh of the E flat triad, however, it remains unclear whether this hinge chord is indeed an E-flat triad or a secondary dominant (C7) of the subdominant (F minor) from the C-minor tonal region. This functions as the final ambiguity of the Rondo-finale movement. The coda replicates almost exactly the deceptive cadence of the secondary dominant to F minor to the submediant major of the home tonality at measure 14 of the rondo theme. When the upper chromatic neighbor of the home subdominant is first iterated as part of the extension of the Grundgestalt into the Neapolitan region within the second couplet, it is quickly propelled back to the dominant tonal region of the movement’s tonic, creating a magnetic pull back to the rondo theme in the C-minor tonal region with its inadequate sense of closure. When the E flat triad resolves to the A flat major tonal region at the coda, wherein all of the musical “expressions of sorrow” throughout this finale movement and the sonata itself are “linked” together into a transcendent unity, Beethoven articulates his final resistance to sorrow and, in doing so, finds the relationship to D flat that will prove conclusively the sovereignty of the C-minor tonal whole.

Figure 2.11



I would like to make one final point in order to demonstrate the unifying function that this upper chromatic neighbor (D flat) fulfills in the Rondo-finale movement. The amputations of the rondo theme during their second and third returns disclude the extension of the Grundgestalt into the Neapolitan region that resolves back to the minor tonality in the rondo theme (mm. 12-17) via the “prime motive” and “prime motive in inversion.” These extensions are achieved by the recapitulation of the first couplet in the major tonic, providing the tonic’s natural third and assimilating what was once a “contradictory” element from the Neapolitan region into the tonic whole, and also by the coda that follows the third return of the rondo theme to finally iterate the Neapolitan region in its integrity with the rondo theme in the coda. In the tonality of the coda, however, the “prime motive” and its inversion are transposed sequentially down a major third. The high E flat that leads down to middle C during the final two measures of the movement and the sonata that it concludes, places the “prime motive in inversion” that was only achieved in the rondo theme via internal voicings at the upper most register of the movement. This propels “the prime motive in inversion,” which has been iterated until now only as an internal force of closure for the rondo theme, above what had initially contained it. It thereby becomes an external force to influence the dominant of the home key back to the tonic and the high E flat back down to middle C which is achieved by the “rondo motif.” The harmonic motion of these three measures encapsulates the “corner intervals of the [rondo] theme” that are derived from the Adagio cantabile. The Rondo-finale movement therefore contributes the lower chromatic neighbor to the C-minor tonality as the necessary musical ingredient for transcending the “sorrowful nature” that Sisman argues is articulated by the first two movements of the Sonata Pathétique. The pathos of the sonata cannot be transcended until Beethoven finds the necessary position to locate the “rondo motif,” however, because we are given the superimposition of the i minor and viio7 during the rondo theme every time it recurs. This harmony, extracted from superimposition, ultimately functions during these final three measures to resolve the pathos of this dissonance that has recurred throughout the movement and, ultimately, the pathos of the Sonata Pathétique. It is by “linking” the “rondo motive” to the rest of the musical elements that he has introduced throughout the movement that Beethoven finally “proves” his hypothesis that the C-minor tonal whole is the conclusive sovereign of the Rondo-finale movement. With his hypothesis proven, Beethoven articulates a perfect authentic cadence in the c minor tonality, thus providing the Sonata Pathétique with its force of closure.


The seeming ambiguity of the melodic, harmonic and formal contours of the Rondo-finale in terms of traditional rondo form serve a rhetorical function by which Beethoven articulates pathos and by which that pathos is transcended. While the Rondo-finale can be explained in terms of itself, it is essential to mark how various thematic materials derived from the preceding two movements are interrogated and developed by the composer during the movement, for it is only through these relationships that the “sense of continuation” by which the rondo theme ends can find closure in the last three measures of the movement and of the sonata itself. As Elaine R. Sisman argues, “by the end of the piece, the impassioned accents have become so deeply rooted that it takes but a moment of phantasia to provide the exemplary pathetic peroration.”32


1. Donald Tovey, “Sonata in C minor, Op13. (Sonata Pathétique),” A Companion to Beethoven’s Pianoforte Sonatas (Bar-to-Bar Analysis) (London: The Associated Board of the Royal School of Music, 1931), 63. (back)

2. William Caplin, “Rondo Forms,” Classical Form: A Theory of Formal Functions for the Instrumental Music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 232. (back)

3. Ibid Caplin. (back)

4. Allan Cadwallader and David Gagné, “Basic Principles,” Analysis of Tonal Music: A Schenkerian Approach (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 49. (back)

5. Ibid Caplin, 234-235. (back)

6. Ibid Tovey, 63-69. (back)

7. Ibid Caplin, 235. (back)

8. Elaine R. Sisman, “Pathos and the Pathétique: Rhetorical Stance in Beethoven’s C-Minor Sonata, Op. 13,” Beethoven Forum 3 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994), 105. (back)

9. Donald Jay Grout, “Instrumental Music: Sonata, Symphony and Concerto,” A History of Western Music (New York: Norton and Company, 1980), 460. (back)

10. Ibid Tovey. (back)

11. Heinrich Schenker, Free Composition (Der freie Satz), trans. Ernst Oster (New York: Longman, 1935), 141. (back)

12. Ibid Schenker, 142. (back)

13. Barbara Louise Hampson, Schenker and Schoenberg: A Critical Comparison of Two Analytical Methods with Reference to the First Movement of Beethoven’s Appasionata Sonata (Hamilton: McMaster University, 1993). (back)

14. Carl Dahlhaus, “Schoenberg and Schenker,” Royal Music Association Proceedings 100 (1973-1974), 210. (back)

15. Ibid Dahlhaus, 215. (back)

16. Ibid Hampson, 15. (back)

17. Patricia Carpenter, “Grundgestalt as Tonal Function,” Music Theory Spectrum, ed. Lewis Rowell. 5 (1983), 15. (back)

18. Cited in Bryan Simms, “New Documents in the Schoenberg/Schenker Polemic,” Perspectives of New Music, 16 (1977), 122. (back)

19. Arnold Schoenberg, Fundamentals of Music Composition, ed. G. Strang and L. Stein (Oxford 1967), 8. (back)

20. Ibid Hampson, 19-20. (back)

21. Cited in Ibid Carpenter, 16. (back)

22. Ibid Carpenter, 17. (back)

23., accessed 3 November 2001. (back)

24. Rudolph Réti, “The Rondo,” Thematic Patterns in Sonatas of Beethoven, ed. Deryck Cooke (London: Faber and Faber, 1967), 70. (back)

25. Ibid Réti, 72. (back)

26. Ibid Réti, 76. (back)

27. Ibid Tovey and Réti. (back)

28. Ibid Carpenter, 23. (back)

29. Ibid Carpenter, 24. (back)

30. Ibid Réti, 76. (back)

31. Cited in Ibid Sisman, 104. (back)

32. Ibid Sisman, 105. (back)


© Copyright 2001 by Jay Hodgson.