The Relationship between the Particular and the General in Beethoven's Piano Sonatas


  • Hellmut Federhofer



The present aesthetic situation is completely new because a self-contained musical culture, which we think of when we speak about Baroque, Classicism or Romanticism, no longer exists. Hence the question arises of the justification of the traditional cultivation of music which goes beyond historical, educational and socially representative aims. A self-contained musical culture requires a musical idiom which possesses a general fixed framework for a particular culture. Just as in grammer and syntax, there are musical systems which do not spring from any ad hoc devised convention but which arise as something general, and objective in the course of longer periods of time together with the music of the period, its types and forms. The general element is present, for instance, as types in the Maquam principle of Arabic, Persian and Turkish melodies or as modality in European mediaeval music. In a similar way, tonality, based on a principle of cadences, which implies rhythmic-metrical norms, arises in an advanced phase of polyphony. Musical ideologies with an exclusive character are founded by normes. The relationship of the particular and subjective to the general and objective qualifies the musical sense and permits us to judge the quality and originality of the music. There is no doubt that this relationship has been upset in present-day music, be it that the general has been completely or mostly absorbed by the particular, such as in avant-garde music which no longer recognizes a tonal language, or be it that the particular has fallen behind the general, such as in many parts of modern popular and light music which is degenerating into empty formulae. We no longer spontaneously receive this undisturbed relationship, although – as it seems – we cannot miss it without leaving the artistic instinct unsatisfied. This justifies the question of the particular and general. If Beethoven's work is especially appropriate for an undertaking which demands insight and objectivity, then this is because his originality has never been disputed. This is evident in Beethoven not only in his thematic invention and motivic work, but, in the widest sense, in every impuls of creation which the general receives from the particular. Tonality and the rhythmics of accents which are bound with it, personify that general quality which enters into a fertile interrelation with the particular subjective element of a work of art, and by which it proves itself to be such. The symbiosis refers to all strata, from the smallest musical element to the total form. The general element participates in the same way to the construction of motif, phrase, theme and period as in the realisation of tone-space relations, which result from the unity of counterpoint and harmony. These react most sensitively to a disproportion of both categories. Thematic-motivic contexts are still feasible even in disappearing or completely absent tonality, but tone-space connections are no longer possible. They are the surest criterion for an understanding between the general and the particular. The way the work can be bound to a tonal order as a general phenomenon by means of motivics as the particular in each case is illustrated in several examples from Beethoven's piano sonatas. The effectiveness of pivotal tones, which require motivics but which are not identical with them, becomes obvious. The anchoring of motivics in tonal space seems – when superficially considered – to impose restrictions on the composer, but in reality it allows him to link on an otherwise unattainable profusion of structural connections. Pivotal tones reveal the idea of a frame- 28 work. This idea strives for a tonal realisation. It could be demonstrated by the principle of variation which is only possible because it conceals a theme behind its external appearance. New music, however, is threatened by the loss of order in tonal space. This danger was recognised by Paul Hindemith, and Arnold Schoenberg tried to overcome it by means of dodecaphony. Yet all more recent systems of order have a character of particularity and approach arbitrariness and chance. The loss of a general element in our time is indisputably and obviously conditioned by a far-reaching displacement and suffocation of spiritual forces in the age of technology and manipulation, but the longing for this is as real as ever. On this rests the change of tradition and our love for Beethoven, which as yet has not been shattered by any kind of manipulation.


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1. 12. 1971




How to Cite

Federhofer, H. (1971). The Relationship between the Particular and the General in Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas. Musicological Annual, 7(1), 20-29.