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The Key to Beethoven

Connecting Tonality and Meaning in His Music

Paul M. Ellison
December 15, 2014

437 pp.

0 illustrations

ISBN: 978-1576472026

Paperback 6X9 $60.00

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Building on the remarkable correlation between key and tonal affect found in his vocal music, this book establishes an understanding of the way in which Beethoven uses tonality affectively. Following an Introduction that outlines a justification for revisiting the concept of meaning in Beethoven’s music, Chapter One assembles the historical case for Beethoven’s knowledge of key characteristics, examining materials with which he was familiar, his own views, and various items of anecdotal evidence. The second chapter presents a survey of the keys employed by Beethoven, using evidence from contemporary writers, theorists, composers, and Beethoven’s own works to establish congruency of affective meaning. Chapters Three to Five identify the significant body of empirical evidence that connects tonality and meaning in an examination of the solo songs, revealing the strong nexus between textual meaning and choice of key in almost all cases. Concepts such as the “affective spectrum,” “affective modulation and tonicization,” and “affective harmony” are introduced and applied to the music. The sixth chapter examines five case studies from vocal and choral music with orchestral accompaniment, in order to illustrate how tonal symbolism can function in a wider variety of contexts in Beethoven’s oeuvre. Finally, Chapter Seven presents an instrumental case study, the Piano Sonata in D Minor, Op. 31, No. 2, applying the semiotic of affect established earlier as the principal tool for deconstructing meaning in this work. This is the first volume to demonstrate through a combination of historical and empirical evidence that, in most instances, Beethoven does employ tonality in an affective way in his vocal music, paving the way for a future examination of the nexus between tonality and meaning his instrumental music.
September 1, 2015

This revision of the author’s dissertation at Cardiff University focuses on Beethoven’s vocal music, exploring why the composer chose particular keys (G Major, for example) not only for complete works or movements but also in certain passages within works. Although of particular value to music theorists and performers, the book is also intended for anyone interested in a new approach to listening to Beethoven’s works. The first chapter reviews historical documentation of Beethoven’s exposure to, understanding of, and views on the distinct characteristics of different tonalities. Ellison then examines more closely the connection between keys and the meaning of the texts Beethoven set to music. One issue with this type of analysis is the disagreement among theorists of Beethoven’s day about the meaning of particular keys, for example, whether the key of C Major expresses “grandiose/majestic” or “pure/innocent” qualities. Ellison assigns these contrasted ideas to different “affective praxes” and then applies these praxes to a survey of works in primary and secondary keys. After listing selected works by other composers and works by Beethoven according to key and the praxes to which they belong, he tests these theories through a closer analysis of the vocal music. For this analysis Ellison groups the works by four categories: shorter songs with clear connections between key and textual meaning; songs with more complex tonal schemes; songs containing substantial modulations to remote keys to underscore textual meaning; and songs of narrative quality where the tonality does not appear to be used symbolically. He presents case studies for five vocal/choral works with orchestra: Ah! perfido, Opus 65; Christ on the Mount of Olives, Opus 85; the Mass in C Major, Opus 86; Elegischer Gesang, Opus 118; and the last movement of the Ninth Symphony. Finally, he applies his analysis of key symbolism to a purely instrumental work that has a programmatic quality: the “Tempest” Sonata, Opus 31, no. 2. The concluding chapter briefly explores other areas of the topic, such as romantic imagery, Beethoven’s settings of the same text in different keys, and examples where Beethoven changed his original key choice. Includes extensive bibliography and index.

Patricia Stroh
The Beethoven Journal

February 24, 2015

"The Key to Beethoven: Connecting Tonality and Meaning in His Music" is an ambitious, significant contribution to the study of use of tonality with affective intent in the music of Beethoven. A network of complex quotations and observations about the topic of musical meaning in the introduction yields one jewel-like observation by Stravinsky, who said: " If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality ....(he later added)... music expresses itself." This leads to an exciting outlook and examination of Beethoven's philosophical background, methodology, and other influences on his composition approaches. ... The offering of "The Key to Beethoven" is a stepping stone for others to examine other untexted compositions using key characteristics as a vehicle for decoding meaning of Beethoven's music. ‘The Key To Beethoven’ is a significant scholarly book that will appeal to both professional music analysts and other music appreciators, lovers of the Romantic genius of Beethoven."

Nancy Lorraine
The Midwest Book Review
Paul M. Ellison:

Native of Liverpool, UK, and was educated at the Royal Academy of Music, Queens' College, Cambridge, and Cardiff University, where he was awarded a Ph.D in 2010. Since 1988 he has lived in the USA, and is currently lecturer in musicology at San Francisco State University. He is also a contributor of articles, program annotations and liner notes to various publications and recently edited Dear Max/Lieber Malcolm: The Rudolf/Frager Correspondence for Pendragon Press which was published in July 2010. He has taught at San José State University, and is associate editor of The Beethoven Journal, the periodical of the American Beethoven Society. In July 2010, he was appointed editor of The Journal of the Association of Anglican Musicians. A professional church musician, he is director of music at the Church of the Advent of Christ the King, San Francisco's historic Anglo-Catholic parish. Among the interesting highlights of his career Paul has performed for HRH The Prince Charles at Trinity College, Cambridge, directed the music at the weddings of actor Julian Sands and director Michael Attenborough and funerals of actor Leonard Rossiter and the Marquesa de Casa Maury (Freda Dudley Ward, sometime mistress of King Edward VIII).

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