Published online by Cambridge University Press: 27 March 2021
THERE is a tale that someone asked Maurice Ravel how things were going with a large work he was then composing. To which Ravel supposedly replied, “I have it all finished except the themes.” This bit of wit reminds us that in the vast repertoires of classical music the “themes” of a composition are its most obvious defining features. They are the signatures by which we usually remember and identify an entire composition or any of its component movements. This is true above all for an opening theme, the gesture that is the starting point for what the eminent American composer Roger Sessions called the “train of thought” that then emerges as the musical narrative.
No classical composer put more drama or originality into his opening ideas than Beethoven, and so it is surprising that there has been no special study of his many ways of beginning his compositions. This gap is now remedied in this comprehensive survey by Jeremy Yudkin, which takes a broad view of the subject and ranges over not just opening themes as such, but all the myriad ways in which Beethoven sets the levers of action in motion. These include Beethoven's slow introductions to fast-tempo movements and his often surprising and novel ways of entering into movements of every kind and character, whether he employs a well-defined theme, a short motive, or a variety of other initial gestures.
Yet the focus of the book is not merely on structural categories but on the auditory experience of these significant musical moments, on the way in which many such beginnings “call the listener to attention or sneak up on them,” as Yudkin puts it in his Preface. What emerges is a newly enlarged picture of the many techniques by which Beethoven captures the listener's attention from the very outset of a given work – sometimes with a delicate touch, sometimes with a hammer – but at all times with a strong sense of what is needed to set up the discourse in what we feel to be the right way.
To all this Yudkin supplies an array of relevant contexts. One is his broad approach to the aesthetic of beginnings, not only in music but in samples of literary works from Shakespeare to Melville, thus touching on both drama and prose fiction.