Published online by Cambridge University Press: 27 March 2021
BEGINNING BEFORE THE BEGINNING
ONE of the most sophisticated rhetorical strategies in eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century music is the Beginning before the Beginning. With this strategy, some music – a gesture, a measure or two, or several measures – precedes what is the substantive opening of the movement. An early but effective use of this beginning occurs at the opening of the slow movement of Beethoven's String Quartet in F Major, Op. 18 No. 1. This is the slow movement in D minor that is associated with the tomb scene in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet – an association suggested by Beethoven's annotations in his sketches and contemporary reports and elaborated by several scholars. D minor had powerful overtones for Beethoven. Not only was it the key of Mozart's powerfully expressive String Quartet, K. 421; Don Giovanni, with its evocation of death and the underworld; his Requiem; and his brooding Piano Concerto, K. 466, for which Beethoven wrote cadenzas; but Beethoven himself had already explored the expressive nature of the key in the slow movement of the Piano Sonata, Op. 10 No. 3, which he marked (unusually) “Largo e mesto,” “Broad and sad”). For both Haydn and Mozart, largo was slower than adagio, and only one other movement of Beethoven uses the designation “mesto”: the deeply felt slow movement of the String Quartet, Op. 59 No. 1, Adagio molto e mesto (which also has a much smaller but important Beginning before the Beginning). Beethoven marks the Romeo and Juliet slow movement “Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato” (affettuoso is “tender, with feeling”), and affettuoso alone is used by Bach for the exquisite slow movement of the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, BWV 1050, for solo flute, solo violin, and harpsichord. D minor was the key that Beethoven later chose for his expressive “Tempest” Piano Sonata, Op. 31 No. 2, the somber slow movements of the Piano Trio, Op. 70 No. 1 (the “Ghost”), and the Cello Sonata, Op. 102 No. 2 (marked, revealingly, “Adagio con molto sentimento d’affetto”), the Larghetto marking Clärchen's death in the incidental music to Egmont, Op. 84, and, of course, his last symphony, the Ninth. These parallels can only support the movement's association with the double tragedy at the dénouement of Shakespeare's play, though Beethoven gave no public evidence of the linkage in title or in subtitle, only in his private sketches.