Intermezzo- 3 Notes of Beethoven (but only one pitch)

Very briefly….

My favourite moment in the second movement of  Beethoven 3 is bars 157-159 (just after letter E), when we hear a very soft, very high a-flat in the first violins, followed by a very loud, very low a-flat in the celli and basses, then a very loud a-flat major chord with all the strings and the horns. I have my own, very personal, poetic idea of what this moment might express dramatically, but I thought it would be good to see if I could understand why Beethoven used those notes to create that moment. Certainly it is the most dramatic moment (of many very dramatic moments) in the movement, so why a-flat? Maybe the answer is in more questions…
Question: What is the first note with an expressive marking on it in the movement?

Answer: A-flat (First violins, bar 6, sf)
Question: If the E-flat major theme at letter A is the first sign of any hope or respite, what note takes us back to c minor?

Answer: A-flat (in the first violins in the third bar of letter A)
Questions: After the great, fortissimo climax of the Maggiore section, what note takes us back to c minor?
Answer: A-flat (bar 102. Note that bar 101 could still be in major, the down beat is a c major chord- I think many performances lose that sense that it isn’t until the next bar that we know where we’re going).
Question: What harmony signals our entrance into the coda

Answer: A Flat Major (letter H)

Question: What is the highest note in the last phrase of the movement?

Answer: A flat (first violins bar 242)

Now that is cool.

So, what does A-flat mean to Beethoven in this movement?

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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