Thematic Patterns in Sonatas of Beethoven by Rudolph Réti

Ed Deryck Cooke. Faber.


They say that those who found out musical tunes were once honoured in their generation. But per­haps that’s apocryphal. At any rate these dis­coveries by Rudolph Réti are, sadly, posthumous; they are now first published twenty years after he wrote them, and ten after his death.

   Their carefully-worded title covers some 80 pages analysing the Pathétique, 40 on the Appassionata, 20 on the Kreutzer; five other favourites also ran. Réti’s commentary on all these sonatas is very strong at developing (not to mention recapitulating) his special subject; but exposition is decidedly not his gift. However, the main theme is stated clearly enough, with the help of musical examples. Ex. 30, from the opening of the Pathétique, explains more



cogently than Réti can what exactly he means by motif, and their interrelation. This notional unity is also discerned in the Adagio (ex 79. p.63) and the Rondo (ex 119. p.70). Thus, it is suggested, a basic pattern of motivic cells pervades and articu­lates the entire sonata. Such structural elements in music determine harmony; modulation; ornaments; form; key structure whether within a movement or between movements; chords; melody whether as contour or line; bridges; “emotional strength”; figurations – in short, the works (passim). They so fill the composer’s creative mind that their force “instinctively and inevitably affects the content of the passages and figurations, even down to the most minute particle” (p.89).

   It almost seems that on this view music is not, as we had always supposed, written by composers using motifs, but by motifs using composers: the Pathétique might well be sub-titled “Variations on Beethoven, by a Theme”. Even the Réti enthusiast will concede that the prospective purchaser of this volume needs reasons for supposing that the analytical system advocated is (a) valid in fact (b) compatible with accepted methods (c) useful in practice (d) significant in theory.

   The editor has something to say about each of these points except the first, which would take a separate book. Fortunately, one already exists – Réti’s own The Thematic Process in Music (1951) which also developed from the same period of Beethoven studies (1944-8) and to which the reader of this hook is referred a dozen times for further explanations. It covers a wider range of music, including Debussy and Schumann: the discovery by objective analysis of a motto theme in the latter’s Kinderszenen shows the quality of Réti’s insight.

   But this very originality creates stumbling-blocks; the mind hastily throws up defences against the unfamiliar. So on point (b) the editor gives timely warning “to the reader trained in the traditional methods of analysis associated with Sir Donald Tovey”. It is indeed fascinating to compare the two approaches. Tovey on op.13 [note 1: A Companion to Beethoven’s Pianoforte Sonatas, pp.68f] is concerned mainly with perceptual lines through harmonies and phrase-lengths Réti with conceptual points of melody and rhythm. But one feels that the long brushstrokes of the one hand, and the pointillism of the other, are both painting the same picture. Both men were artists in their own right; both found sublimity in Beethoven; both might have agreed with William Blake that “Singular and Particular Detail is the Foundation of the Sublime”; and both would hate agreed that musical analysis has the dual function of stimulating response and of teaching organic unity. Indeed, the only difference of attitude that I can discern is that Tovey offers his work as a standard by which students may correct their own, while Réti “was ever ready to revise his position” and “en­couraged students not to accept his words as graven in stone” (p.8).

     As to (c), the editor gives a musical example (pp. 14, 56) showing how Réti’s method has given at least one answer where the traditional method has not. Another example appears on pp.50-51. If Réti is right, the Grave introduction to the Pathétique is part of the exposition, and should be included in any repeat. It’s a nice practical point.

     Finally (d) there are the wider concepts, which, according to the editor, are “even more important than the analyses themselves”. One of the widest is the idea that this same Grave introduction, “like all slow introductions in the symphonies of Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, etc, or the toccatas and pre­ludes of Bach, symbolizes the improvisational stage of a composition at the moment of its creation. In these cases, the following allegro or fugue represents the organized results of that quasi-instinctive activity” (p.30). The same view is also advanced separately about the Kreutzer (p.146). In other words, music is for Réti an allegory of creation; and although “in general throughout this analysis reference to the psychic or emotional sphere has been avoided” (p.74n) philosophy does keep on breaking in. Spirit is equated with structure: a chord “proceeds to the infinite whence it came” – not lost but gone before. A particle of music is compared to a planet, and the analyst to some watcher of the skies. The vision is not just Retian but Lucretian; and it is surely meant for those serious souls for whom music enshrines the very nature of the universe.

     Preaching to the converted is of course very sensible and practical – and certainly a lot of it goes on - but it does restrict one’s audience so. More fortunate was another Réti (Richard – perhaps a kinsman? [the younger brother, ed]) who was also in his day a brilliant analyst, a prodigious theorist, and a leader of the hypermodern school. His views seemed difficult and paradoxical too; yet he was able to triumph over opposition by winning his chess games. The musical analyst just can’t win. Rudolph Réti can only appeal to his fellow-musicians (who of all people ought to give things a hearing); but I rather doubt if he’ll appeal to most.

     This is no one’s fault. Jean Réti-Forbes, his widow, has evidently prepared the papers for publi­cation, as she has written about them in her preface, with all possible love and care. The book’s price is not unreasonable in view of its handsome presentation, eg the clarity and profusion of the 348 (!) musical examples. Deryck Cooke's editing not only shows a quality of perception comparable with Réti’s own, but puts it unstintingly at his author’s disposal, often helping out the argument with comment and indeed with discovery.

     But the truth is, I fear, that this book, though in a sense twenty years late, is in another sense twenty years too early; so anyone who finds himself putting it down might as an investment try laying it down instead.     


The Musical Times, Oct. 1967 (pp. 908-909) © the estate of eric sams