Written in 1802, Beethoven’s “Tempest” piano sonata is the iconic work of the “wirklich ganz neue Manier” the composer announced right after his traumatic seclusion in Heiligenstadt. Suffused with asymmetries and contradictions, the sonata’s first movement has long attracted the attention of scholars concerned with the epistemic soundness of sonata form theories. Most conspicuously, the absence in the recapitulation of what seems to be on first hearing the main theme generates a formal paradox that challenges the theoretical models devised to analyze sonata forms.
This article reinterprets that paradox through the prism of Friedrich Schlegel’s theory of form, formulated in his critique of modern art and literature. In doing so, it recasts Beethoven’s “Tempest” sonata and Schlegel’s theory in the light of what I call the paradox of mediated immediacy. It further suggests a genealogical homology between the novel and sonata form to advance a historicized model of musical form that contemplates the material conditions accompanying the consolidation of print culture around 1800.
Situated in this context, the “Tempest” sonata serves as a case study for exploring how Beethoven’s reinvention of the piano sonata reconfigured the interface between form and medium, deploying self-referential strategies that both rendered apparent and resignified the mediations entailed by the compositional practices instituted with the classical style. As a result, Beethoven’s piano sonatas came to operate as technologies of the self that became integral to the fashioning of romantic subjectivities. My reading emphasizes the aural experience induced by the form’s asymmetries, and contends that the absence delivered at its structural crux complicates sonata form practices to afford an experience of immediacy that captures in the medium of piano music the paradoxical condition Schlegel reckoned immanent to the modern self.
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