Beethoven - Piano Sonata Op. 90 No. 27 Modulation Analysis

Hello reader! Welcome to and the new Modulation of the Week article! Today, I will talk about, not one, but two modulations. However, they are linked to each other, and we can understand their meanings only by analyzing both of them together. They can be found right at the beginning of the First movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No 27 Op 90 in E minor.

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No 27 Op 90 in E minor

First 8 measures of this piano sonata are characterized by a very specific model of key change, both in chords used in the modulations and the choice of keys. The beginning of the musical flow is in the original E minor. However, the first modulation comes in the first measure. The new key is G Major, relative Major in contrast to the original E minor. The type of the modulation is diatonic. This is still nothing spectacular, even though it is interesting to notice VI-V chord progression in the new key (Example 1).

Example 1

Progression like this in harmony taught in schools is often considered as inconvenient. Mainly because VI should go for IV or ii instead of V. My intention, however, is not to say that this point of view is absolutely wrong. I do think that it has its purpose when somebody encounters the harmony for the first time. Now, this is Beethoven after all, and I also believe that we should learn from the actual music when we learn the basic stuff about harmony.

The second modulation comes in the 5th measure. The principle is the same as it was the case in the first measure modulation from E minor to G Major. The musical flow now goes from G Major to B minor. We can also notice that, VI-V chord progression which is quite symptomatic for this piece of music. The one who does the complete harmonic analysis of the whole first movement will encounter even more occurrences of this progression.

Why are These Modulations so Special?

One might ask themselves now why would these modulations be so special if the composer used a simple diatonic modulation principle. Well, the trick is in their succession, not their individuality. Together, the tonics of the keys that were used – E minor-G Major-B minor, form the tonic triad chord of the original E minor – EGB.

You see, in the early Classical era there were quite a few mannerisms, and one of them included an arpeggiated tonic chord at the beginning of the piece. That was a way to introduce the tonic chord and the key in general. Now, this sonata was written in 1814. By then, classicism has changed quite a bit and so the introduction of the tonic chord (and the key) changed as well. Sturm und Drang played a major role in that change. Beethoven, in the course of 8 measures, used modulations to the keys whose tonics are the notes of the original E minor tonic triad instead of simply arpeggiating the tonic chord at the beginning. Isn’t this ingenious? By creating key instability, he actually rounded the tonic chord of the original key. Well, that’s Beethoven… That’s all that has to be said.

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