Beethoven’s 5th Symphony

Do we still hear his Message Today?

Beethoven’s 5th Symphony

Do we still hear his Message Today?

Fate, knocking on your door

Fate, knocking on your door, the verbal description that the famous theme of Beethoven’s fifth since long received and possibly even are the master’s own words: would it sound like this or like this?

This of course is just a funny little exercise. Certainly not rock solid science but probably never practically tested either. A nice starter for this video I thought, and an eye and ear opener possibly to many I guess already now, whether this famous description is coming from Beethoven or not.

In this blog, I will try to reconstruct the options Beethoven had while writing down his fifth symphony. There is no better way to learn to understand a score than to sit down at the composer’s desk.

What did Beethoven had in mind?

Beethoven’s fifth symphony is probably the world’s most well-known classical music piece. The first movement’s theme is known by probably a majority of the world population of today. Important enough to come up with some solid arguments for the way we mostly play the piece today.

But is it possible to know what Beethoven himself had in mind?

To the millimeter I’d say no, but the general outlines shouldn’t be too difficult. If we today find many mysteries in his works, we should not blame Beethoven, but ourselves.

I will use two opposed versions to clarify things we’re going to touch upon: first my own recording of a few days ago, in a tempo based on Beethoven’s own metronome number, read according to the old historical use of the pendulum or metronome as a time indicator.  I’ll be comparing that recording to the performance that Benjamin Zander gave of the same work. Zander performs in the same metronome number as I, but read in a way the metronome was described in those days,  as a musical timekeeper, another use of the metronome, mostly applied for learning to keep time.

Two completely different versions of the same piece…and of the same metronome number…

My version here. Zander’s version here

Returning to the essentials: notation

But if the metronome causes so much troubles today, it’s essential to return to some basic principles. One of those is to reconstruct the options Beethoven had in this particular case. What are the mechanisms he used to determine upon a notation that must have been really close to what he had in mind?  And: can we reconstruct all of that?

The answer is: yes. And surprisingly perhaps, it is not even that hard, though it is required that you understand certain basic principles. Don’t panic, since some of those principles still are taught on music schools of today.

You still remember your own first solfège lessons at music school? A 4/4 time signature means 4 quarter notes in one bar, with a heavy accent on 1, a rather heavy accent on 3 and 2 and 4 as light beats. A 2/4 the same, but a heavy accent on every first beat, meaning a faster repeat of heavy accents of the first order.

Further you still remember that a 4/4 time signature is to be conducted and counted in 4 counts, so 1,2,3,4, right? A 2/4 is counted 1,2. And so on. That is a very old practice, reflected in many, if not all the historical writings, such as the pianoforteschools of Hummel, Czerny, and many many others. (show on screen). Surprisingly, many of our “problems” would be solved if we’d only apply those in practice.

Let’s try this with the fifth symphony.

Beethoven selected a 2/4 time signature. Meaning 2 quarter notes, to be counted in 1,2, where every beat has a quarter note. Heavy beat, light beat. It is important to realize that the second quarter note, notwithstanding it falls on a light beat needs to stand on its own. It serves as the second main beat of the bar. It can never be absorbed by the first beat, since then the two quarter notes would act as two eight notes instead.

Still with me here? It’s not that hard. But you may ask now: what’s the maximum speed for a quarter note before it turns into an eight note?

Let me encourage you to try that for yourself. You’ll soon experience that besides speed, also performance plays an important role.

Historically, a long-time agreed basic pulse – the so-called tempo ordinario for common time to add a difficult term in this discussion- is to give the quarter note the speed of about a second. A bit faster in case of allegro tempi, a bit slower in the direction of andantes and adagios. You can start with Hottetere’s Treatise L’Art de Preluder sur la Flûte Traversière , published in Paris in 1719 if you’d like to do some research yourself. It’s a very practical and internationally widely spread method in which he gives you very practical information on different time signatures, their relationships and how to conduct them. In all French sources, a tempo around the second is always given for the quarter note in common time with a normal notation pattern. Quantz, on the German side is a little bit faster. We’ll make a series of videos in the future dealing with this more in detail.

Returning to our symphony, it is important to see that Beethoven used a very open version of a 2/4 time signature. Compare for instance the Symphonies 2/4 to the scherzo of his sonata opus 31.

beethoven opus 31

In the scherzo we see the 16th note as basic, fastest note value, even on the edge of the 32d note that still needs a strong and clear rhythmical distinct position, harmonic changes even as fast as up to eight notes. No such thing in the symphony, harmonies easily go over the bar, at fastest changing one time per bar.

Both 2/4 time signatures, but such a different picture!

It is not hard to understand that the scherzo goes in a slower pulse than the symphony. You’ll read about this principle in baroque sources as for instance C.P.E.Bach’s book on keyboard playing. But even Czerny still writes on this principle in 1839, talking on allegro.

Let me summarize and translate into English: In an allegro on can have notes of different length. In case you’ll have 16th triplets, the tempo is to be taken somewhat slower as not to rush those notes. But when you only have simple 16th as fastest note value, one can play a bit livelier, on the condition there are no complicated harmonic progressions or polyphonic passages. In case only 8th triplets are used, the tempo again increases a bit. Again faster is the allegro where only 8th notes as as fastest notes are used?

As is in our symphony the case.

If we, with all this in mind, return to both performances, you probably already start to see some interesting patterns.

Listening to Zander’s performance, we may very well see in the score two quarter notes per bar, but without the score at hand, one only hears one basic pulse per bar. The first beat of the second bar serves in this case as the light beat. In other words: it takes over the function the notation gives to the previous quarter note, the second one of the first bar.

Listen again

Let’s continue for a moment in Zander’s direction. If we take a sheet of music paper, and pretend for a moment writing down a rhythmical dictation based on Zander’s performance, a notation with 16th notes would represent much closer Zander’s sound result. Probably no one would come up with Beethoven’s 8th note 2/4 notation.

See result here

One could keep insisting that the 3d and 4th eight notes in the Zander tempo have their own weight in the bar, but that’s absolutely not the case: there is no more than one accent per bar here, given on the first eight note. All three other eight notes are relative to the first accent, hence becoming dependent of that first eight note and thus bundled. In musical notation that results in 4 16th notes, and not in 4 eight notes.

But even in my own version, the pulse still is very fast if we really insist on giving that third eight note its accent. In a normal basic pulse for common time of 60 for the quarter, the eight notes in my performance sound almost also as 16th in common time.

So did Beethoven made a mistake after all?

No, I don’t think so. Beethoven cleverly used the so-called Alla Breve notation, in 2/4 – called the small Alla Breve in some sources- . Choosing that notation eliminates the use of 16th notes, which simply means a doubling in tempo while at the same time halving in note value.

So the eight notes here sound as  a kind of 16th notes sound in common time. Think again on the Czerny quote but in reverse: the slower the fastest basic note value, the opener the harmonic progression, the higher the speed. Reason for using this doubling/halving Alla Breve notation is to emphasize a more legato, more cantabile, heavier performance. Beethoven by definition here wasn’t after a brisk, heavily articulated sound or performance, if that would have been his ideal, as the Zander performance takes this piece in, he made the wrong decision using this notation.

So, now what about that metronome number of half note = 108?

I soon need to make a series of videos on historical descriptions on how to use a metronome, or how composers used it to indicate the desired tempo for their pieces. We will see that  often, for instance Gottried Weber in 1813, describe the metronome as giving both Takt and Takttheile, the Time and parts of the time. But how is that possible? How can a ticking device give both the Time and the Parts of Time?

Simple: Put your metronome in the case of our symphony at 108. Let it tick, and it’ll give you both the Zeitmass or Takt, indicated here by the half note and the Takttheile or Parts of Time, the quarter note, with every tick. So that two ticks or two quarter notes give you the half note which is for this piece the Tact, or Tactus, the up- and down of the conductor.

For the die-hard doubters very short in three lines the 1816 Maelzel instructions on how a composer should use a metronome briefly summarized – a separate video will come soon.

So these are not my words:

  1. When giving Time (Zeitmass) on a metronome, an allegro most often is indicated by a half note
  2. The metronome is set at a speed to give one tick every quarter note (quaver)
  3. With these premises in mind, when a composer wants to have a speed of 80, the metronome must be set so that each beat falls in with the degree of quickness desired for one minim (half note) or two crotchets

The instruction repeats it all in the last sentence: it being well understood, that in this, as in every other case, each SINGLE beat or tick forms a part of the intended time, and is to be counted as such, but not the two beats produced by the motion one side to the other.

In other words: each tick is part of the time, not the full-swing. Part of the intended time: quarter notes here as part of the half note, which indeed falls together with the full-swing.

So this instruction, contradictory from the standpoint of today’s use of the metronome, perfectly makes sense now:

  • Beethoven gives the half note for this allegro
  • The metronome is set to 108, which are the quarter notes –parts of the intended time.
  • Every beat or Schlag gives the speed or Zeitmass, in which case beat or Schlag is obviously the full-swing, or Vollschlag, as in fysics today still is used as one unity.

So returning to our symphony:  either Mr Zander is wrong or Beethoven. You make a choice.

We may even safely conclude that, without the Beethoven metronome number, the conductor would have been left without any argument whatsoever in defense of the extremely high speed in which he takes the symphony in.  And, as we have seen here, and will see in future videos, that reading is not the way the metronome was used to indicated tempo, speed or time.

The ‘power’ in Zander’s version to which many apparently are attracted too, lies in a mere rhythmical excitement, generated by a certain dynamism of the heavily accented groups of four 8th notes. The power of the C minor emotion however and the introvert, dramatic story Beethoven wants to share in this musical masterpiece, is buried deep under a multitude of post 19th century, perhaps even post-industrial layers we still are more prompted to then we are aware off.

It might be about time to remove them to rediscover the deep emotions those composers left us with. It may require a bit of study to do that, courage even, but my guess is that you share my idea that the music of Beethoven is worth doing it.

We’ll come back on the topic, that’s a promise.

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