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Drowning in Beethoven....

January 20, 2009 at 11:07 PM


Last night I was just running through the music I have to prepare and perform over the next two weeks and was somewhat astonished to see it consists of the following:   Beethoven: Minuet in g,   Symphony no1, Symphony no.7, symphony no 9 (last movement),  piano trio in c minor, sonata no 1 in d.
And not much else….
Maybe it’s a bit of an unbalanced diet right now but there really is something about Beethoven that makes his world a never ending delight, a collection of works that can always be played better, more deeply, more thoughtfully and so fourth.  They are as much a violinist’s bread and butter as the Bach Solo Sonatas and Partitas or Kreutzer etudes.  What I think makes them ubiquitous is largely the revolution in dynamics which parallels to my mind a shift in the development of human thought and society at that time.  A veritable explosion.
It is this dramatic tension within the dynamics that makes or breaks Beethoven and unfortunately at even the highest levels of performers at times it is very much the latter case.    The most fundamental breakthrough that distinguishes Beethoven from Mozart I illustrate to my students simply by spreading my hands. Mozart occurs within the space of hands close together and Beethoven sprawls between widely spread hands.   When Beethoven writes pp as opposed to p or ff in stead of f he means it and so must we.   I last wrote a blog about playing what’s on the page being an essential part of artistry and although it is easy to see this as pedantry it is amazing how far from this initial truth orchestras (in particular wander) without a thoughtful conductor or concertmaster.    
Take for example my favorite Beethoven: symphony no 7.  Sorry I don’t have a score in front of me.  But concerning the opening, how loud does one hear the first chord?  Pretty loud. But actually the chord is only putting the key in the lock of the door. If played at maximum power then how can the middle of the introduction dramatically sweep up to ff.  The difference in effect is the same as creating a mountain range or running out of ammunition…. Notice the 16th passage following a ff section that has dim. Written at the beginning. How often does one hear an immediate drop in sound rather than beginning ff and getting progressively quieter?    How about the hooked dotted rhythms on open g,c and e in the second violin.  I think they are marked p (as opposed to pp) but how many orchestras resist the temptation to do a slight crescendo as the figure is repeated over and over.  Another common error and one of the hardest things to do is to play a whole series of Sfz within the context of piano and sustain the energy and electricity without getting louder.
It’s a real shame that we have become so used to seeing Beethoven on the music stand that we start to get complacent about these things, but it also makes it a real joy when a truly thoughtful conductor and a more intelligent management takes the time to refresh ourselves about what Beethoven meant his music to sound like.  One lives for such moments.

From Larisa Mihaela
Posted on January 21, 2009 at 5:14 AM

Drawning in Beethoven ...oh yes!Again....and again...and again. Hey, my favorite work of Beethoven (or well , among the very favorites ) is the 7th symphony too :). Especially the 2nd part!And also , among the very favorites, the violin concerto in D...and that is starting to become my favorite violin concerto:D.It is curious that , at the beginning , I didn't like it really at all;it seemed flavorless.Well, what a childish way of thinking I had then.


By the way , what thoughts do you have related to this great work (the violin concerto)? I of course feel that I have so much ahead until I will play it to a complete comprehending...Playing Beethoven "perfectly" is like playing Bach:it takes a lot of time.

Have a great day ,


From Tom Holzman
Posted on January 21, 2009 at 1:06 PM

If you gotta die, what a way to go!

From Corwin Slack
Posted on January 23, 2009 at 2:24 PM

The student/community orchestra I am playing in is doing Beethoven 4 in March. I was giving up hope on playing an even numbered symphony again. (I played no. 8 over 30 years ago). 

Fortunately the bassoons in the orchestra are very good. Finale at quarter = 136? I hope.

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