Timpani in Beethoven Violin Concerto

February 21, 2018, 7:04 AM · Why did Beethoven use a timpani in his violin concerto? Is it a metronomic device to ensure the ensemble stays together?

Replies (11)

Edited: February 21, 2018, 8:00 AM · Nothing else makes quite that sound. I think it creates a certain sense of mystery in the first measure. He might have approached it instead with cellos/basses but perhaps the tympanist was already on salary.

Vivaldi used low strings to get an earthy sound (at least with some conductors) in the "Four Seasons" concerti - but it's not the same sound.

With a conductor, or even with the soloist leading, no orchestra anyone would listen to would need those first 4 audible beats to stay together in the following measures.

Edited: February 21, 2018, 2:56 PM · The main theme of the first movement IS the first 5 drum-taps. Almost every phrase of every melody has a natural "resting" point on a 5th beat. And the tempo parallels a normal breath - inhale on beats 1-4, and exhale (and release of tension) on beat 5.

And beat 5 overlaps with beat 1 of the next breath, so there is an everpresent, ongoing feeling of exhaling, of serenity. Even the 16th note phrases are in beats of 5.

And the violin both joins the melodies at some points and goes off on it's own (just one note after another) in other passages, which is how the violin stands out (melodically) from the orchestra. In some of the solo violin passages, it's actually hard to find the beat, because it's just "one note after another." That's how it contrasts from the orchestra. And, remember, nothing was more important to Beethoven than "freedom."

Beethoven knew exactly what he was doing. And so, that initial solo 5 taps of the drum is crucial, because THAT'S the melody. Even those dramatic measures where there is almost nothing but rests, the silence of the measure has that 5-beat motif.

If you don't believe this, just listen to that first movement again, and this time listen to how each and every phrase (from 16th notes on up) come to rest on a 5th beat.

And when you get it, you'll notice that you can't possibly hear that first movement (or "breathe" it) the same way twice.

So, given all that, it's no wonder that he started the piece with 5 gentle drum-taps. It is the basis of the piece, and it is serenity personified. It is the breath of life. So, as a performer, you give that fifth beat a sense of rest, like a sigh. It's hypnotic.

If this movement isn't one of the greatest artistic achievements of Western civilization, I don't know what is.

Hope that helps.

Edited: February 22, 2018, 2:19 AM · great response, Sander.
I would add that those ppp timpani, together with LvB's use, occasionally, of very soft and long trumpet notes, are interesting steps to kind of de-militarize those instruments and to use them for color.
February 22, 2018, 6:08 AM · Are we talking about the tympani at the beginning, or the (occasional) use of tympani in the violin cadenza in the first movement (which I've heard Christian Teztlaff use)?

Yes, Sander is right about the motivic use of the tympani at the start of the piece (rhythmic motifs are common in Beethoven - prime example is the 5th symphony, where the "fate" motif appears in various forms in all 4 movements). However, I don't find the tympani in the cadenza serves the same purpose (perhaps because it's so surprising to hear an interloper in a cadenza).

February 22, 2018, 6:59 AM · The only reason to include the timps in the cadenza is to repeat the motif from the opening.
February 22, 2018, 7:22 AM · And this article by Tetzlaff points out that the use of the timpani motif in the cadenza dates from Beethoven's own cadenza to the piano version of the violin concerto.


February 22, 2018, 7:38 AM · The only reason to include the timps in the cadenza is to repeat the motif from the opening.

Right. I understand that.

But by now we've become accustomed to the concept of the big Romantic cadenza to display the virtuosity of the soloist, rather than expecting the cadenza to develop the piece[1]. So, as I said, my reaction to hearing the tympani in the cadenza is less of a "There's that opening motif again" and more of a "WTF was THAT?!?!!?"

[1] The primary counterexample is Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No.2. It's a sonata movement, but the entire development section is a piano cadenza. Listening to it through audio recording instead of in a concert, it's so long and so involved in the structure of the piece you forget the orchestra is there...until they come in with an orchestral tutti to announce the recapitulation. It's quite an astonishing effect.

February 22, 2018, 8:58 AM · The reason for the tympani in his concerto is that at the first performance, one of Beethoven's most important patrons, Count Vtiold Wertaslewvski, insisted on playng first oboe (or else...). At the age of 87, he could barely see his score, was deafer than Beethoven, and had only had a few lessons. After it became obvious that his lack of rhythm could sabotage the whole affair, Beethoven ordered the tympani to stand directly behind the oboes, and bang mercilessly into the old man's ear, thereby hoping to discourage him from further performance.
February 22, 2018, 12:23 PM · but they're not "banging mercilessly".

this sounds like the nth musical urban myth.

February 22, 2018, 12:53 PM · That is a great story Scott.
February 23, 2018, 5:07 AM · There is no mention of this oboe amateur "important patron" in my Beethoven biographies, nor does anything turn up if one googles the name, even if you try a different spelling.

Needless to say, if you're a oboe beginner, keeping pace isn't your biggest problem. It's intonation.

Also, the innovation in this concerto is that the timpani aren't used as a kind of metronome, but as a atmospheric element.

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