Did Beethoven (Op. 61) touch the breath of life?
I just "re-discovered" something I posted on September 3rd, 2012, on violinist.com regarding the 1st movement of the Beethoven Violin Concerto. I still believe it....more than ever. You may not agree with some or all of it, but please give it a chance.
From Sander Marcus
Posted on violinist.com, on September 3, 2012
(regarding the first movement of the Beethoven Violin Concerto)
The piece begins with 5 drumtaps.
Actually, I believe, those first 5 drumbeats are the breath
of life. Allow me to explain. Beats #1-4 parallel the inhaling
of an ordinary, everyday sigh, like the kind of shallow but
tension-relieving sigh we all take several times a day
without even noticing it. And there is a build-up of tension
on beats 1-4, just as there is when we inhale during a sigh.
On beat #5, we relax and exhale. And the tempo is exactly the
same as the everyday sigh. So, Beat #1 of one breath is
simultaneously beat #5 of the previous sigh. So we have a
constant juxtaposition of the beginning of an inhalation and
the relaxing exhalation - they overlap.
And this constant pattern is built into the orchestral part of the orchestra's music. We're talking now just about
the orchestra part. It has 5-beat motifs everywhere,
like a giant jig-saw puzzle in sound.
Everything (even lengthened melodies and those
16-note figures) are all in beats of 5. Listen to the melodies; each has its "resting points" on a 5th beat.
This is the micro-structure of the 1st movement. Beethoven
captured, I believe, in the orchestral part of that
first movement, the very breath of life. And since there
is always that juxtaposition going on of Beats 1 and 5
simultaneously, you never hear the piece exactly the same
way each time.
That, I believe, is the meaning of why he began with 5 drumtaps.
Even that loud passage where the orchestra bangs out those
5 notes, there's a measure of silence in between. Even the
silence is in a 5-beat motif. No?
OK, so don't believe me. But I think it's there, and it's one
of the things that makes this piece endlessly alive.
And what is the contrast between the solo violin and the
orchestra? It is, in one word, to listen to the violin part
as if it is an improvisation. And, remember, Beethoven was
famous for his ability to improvise. So, the solo violin
sometimes joins the 5-beat rhythm, and sometimes plays
passages in which there is no sense of beat. That's how the
violin as the solo instrument provides contrast.
The violin part is written as if it is an improvisation,
so listen to it that way.
My favorite recording? Zino Francescatti, Philadelphia
Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy (about 1950). Because, among
other things, they stick to that inner 5-beat pulse.
Francescatti's small pauses and rubato phrases are not
overdone and are just right. It's a great, great performance
among many great performances.
Happy Labor Day.
Sandy [EDIT] [Flag?]
It is possible that Beethoven so was "in tune"
Sounds plausible to me. Goethe (who was a contemporary of Beethoven) liked the inhale/exhale metaphor (inhale = tension building, exhale = relaxation) and used it often. A well lived life in Goethe's teaching is a life where inhalation and exhalation are kept in equilibrium. So this interpretation of the violin concerto is quasi certified HIP!
I once said I should like a recording of Hilary Hahn playing scales & arpeggios, and some bright spark pointed out that she had just recorded the Beethoven concerto...
I like to think of this concerto as an example of Beethoven being a "minimalist" composer; he gets the grandest results from the shortest, most simple, ideas. (Symphonies 5,7,9, moonlight sonata,..)
I think he may just thought "eh, maybe I'll base the whole thing on a 5 beat motif." Who knows what the exact inspiration for that thought was. It could have been something he simply heard one day: maybe a repeating mechanical sound in the distance that occasionally belted out 4 taps followed by a 5th, long lurch.
This reminds me of a short story I read many years ago (can't remember the author or title now). The story is about a student who the night before his exam on Goethe is fed up with it all and curses the old master. The result of the curse is that that ghost of Goethe appears before him and when he hears of the students trouble he suggests that he, the ghost, should take the exam instead (off course in the shape of the student). After all; who would be better suited to answer questions about Goethe and his works? Big mistake! The professor is not impressed when Goethe explains that he wrote this or that work because he needed the money or when he gets angry when asked about his love life....
I discovered the concerto through Joseph Suk's old Supraphon disc with Konvichny: somewhere between Grumiaux (seraphic) and Oistrakh (majestic).
5=3+2. Beethoven was trying to satisfy the trinitarians and the non-trinitarians at the same time.
Interesting comments. I am not suggesting that Beethoven consciously decided, "I am going to write a piece totally about the human breath."
I think you're right that the 5 beat motif is the central theme of the movement, but unless you have textual references (for example, from Beethoven's letters) anything beyond that is pareidolia. (I also disagree that the violin part was written as an improvisation.)
One night I thought I could hear a drum 'n' bass party down the road. Turned out it was low frequency tinnitus from some earwax pressing against a blood vessel in my ear. Could have been what gave LvB the idea.
Funny how some consider incidental, momentary, superfluous noises as potentially having more of an artistic impact on Beethoven than the ordinary, ever-present act of breathing and the ordinary, everyday sigh.
I always thought there were four taps but I think I missed the fifth tap because the woodwinds come in then.
Raymond: Yes, I agree. I was part of that "wide audience" when I first heard this piece (at about age 9), and it has been one of my favorites (yes, including the 2nd movement and especially the 3rd movement) ever since. And, if I remember the details correctly, that long-overdue playing of the Concerto was 1844 (....I wasn't there for that one). But I did hear David Oistrakh play this concerto 3 times (all in Chicago), and his performance each time was incredible.
The inspiration for Beethoven's 5th symphony
The use of an anacrusis (upbeat or pickup) in music is nothing new, and the theory is that it is heavily used in the music of certain nationalities because it reflects language (and thus song) construction
Gordon, my daughter gets mad when I can't resist tapping on objects to see if I can get a tune out of them, even in stores..
Stephen: Thanks for the compliment. Actually, I saw David Oistrakh 6 times in Chicago, and he was ALWAYS spectacular....except once, which I will never forget. And I've posted this story before on violinist.com.
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