Did Beethoven (Op. 61) touch the breath of life?

June 25, 2021, 8:30 AM · 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?]

Replies (20)

June 25, 2021, 10:45 AM · It is possible that Beethoven so was "in tune"
with nature that it manifested itself in his music. I believe his daily country side walks were where he also developed ideas, hence the sketch books.

The 2nd movement of the Seventh Symphony has always suggested to me a beating heart.

Edited: June 25, 2021, 11:30 AM · 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!
June 25, 2021, 1:05 PM · 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...

Never have so many scales & arpeggios evoked such a marvelous soundscape!

June 25, 2021, 3:44 PM · 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,..)
The amount of plain scales and arpeggios is striking. That opening rhythm motif to me is like 3 pick-up notes leading to the next down-beat. Then the solo violin first entrance reflects that as a dom. 7th chord.
June 25, 2021, 7:52 PM · 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.

And so he gets the idea from something he's heard in daily life (perhaps without realizing it), and then decides to use it for his concerto. And he sets up that expectation in the beginning with the drum taps. Like he's saying, "you're going to hear more of this."

I'd be more inclined to follow your specific hypothesis if there was some symbolic significance already in place that established the link between groups of 5 and the "breath of life." Much like groups of 3 representing the holy trinity, and thus showing up in old paintings quite a bit.

It is fun to interpret works of art, though, and I suppose it's part of what makes art great. With that said, though, people are usually wrong about an artist's exact thoughts regarding something in their works. I have an awesome painting in my studio by a student of mine, and it's always fun to hear peoples' ideas about what inspired a particular object in the painting. But if you ask the actual artist about those same things, it's usually something mundane like "I saw that pattern on a rock wall one day and thought it would look nice."

Edited: June 26, 2021, 3:49 AM · 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....

Edit: The story is a play by Alfred Polgar and Egon Friedell: "Goethe im Examen"

Edited: June 26, 2021, 6:38 AM · I discovered the concerto through Joseph Suk's old Supraphon disc with Konvichny: somewhere between Grumiaux (seraphic) and Oistrakh (majestic).
He plays the cadenzas of Vasa Prihoda: the first thankfully omits the weird middle section, the second and third are brief and to the point.

This radiant concerto comes from the period of the Pastoral Symphony, the 4th piano concerto and the C major Mass.

I have a study of Beethoven's sketchbooks. Often the first draught of a theme is surprisingly banal; then he deforms it in various ways, often returning to the spirit of the initial version, but in a vastly improved form.

I also have a Schott editon with extra staves showing Beethoven's original draught, and Franz Clement's suggestions. The layout of many of the "scales and arpeggios" owes a lot to Clement..

June 26, 2021, 6:02 AM · 5=3+2. Beethoven was trying to satisfy the trinitarians and the non-trinitarians at the same time.
Edited: June 26, 2021, 9:02 AM · Interesting comments. I am not suggesting that Beethoven consciously decided, "I am going to write a piece totally about the human breath."

However, I think most of us tend to get that sense of a build-up on the first 4 beats, and then a sense of coming to rest on the 5th beat and extending it a bit, at least mentally and not completely physically. That certainly gives us a mental sense of an ordinary, shallow-breath sigh.

Perhaps Beethoven sensed this intuitively. We'll never know, of course. But the pattern is overwhelmingly present. You can't miss it.

And, just as a bit of a challenge, just try counting all of the 5-beat phrases in that first movement (including the extended and even 16th note phrases). The 5-beat motif is all over the place in the entire orchestra part. And he starts out the piece with 5 drum taps.

And you're telling me Beethoven had no idea what he was doing? That it was just some inconsequential pattern he got obsessed with, and nothing more? (So much for one of the greatest musical geniuses who ever lived.)

Edited: June 26, 2021, 10:49 AM · 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.)

For what it's worth, when I learned it my teacher called it a heartbeat.

Edit: I just remembered I have a book on the Beethoven violin concerto! It quotes Andreas Moser (1859-1925): "The idea of this curious motive is said to have occurred to Beethoven during the stillness of a sleepless night, on hearing someone knocking at the door of a neighbouring house. The knocking consisted always of five regular blows in succession, repeated after a pause; and Beethoven, overjoyed at being able to distinguish the sound so clearly, for at this time his hearing was beginning to be seriously impaired, used it as the opening theme for the violin concerto with which he was then occupied." - although it goes on to say that "the veracity of Moser's statement regarding the source of Beethoven's inspiration cannot be confirmed"

Edited: June 26, 2021, 10:34 AM · 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.
Edited: June 27, 2021, 8:01 AM · 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.

And I never suggested that the violin part IS an improvisation. I said that it is written like an improvisation, more like it's inspired by it. I believe it has that spontaneous feeling of an improvisation - joining the orchestra at points and creatively playing around it at other points.

If an amateur and a listener like me can spot such obvious and ever-present patterns such as these, then perhaps devoted listeners and knowledgeable musicians can at least acknowledge it. I believe that Beethoven knew exactly what he was doing, and didn't just come up with these patterns by some accident.

And, personally, as a devoted music lover, these concepts have increased my appreciation of Beethoven and the monumental creation of this violin concerto.

Edited: June 29, 2021, 10:11 PM · I always thought there were four taps but I think I missed the fifth tap because the woodwinds come in then.

In my opinion, this piece speaks to a wide audience from children to older adults. I've heard this piece performed with piano by a young violinist, I think she was no older than 14 or 15, and she did a great job with it. I think kids really like the 3rd movement in particular.

I read recently that the concerto was revived by the 12 year old (!) Joseph Joachim with Felix Mendelssohn at the podium. Wow, that must have been quite something!

Edited: June 30, 2021, 10:23 AM · 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.
June 30, 2021, 1:42 PM · The inspiration for Beethoven's 5th symphony

June 30, 2021, 2:45 PM · 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

In many languages such as English, German, and the Romance languages, phrase typically begin with an article, and those tend to be unstressed. This is reflected in the song and music of those countries.
It's interesting to note, however, that pickups are not as frequently used in the music of other Eastern European cultures.

Edited: June 30, 2021, 7:57 PM · Gordon:
I see that...you're in... the flow of the discussion, and you must be flushed with excitement. (I'm not sure that your interpretation holds water, but tanks anyway.) You must be relieved to be on a roll and use your liquid assets to get your point across (especially during the season of the superbowl).
July 1, 2021, 12:32 AM · Greetings,
Sander , as always, you are what we Brits call the ‘bog-standard’ for humor.
I envy you hearing Oistrakh so many times.
Edited: July 1, 2021, 4:09 AM · 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..
Edited: July 2, 2021, 11:02 AM · 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.

He played with a visiting orchestra (I forget who the conductor was), and it was the Prokofiev 1st Concerto. His performance in the outer two movements was beyond great. However, he got off to a messy start in that 2nd technically difficult movement, and it was as if he was a few beats behind the orchestra all the way. The playing was sloppy, he missed notes, and really was not good.

But there was no audience reaction, and at the end of the Concerto, he got a great round of applause. He and the conductor walked off stage, and then, they walked back on. Oistrakh re-tuned his violin, signaled to the conductor, and they repeated that 2nd movement. This time, it was beyond spectacular. He got an ovation from the audience and the orchestra that I remember to this day.

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