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Appreciating the 1st Movement, Beethoven Concerto, Op. 61

Edited: August 14, 2022, 8:02 AM · I originally posted the following on, 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.

Replies (2)

Edited: August 14, 2022, 10:31 AM ·
I live in the Portland, Oregon area, and there's a bit of an interesting story I recall reading about regarding those drumbeats. Jacques Singer was conducting (at that time) the Portland Symphony, and Isaac Stern was about to play the Beethoven.

Well, Maestro Singer forgot to cue in the timpani and began the piece without the drumbeats. Stern went apocalyptic, and there was quite a scene. I'm not sure how the concert finished, but it took some convincing for Stern to return to Portland for future engagements.

Clearly, Isaac Stern placed a high regard on those five notes.

August 14, 2022, 10:43 AM · Yes, very interesting observations, and a great story about Isaac Stern. Yes, of course, beats 1-4 do not exactly parallel an inhaled breath. However, that feeling of a sense of exhaling and release of tension occurs on every fifth beat. And, yes, the fact that we pay attention to different ones (since beats 1 and 5 overlap), we don't experience the piece exactly the same way every time. It is an almost endlessly varied experience, and we always find a new way to experience it. Beethoven's creativity in doing this is (in my opinion) beyond genius.

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