Fifth Dimension

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An Evaluation of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony: Structure and Tempo

Posted by fifthdimension on May 15, 2007

Here, Beethoven gives the second violins and cellos a precisely measured sextuplet rhythm. The sextuplet rhythm recurs at several points in the first movement – most strikingly in the second violins at bar 240, about 20 bars (or 30 seconds) into the fugato section [7]. When the violins enter at the end of the second bar with their descending motive made up of pairs of notes – short-long, short-long, short-long -the music sounds like a majestic French Overture if we hear it one beat to each bar. Thus the ‘poco maestoso’ effect that Beethoven asked for is obtained not by taking the music at a slower tempo in the within-the-bar sense, i.e. by adopting a slower metronome marking, but rather by taking it as a fast enough metronome marking so that the music can flow across the bar-lines, each bar (or even each two bars) being heard as one beat.


The tempo was an element central to Beethoven’s compositions. If we listen to the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth taken as slowly as it was by such great conductors as Furtwangler and Klemperer, the music speaks with majesty, force, power, ‘Fate knocking on the door’. If we hear it at the tempo indicated both by Beethoven’s Italian direction ‘Allegro molto vivace’ and by his metronome marking 108, it seems driving, violent, impetuous, and headlong. So much was his concern  about the tempi at which his works were performed that, according to his friend Anton Schindler, whenever he heard about a performance of one of them, ‘his first question invariably was: “How were the tempi?” Every other consideration seemed to be of secondary importance to him’.


Since Beethoven cared so deeply about issues of tempo, he left more detailed instructions on the subject. When he headed each movement of his symphonies, and each section of each movement, both with an Italian descriptive phrase (such as ‘Allegro molto vivace’ or ‘Adagio’) and also with a metronome marking, he thought he was leaving future performers not only precise indications of the speeds of the various movements and sections, but also the key to the successful performance of the work as a whole.


The memorable premiere of this masterpiece was held at
Vienna on May 7, 1824, amid thunderous cheers resonating throughout the hall. Many argue that it was the end part of the scherzo that the impact of the dramatic effect was most profound, while others maintain that the conclusion affected it. The main reason for this was perhaps the fact that Beethoven composed it in four movements, namely:

a. First movement- allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestos

b. Second movement- molto vivace

c. Third movement- adagio molto e cantabile

d. Fourth movement- presto/recitative  


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