If anyone has conducted a Beethoven performance, and then doesn’t have to go to an osteopath, then there’s something wrong.
– Simon RattleCHAPTER AIM: To appreciate how the power of rhythm shapes Beethoven’s music
If we describe Bach as “immortal God of Harmony”, as Beethoven did, then it’s fair to say Mozart the Master of Melody. Which means we can conveniently clap our hands and stamp our feet for Ludwig van Beethoven as Lord of the Dance!
The man himself, like his music, was a bundle of energy and drive, prone to sudden bursts of affection, or a volcanic temper.
He never married, and was never even settled, constantly on the move and rarely living in the same place for more than a couple of years. You could write to him – he used to boast to visitors – by addressing the envelope with just the two words “Beethoven” and “Vienna”, his hometown.
Whether by dint of his fame, or the endeavors of the Austrian postal service, the mail would usually find its way to him.
When you listen to Beethoven’s music, there’s always something interesting going on, rhythmically. Wagner famously described Beethoven’s music as ‘the apotheosis of dance‘, and that’s a good description, because so often you can feel a kinetic drive and a physical presence to his music.
This rhythmic intensity is probably the most distinctive feature of his work. It’s what makes Beethoven sound most like Beethoven.
A Fifth Element
Let’s take a famous example, indeed the most famous example possible:
Yes, it is the DA-DA-DA-DAAA!! of his 5th symphony. But is this actually a melody at all?
There are only four notes, and three of these are the same.
The power of the phrase really comes from a rhythmic punch than any melodic caress.
And, more importantly, the effect is amplified by the constant repetition of the phrase in the music. Repetition is the essence of rhythm. This music wouldn’t work without the constant hammering repetitions of this phrase:
Beethoven’s Fifth (longer)
Listen to how those simple four notes are woven together by Beethoven into a thick curtain of sound. It is their rhythmic thrust drives the music forward. That simple motif powers the rest of the movement, and indeed the whole of the fifth symphony.
Listen to the clip again. How many times can you hear that four note motif?
Beethoven’s Fifth (extended)
5.05- 6.26 Instrumental section
Beethoven was a restless and driven man. That drive pushed Beethoven to write music that was bigger and longer than any other.
But the mammoth size of this music also gives us the opportunity to explore – as Beethoven does – many different rhythmic soundscapes. An appreciation of rhythm is not about counting beats in a bar! We are learning to see and appreciate the rhythmic personality of the music, and the effect it has on the meaning of the sound itself.
And since Beethoven has blessed us with such a colossal work, there really is so much fascinating and varied rhythmic invention going on all the time. Let’s jump right in with the opening minute our piece.
00.00-16.44 the whole movement
A crashing roll of drums (at 00.03) introduces a flurry of orchestral activity that immediately thrills us in anticipation of what is to come.
Then we rear to a sudden halt, and a voice sings to us from the silence.
Immediately we are aware that this is very different sort of orchestral music to Bach’s, and a very different symphony to Mozart’s. In both those pieces, the music flowed constantly. At least for the first minute.
Here we are jammed right up at the start with drum rolls, stops, starts, and a fair few jabs.
Let’s just break down those first seconds in more detail:
- 00.00 An orchestral flurry – breakneck speed
- 00.03 Drum roll
- 00.04 Orchestral stabs, seeming to come almost on top of one another.
- 00.10 Suddenly we break to a halt.
- 00.11 The singer is introduced. He sings alone.
- 00.20 The orchestra joins in, but only to support the voice.
- 00.38 Four stabs from the orchestra
- 00.47 Two stabs from the orchestra
- 00.54 One stab from the orchestra
Think about the rhythmic quality of this music. This beginning – with its tempestuous opening and its stop-start pacing, really fires up the music, before suddenly clamping it down. The initial flurry from the orchestra, and the sudden silence that follows, act as a scene-setter for the single voice that now sounds out (0.11). The music, with its very individual rhythmic stamp, has dramatized the entry of our soloist.
When the orchestra next joins in (0.20), it does so really as a support for the voice. The orchestral music seems to ebb and flow rather than obeying any distinct rhythm of its own.
But when the orchestra next appears (0.38), it is with four quick jabs of sound. Then we hear two, and finally one. The effect of these decreasing stabs act like a countdown. It means that when we hear our final stab (0.38), we know instinctively this introduction is finished and the main piece is about to begin.
Rhythm is not just a process of counting beats. Look how it is operating, even during these first few bars. The rhythmic contours define this introduction. And the rhythmic variety is huge; it’s so utterly different to our Bach with its consistent tick-tock tempo. Here, the rhythms change and vary, providing the music with a real sense of drama.
This variety of tempos is something you will find all the way through this music. There are in fact twenty-five changes of tempo scored by Beethoven in this finale, twenty five times he tells the orchestra to play at a different speed. That’s twenty-five more than you’ll find in our Mozart piece.
Let’s look at some of these very different rhythmic identities, starting with what I term the Marching Band section.
This section comes three and a half minutes into the piece:
3.30- 5.10 Marching Band
It starts with the low parp in the bassoons, almost impertinently comic in tone.
And then the music gradually builds. And it builds in a particular direction.
This is music moving – make that marching – in a certain direction.
The rhythm is crisp. The sound is distinct and sharp, with the instruments clearly outlined against one another.
When for example violins chip in, we hear them, easily distinguishable from the other instruments. This is a blending of individuals into a team.
There is a particular atmosphere to this music. We could be on a battlefield, we could be in a bar, but wherever we are, one thing’s for sure: this is a man’s world!
At least it is for the choir, who remain Men Only for this entire section.
8.00- 8.26 Devotional Section
By contrast – and you could hardly get more of a contrast – let’s turn to a ‘devotional’ section of this music which comes later (7.38) in the piece.
This music inhabits clearly a very different rhythmic universe. That doesn’t mean there is no rhythm here, but rather the rhythm is different. It is slower, and more inter-woven. There are no hard intrusions of separate beats, as we had with our marching band section.
We occupy a very different rhythmic space, and that tells us something immediate. Remember, rhythm promotes dance, and action around the lower half of your body. Which has no place in this musical chapel. This is music of contemplation. This is spiritual music.
This is music that is reaching beyond time.
Roll back a little to the music that starts off this devotional section:
7.38-7.59 Devotional Section opening
How do we describe this rhythm? If we were to visualise it, the sound comes in large, different-sized blocks, without any obvious regularity or pulse. Try to keep a steady beat going through the clip yourself…not a particularly rewarding musical experience!
If there is a rhythmic structure to the music, it is a cryptic structure, hidden within these rather oblique units of sound. Which lends to the sound a sense of mystery, and age. This is musical that sounds ancient, or primeval.
And then the rest of the choir joins in:
8.00- 8.26 Devotional Section, females join in
The music now reveals more rhythmic shape, but the effect is nothing like the rhythmic stamp of our earlier military band section. It pulses, rather than measures.
Different sections of the choir and orchestra enter at staggered intervals, creating a mosaic of inter-locking harmonies rather than a single melodic line. This music seems to be working more through the dimension of space than time.
How different from the military band section, where the beat itself leads the music on.
This music pushes upwards rather than forwards. The effect is to broaden and at the same time unify the sound.
As if to raise ourselves up, beyond the earthly realm..
9.45-10.25 Devotional section, near end
The music continues its lift, before landing (0.15 above) on some kind of plateau. From where it proclaims loud blocks of sound which once again resist an easy or steady beat. As so often, Beethoven is pushing the musical envelope rhythmically with these primal blasts.
It’s as if the music is trying to resist rhythm, mere temporal restrictions, in an upwards lift towards a timeless universal.
10.36-10.56 Devotional Section, end
Now the music seems to have lost any rhythmic aspect whatsoever. We hang suspended inside a space without any rhythmic dimension at all.
This is music that is trying to reach out and touch the intangible.
As if, by quieting the daily pulse of rhythm, we can push towards the infinite and timeless.
5.05- 6.26 Instrumental section
We are being offered such a rich variety of rhythmic textures within the same single movement. Crisp marching, or interlocked spirituality. And also, as here, plain raw energetic Beethoven!
Beethoven is trying to express something all-encompassing here. This is music that is clearly pushing towards the expression of universal values. And to do so, it must weld these very different and contrasting rhythms into a single consistent work. These rhythmic personalities represent matephysical aspects of the music, a subject we’ll get more deeply into later in the course.
There’s a structural aspect to this. A work of this size needs different rhythms. If the whole piece ran at a single consistent tempo, it would end up sounding tedious to our ears.
Beethoven is painting on a large canvas here. It is the variations in tempo that give the music a variety it needs in order to impel us through what was – up to this time – about the longest and certainly the most concentrated movement of a symphony ever composed.
That’s a lot we’ve got through. Next chapter, we turn to melody, with one of the most famous melodies of all time: the Ode to Joy.
- Wagner’s description of Beethoven’s 7th as ‘the apotheosis of dance’ surely applies best to this final movement, a swirling whirling dervish of movement.
- The last movement of his 17th Piano Sonata, appropriately known as ‘The Tempest’ is indeed a fiery storm.
- The 2nd movement of this very symphony, which is impossible to conceive without its rhythmic dimension.
- Worth checking out the 2nd movement of his 1st quartet Op 59. It is built upon a main melody that consists of one note, played several times. It’s a pure example of a general tendency you find with Beethoven: to have melodies with strongly rhythmic identities.
- And finally: Beethoven’s fifth as Salsa, to prove its rhythmic credentials!