Saturday, July 27, 2013

Beethoven: Symphony No. 9, third movement

The third movement, Adagio molto e cantabile, was always the one I found the most difficult to understand. I sensed that it was beautiful, but how was a bit of a mystery. This was one of the first Beethoven symphonies that I listened to a lot, and my understanding was fairly limited. The faster, more bombastic movements were more to my liking back then. But since then, I have listened to a great number of Beethoven slow movements and sets of variations, so I am better equipped to hear what is going on.

The movement begins with a brief introduction for the winds that simply outlines the key, B flat:

Then the violins have the melody:

Click to enlarge

Beethoven's metronome marking here, quarter note at 60, is quicker than most performances, though some conductors, following the "historically-informed performance" principles, and playing on original instruments, do adhere pretty strictly to Beethoven's tempi. This opening melody is a classic period, meaning that it is an eight-measure phrase divided in two four-measure segments. The first ends on the dominant, a half-cadence, and the second with a perfect authentic cadence on the tonic. I wrote about this kind of musical architecture here. Now you may have noticed that there are actually NINE measures in the theme, not eight. The reason is that there is an extra measure inserted between the two segments in which the winds add to their brief introduction. This kind of procedure, internal expansion of a conventional phrase, is a fruitful one and we will see it again.

When we listen to the performance, you will notice that Barenboim takes this movement much slower than quarter note = 60. His tempo is somewhere around quarter note = 30 or 35. Remember Beethoven's tempo is adagio molto e cantabile. This continues for a few phrases, then a new theme in a new tempo is introduced: Andante moderato, quarter note = 63. Which is absurd, of course. The difference between adagio molto and andante moderato is considerably greater than the difference between 60 and 63 beats per minute! Barenboim's choice, to slow down the adagio to something that really sounds like adagio molto, makes sense. Here is the new theme, given to the second violins:

Sorry for the break: it's a long theme and takes up a couple of lines in the score. That final F# is the link to a repeat of the phrase. The key is now D major and this is another eight measure period. There is no clear half cadence after the first four measures, however as the whole phrase tends to alternate between I and V with a dominant pedal. This section modulates back to B flat and we hear a variation on the first theme, in the original tempo with a lot of delicate filigree in the first violins.

Then the Andante moderato returns, but this time the flutes and oboes have the theme and the key is G major instead of D. On the next return to the adagio, the key is E flat and the winds have a variation on the original theme. The horn gets some nice solos and the strings have a pizzicato accompaniment. In the next section, modulating back to B flat, the first violins offer another variation in filigree, this time with a change of meter to 12/8, which is identical to simply doing triplets (or sextuplets). This has been prefigured in the strings as their pizzicato was in triplets in the previous section. After more and more elaborate variations in the first violins, the winds return with a simpler statement of the theme.

A loud fanfare in the winds and brass introduces yet another variation, mostly in the first violins. I have talked about "delicate filigree" which is a feeble attempt to describe the wonderful expressive things that are going on here. It is very tempting to simply refuse to talk about this sort of movement, but I have tried to give a bit of an idea of what is going on in case it might open a door for you.

Here is Daniel Barenboim conducting the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra at the Proms last year in 2012:


Rickard Dahl said...

Interesting, I had no idea the performances were so much slower than what Beethoven intended. And I also used to think (and think to some extent now) that it's a kind of mysterious movement. It's the only movement in the symphony that isn't so bombastic and it's pretty calm compared with the rest. Maybe it makes more sense when it's performed at the speed Beethoven wrote (I don't know as I haven't listened to such a performance I think).

Anyways, I've got an unrelated question/topic I hope you can explain to me. Basically I've been having a discussion about modes and key signatures on a forum with another forum member. The thing is that he composed a piece which he called "C Mixolydian Blues March" and what got my main attention was that he was using the key siganture of no flats and no sharps although C Mixolydian has the tones of C, D, E, F, G, A, Bb and thus should in my opinion using what I think is common sense music theory rules use the key sigature of one flat. He however claims that the key signature of no sharps and flats is required to make sure it shows that C is the tonic, basically using C major but modifying by throwing in redundant accidentals because he thinks that all scales/modes that have a major chord on the tonic should be treated as "major", same principle for "minor" scales/modes (thus treating for example D Dorian as D minor but raising the 6th throwing in extra naturals instead of letting the key signature handle it). Either way his way of thinking doesn't make much sense to me as the key signature typically tells which tones the piece will mostly consist of and the tonic of the piece then is made more or less clear and can often be found (unless it's for example moving inbetween modes alot, polytonal, modulating alot or simply being atonal and so on, then the key signature maybe isn't so helpful). So, in summary if a piece isn't major or minor but in fact is modal which of the two approaches to the key signature is more correct (when looking at it from a theoretical point of view)?

Bryan Townsend said...

Rickard, thanks for your comment. I just put up a post going into the tempo controversy more deeply.

Now as to the other issue: not having access to the comments on the other forum, my remarks can only be about what you have written. I think part of the confusion may come from the fact that key signatures were developed for and have a function only within the tonal system. In a modal system, their use, while practical, is a bit problematic. Yes, C mixolydian should have a key signature of one flat, but it's not actually a 'key', but a mode. Our system of notation is highly developed and incredibly useful, but it has certain quirks because of its history. For example, if you are writing whole-tone music the choice of what accidentals to employ is completely arbitrary because the notation was developed specifically for tonal, not whole-tone, music.

Similarly, some music written in the transition between the modal and tonal systems looks odd to us because it uses the 'wrong' key signature and even seems to end on the 'wrong' harmony. This is a big topic and there is an excellent discussion of it in the Journal of the American Musicological Society, vol. 51, no. 2, Summer 1998: "Modal Theory, Church Keys, and the Sonata at the End of the Seventeenth Century", by Gregory Barnett.

Rickard Dahl said...

So our western music theory is basically incomplete with regards to things like modes/scales? Also what exactly defines scales, modes and keys? I've been thinking about it some thanks to the discussion with him and here's an idea how all those things could be defined (probably wrong and there are probably many who have thought about it in the same or slightly different way):

- A scale group or mode group consists of an interval formula in which the starting point can be changed. A good example would be our diatonic "mode group".
- By changing the starting points in the interval formula you get different modes. For instance from the diatonic "mode group" you get ionian, dorian, phrygian, lydian, mixolydian, aeolian and locrian.
- If you take a set of tones (with no regard to order unlike in tone rows) you form a key. Basically if you take C, D, E, F, G, A & B you have a key.
- Now depending on the tonic in that key you get a scale which is basically the mode for that specific key, for instance C major, D dorian or G mixolydian.

Rickard Dahl said...

Edit: The last part about key and scale maybe should be the other way around or so.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Rickard,

Sorry, I seem to have missed your subsequent comments! I think that what I will do is put up a post on keys and modes. There are lots of modes other than just the church modes. There are a whole bunch of Russian modes, for example, very little known in the West. Also things like the octatonic scale and the whole tone scale are really modes.

Rickard Dahl said...

Well, you might have missed a couple other of my comments or just haven't found time to reply to them yet. Either way, yes there are plenty of modes and yet most composers (even today) seem to go either major/minor or atonal when there is an enormous middle ground with modes (not just the church modes but many more as you said). I look forward to your post.

Adrian Edwards said...

I'm sorry, but I have to confess -- I've never really liked this movement. Perhaps I fall into the category of those who do not understand it, but no amount of academic discussion will help.

I confess I find it a crashing bore, and wish it were half the length. The constant key changes up a tone (like a cheap pop song) only seem to make things worse. I just don't think the melodies are his best. It seems especially weak in comparison with Beethoven's great major key slow movements (the 4th and 6th symphonies and the Emperor Concerto) and I find myself drifting off, just waiting for the mighty finale.

Am I alone in this? I have heard it countless times, and never really got any further with it.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Adrian and welcome to the Music Salon. You get full points and a gold star for giving us an honest and candid evaluation.

The movement I really don't like is the last one.