12 Bars of Beethoven (not the blues)

In my last post, I started to discuss the question of sustaining from a conductor’s point of view. Now that we’ve looked at the general concept of sustain, lets apply it to an actual piece of music, one that we studied in some depth at the RCICW.

Take, for example, the fugue of the second movement of Beethoven 3. If ever there was a passage that called for sustaining, for a long line, this is it. However, by its very nature, the section poses a lethal risk to the conductor. In “traffic cop” mode, it seems that the most important task of the conductor in any fugue is to make sure that each section or voice enters at the right time. Right away, we risk chopping the music into bleeding chunks of 3 bars, 4 bars and five bars. Each entrance in this fugue should represent a continuation of the music, not disruption? This is not easy to show or achieve.  Just as one great conductor used to say of whole works that “the end is in the beginning,” that is also true of this section of the piece. So if we start with the beginning, the first statement of the main theme, how does the conductor sustain the intensity of the line?

Big question.

Remember, sustaining is not stasis, but varying the intensity of the sound constantly, by just the right amounts. So what are those amounts? How do we find them and how do we show them?

Since the entrance of a new voice is always the most obvious musical road-sign in a fugue, lets see how we can cope with them, and build both our musical understanding and our technical approach around the entrances, and see if that allows us to use these events to strengthen rather than weaken the sustaining quality of the music.

The first entrance of the fugue is in the second violins, in a middle register, and lasts for three bars. The second entrance is in the first violins, a fifth above, and lasts for four bars. The third entrance is in the violas and the cellos, an octave below the original entrance of the second violins (and an octave-and-a-half below the firsts). It lasts for three bars, but there is a two bar continuation after the statement before the next entrance, so it is a five bar unit.

Just in these first three entrances, we can see how utterly conscious Beethoven is of the directionality of this music, and of how he can build its intensity. He creates sustaining and increasing intensity through register, starting with the first statement of the fugue  in the middle range of the orchestra, then building up, then expanding down. Each new voice is in a more extreme register, each time the distance from the old voice to the new voice is greater, and with each entrance the overall range of the orchestra expands more and more dramatically.

He creates sustaining and increasing intensity by building the size of the orchestra. With each statement, not only does the orchestra get bigger because the old section continues to play, but he also uses more players on the theme (first, usually there are more first violins than seconds, and then by using two entire sections).

He creates sustaining intensity by building longer and more elaborate phrase units (3 bars, four bars and five bars which are subdivided into two parts).

On top of this, each statement of the theme is more elaborately accompanied (and by this I literally mean accompany in the sense of “to go with,” not to passively follow, or anonymously back something up). In the first statement, the second violins are joined by a simple counter-melody in the violas and bassoons (who play in the same register, starting from the same pitch) as the second violins. This counter-theme is simply a series of bar-long sforzandos with a trilled eighth-note on the last beat of the last bar.

In the second statement, the first violins are joined by the same countermelody, now in the flutes, but this time, they play an octave above the melody, an obvious intensification. In addition, the second violins continue playing a new counter-theme, basically running sixteenth notes. Finally, in the last bar of this second statement, Beethoven introduces yet another new idea- a countermelody in the oboes and bassoons that is a fragmentation of the fugue theme (it’s the first three notes of the theme). We can call it a tag theme.

In the third statement he continues the half-note sforzando countermelody (now in the clarinets) and the sixteenth note continuation theme (now in the first violinst) and now brings in the little tag fragment in the third bar of the theme, rather that wait for the “extra” bars at the end of the statement, but this time he starts a beat later so has three notes of equal value rather than long-short-short as it has been so far, moves the last note up a step.

Thus in the third statement, he can introduce four new ideas in those two “extra” bars. First, we get the tag theme (those first three notes of the melody), but now in diminution (played twice as fast) and rhythmic retrograde (short-short-long instead of long-short-short) in the first violins. One beat later, the second violins answer with their own modified version of the beginning of the fugue theme, but now the first four notes, in diminution, but with the first note anticipated by a beat. All that happens in just the first of these two bars! In the second bar, we get the violas playing their own truncated version of the beginning of the theme, but in the three-equal-notes rhythm used by the flutes and oboes two bars back. Finally, in this same last bar, the horns enter with a sort of cry of despair- another new gesture, and the first appearance of a brass instrument in the fugue.

If you’re still reading this at all, I imagine you’re a little word fatigued at this point. You can see how inefficient it is to talk about music. Still, hopefully, just in this first bit of the fugue, you can see how carefully Beethoven is using every tool at his disposal to create a gradually increasing sense of density, intensity and raw power. How amazing is it, then, that he is able to continue building this for so long beyond the 12 bars we’ve looked at so far, The next statement adds yet a new octave to the bottom of the orchestra when the basses join, adds a new rhythmic doubling to the theme in the horns, adds a new countertheme (again derived from the first three notes of the theme itself) in the first violins and a member of a new instrumental family (percussion) in the timpani.

So, back to the first statement of the theme. We want to know, as conductors, how to sustain that line. Now we know that in order for us to sustain that line, the musical intensity actually has to grow- sustaining is not stasis, but constantly changing the intensity by just the right amounts. We know that the end of this statement is not the end of that growth, so we know that the growth has to be perceptible, but small enough that it can continue for minutes more. We know that the theme itself has to have shape, both as a matter of good musical taste, but also to underline the motivic construction of the whole thing- after all, Beethoven quickly begins to develop the first three and first four notes of the theme into important contrapuntal material. The sforzando on the fourth note of the theme is the culmination of the motion upward, and a way of dividing the theme into usable fragments (the notes up to the sf, the notes up to and including the sf and the notes after the sf). Its important, but it has to be in service of the larger structure. We want the theme to be forte, but not so loud that we can’t hear what is being played with, or, even more importantly, the space around it that Beethoven is going to fill as the fugue develops. We know that at the end of the three bars, we want it to have intensified enough so that when the new voice enters it sounds organically connected to what has preceded, but suffiently stronger than the original statement to stand out clearly against a thicker texture.

Lest I belabor the obvious here, I’ll try to wrap up a bit. We’ve talked about just the first 12 bars of one section of this movement in enough depth that we can begin to understand how to shape the first three bars. Of course, we have to know that this is only a small part of the fugue, which is only a small part of the movement. As it turns out, the emotional intensity of the movement never lets up from this point on- the music gets both dramatically louder and softer, but always more and more intense, and it is up to the conductor to sustain that line to the end of the movement (the darkest point in any Beethoven symphony). That goal has to be paramount, so each detail we encounter has to help facilitate our journey towards the double bar.

We also need to know where the fugue comes from, both in terms of the musical drama that leads up to it (including the entire first movement of the symphony), but also motivicallly.

Beethoven would rarely introduce a new motive this far into a movement, so where does the fugue come from? I’m sure it is from the e-flat major theme at letter A-, (which also becomes the bass-line in the cello/bass and violas at the Maggiore section beginning at bar 68). The fugue theme is simply an inversion of that melody (without the pick-up note). What does it mean that he’s turned the major-key theme upside down and put it in minor? If the theme at letter A brings some (very brief) sense of both release and hope, what does that tell us about the character of the fugue?

Next, a few very simple ideas on how to develop gestures that can reflect this understanding.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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