LvB 9- Concert done, pontifications begin. About those famous sextuplets

Apologies to Vftp fans who have been virtuously checking their Google Reader for new posts, only be to repeatedly disappointed. It has been a very busy few weeks, to say the least. Of course, during busy periods like this there always ends up being a tragic imbalance between a wealth of things to talk about and a lack of time and energy to talk about them.

I’d hoped to write more about Beethoven 9 in advance of my performance of it last Saturday in Guildford with the Surrey Mozart Players, but it wasn’t meant to be. I was curious whether coming back to a piece I’ve been mulling for ten years since I last conducted it would lead to any major rethinks. As I most often find, rather than many changes of heart, I feel like the changes are in the degree of understanding of detail you bring to the piece. It is still very much the same KW take on Beethoven 9 as in 2001, just, hopefully, deeper and better. I just hope it’s not another 10 years before I can do it again.

Since the schedule is not letting up any time soon, I thought I would just take the shotgun approach, and try to get a few ideas about the piece written down while they’re still buzzing around in my head.

Pontifications about Beethoven 9:

1- The opening sextuplets in the 2nd violins and cellos.

Mysterious, full of portent and atmospheric or rhythmically precise and articulate?

David Levy, in his excellent book on the piece,  is convinced we have to make a choice: for him, either it can be clear or it can be poetic.

“The murmuring sextuplets  of the second violins and cellos and open fifth (A-E) of the horns of the first measure are couched in a soft dynamic that obscures any clear sense of time, space or tonality. The sextuplet figure, however, articulates a precisely-measured subdivision of each beat, and one could argue that the listener ought to be able to hear those subdivisions distinctly. Others have maintained that the sextuplet murmur is meant to suggest an unmeasured tremolo, and that it ought to be performed without the slightest hint of accentuation…The issue of how to play the sextuplets is neither unimportant nor purely academic. A performance of the Ninth Symphony cannot have it both ways. The sextuplets must be played either distinctly or indistinctly.”



I’m not convinced.

The modern fashion for playing the opening like a spiccato excercies is, in my opinion, gross. It’s also unnecessary. It’s also not supported by the text- they’re not marked with dots, Beethoven’s often used “stac” or any other kind of indication that would lead us to think he wanted them off the string. We did them on-the-string at the point this week. If the players actually change their bows at the same time and don’t use too much bow, it’s both mysterious and clear, even in a reverberant church. The rhythm has to be perceptible and even- a train wreckish tremolo will not do. Beethoven develops this opening rhythm in all kinds of ways.  Check out the violas in bar 120, and parallel places (which is irritatingly inaudible on 90% of recordings), and the way those sextuplets break through into 32nd notes as the crescendo boils over. Check out the amazing return of the sextuplets in the 2nd violins in bar 240, right at the frenzied climax of the development. And of course, just as Beethoven uses the shift from sextuplets to 32nds to create a ferocious sense of intensification in the viola passage mentioned above, he does the same thing on a much larger scale by writing the recapitulation (letter K) over 32nds instead of sextuplets. Everyone mentions the way Beethoven starts the recap not in D minor but in a very scary incarnation of D major (in first inversion), but the rhythmic transformation from 6 to 8 notes per beat is another important reason the recap feels so frighteningly intense. At least when you can tell what the rhythm is at the beginning and the recap…

Nope, a tremolo won’t do.

Finally, ask yourself why in the last four full bars of the entire symphony the rhythm shifts from 8 notes per-beat to 6? Beethoven is bringing this metric game full circle.

You can’t start a symphony like this by only doing half your job- it’s got to present the musical material in an intelligible way AND create a sense of mood.


Post script- My other pet peeve in the opening is when the 32nd note pickups in the melody line up exactly with the sextuplets. I find this tripletization of the rhythm to be a lazy rendering of what’s on the page, and it sounds French in all the wrong ways….



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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.

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2 comments on “LvB 9- Concert done, pontifications begin. About those famous sextuplets”

  1. Kenneth Woods

    @Elaine Fine


    Like most of the great German composers, Beethoven seems to associate keys with very specific moods. Andras Schif calls D minor in Beethoven a key of “existential difficulty and struggle.” Even his isolated movements in D minor, like the slow movement of the op 18 no. 1 String Quartet, or the slow movement of the D Major String Trio, op 9 no. 2, have this same intensity and darkness of mood.

    Of course, it is not at all obvious that the piece is in D minor when it begins- there’s nothing but A’s and E’s for the first 14 bars of the piece. The lack of harmonic center or direction is a big part of what makes the opening cry out for a “misterioso” reading.

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