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Beethoven’s 5th

September 15, 2011

The opening bars of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony offer one of the most complicated conducting challenges out there. It’s been reported that Bernstein did a four-pattern to open the piece (Meaning 1–2–3–4 DAH DAH DAH DAHHHHHHH!) and rumor has it that Ozawa did ten (10! Yes, 10!) prep beats.  Go ahead, try it yourself.  Then try it in front of an ensemble.  We could do a whole side-by-side series viewing different conducting approaches to the mighty 5th. Maybe later on. For now, let’s start with this one:

3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 15, 2011 10:49 am

    I’ve been looking for this video!!! I’m so glad it surfaced again.

  2. September 16, 2011 9:13 am

    The opening measures of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony (and the subsequent reiterations of the fermatas throughout the movement) are less about complication and more about reducing and refining movement to those qualities, pathways, bodily shapes, the point of initiation and sequence of movement through the body that most accurately transmit the information that the musicians need to play the notation. What do they need?

    Breath, tempo, dynamics, flow, articulation, representation of any desired fluctuation in tempo, length of the fermatas, change in intensity during the fermatas, and clear communication of the desired space between the release of the fermatas and the commencement of the next anacrustic figure (i.e. no release, quick release or full release with a completely new preparation). We could certainly add, drama, mood, style, character and other intangibles to the list, but these factors are all part of the single gestalt experienced as the totality of the conductor’s movement.

    There are certainly multiple technical solutions to these musical issues. However, I remain convinced that giving more than one preparatory gesture is less helpful if not confounding. One might approach the challenge by first recognizing (s)he has to help the orchestra navigate through three initiations or perhaps 2 “false starts” and the transition from introduction to exposition. In any case, the opening 6 measures of this movement remain one of the most hotly debated fragments in symphonic literature.

    Watching the video clip shared above from the standpoint of a musician in the orchestra, the conductor’s movements do not give me the information I need as a player so I would have a difficult time executing. I would need to watch someone else. The clip also demonstrates that musicians, given the time, are capable of deciphering almost any series of movements. The problem is that in the 21st century, the luxury of virtually unlimited rehearsal has long ceased to be the norm.

  3. September 23, 2011 8:04 am

    I agree. Simple is better here. There is a video of Ben Zander conducting the YOA on youtube, and his prep is fairly straight forward. But with a little rehearsal, they handled it very well. This conductor’s prep, to me, was perplexing and a little distracting. But like Charles said, with a little rehearsal, the players are smart enough to figure out just about anything.

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