Beethoven Bites Off the End of a Bottle

Beethoven once found himself facing an especially tough compositional problem.

The good news was that he’d just brought off one of the most innovative and astonishing coups in music.  I’ll get to the bad news in a minute.

I’m afraid I’m going to be talking about his 5th Symphony–though, if it’s any consolation, about its third and fourth movements, not its so-familiar first. The 5th’s third movement is a scherzo (a faster-moving descendant of the minuet); it’s fourth movement is a rousing (to put it mildly) finale. So far so conventional: Haydn had patented this sequence decades earlier. But if we focus on the 5th’s scherzo, we find some weirdness afoot. The movement begins with a hushed, mysterious theme (after a little self-communing by conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt in this clip), followed by a loud, forceful theme (whose da-da-da-DAH rhythm is an overt echo of the famous “fate” motive that opens the symphony; this theme comes in at 0:53 in the clip). In a standard scherzo, these themes would be literally repeated (after some intervening material).  Sure enough, the mysterious theme does return (at 6:42), but–the first hint that Beethoven is up to something–it’s reorchestrated part-way through.  (The bowed notes become plucked ones, with a bassoon along for the ride.) And when the loud theme returns as expected (at 7:03), it (unexpectedly) isn’t loud: it’s as quiet as the “mysterious” theme–and stated not by the stentorian horns of its first appearance, but by more plucked notes in the strings (and more puffs of bassoon). Pretty peculiar.

The movement should end at the conclusion of the loud (now soft) theme’s restatement. But it doesn’t. It’s suspensively prolonged (at 7:50): first by a sustained note in the lower strings (as the tympani softly tap out the “fate” motive beneath), soon joined by wisps of the “mysterious” theme.  Things are hanging some sort of fire…until a rapid build begins, a crescendo that climaxes in the glorious opening–all splendid trumpets and sunburst C major–of the fourth movement (at–not that you could miss it–8:24; this, we  realize in retrospect, is the explosion Beethoven has been keeping a lid on in the sustained quiet that precedes it.) The drama of this unprecedented movement-to-movement transition is unsurpassable.

Now for the bad news (from the composer’s point of view). The symphony’s fourth movement is in “sonata form,” which means that it’s glorious opening theme must be repeated–or “recapitulated”–about two thirds of the way along.  And with this requirement comes Beethoven’s above-mentioned problem.  The original statement of the “glorious” theme was so stunning, such a huge release; any restatement of it will be a letdown in comparison. But let’s think about this problem (as Beethoven must have). What gave this theme’s original statement much of its tremendous impact? The suspensive buildup to it. Of course that buildup is history: it’s a feature of the third movement, whereas we’re well into the fourth.  Beethoven’s response to this situation is to issue one of the great “So what?”‘s in the history of the arts. If the buildup to the “glorious” theme was essential to that theme’s impact, then let’s bring the buildup back! Let’s forklift this bit of the third movement–different meter and tempo and all–into the fourth! Which Beethoven goes ahead and does (to hear this audacious move in a bit of its context, start listening at 13:34 in the clip), leading into a resplendent recapitulation of the “glorious” theme. The boldness, even ruthlessness, of Beethoven’s solution reminds me of a method suggested, when all else fails, for dealing with a bottle of beer that won’t open: simply bite off the end of it.

2 Replies to “Beethoven Bites Off the End of a Bottle”

    1. Thanks – delighted to hear you you’re finding it of interest! And thanks especially for spreading the word. Not many readers so far — have been wondering if enough interest to make it worth keeping up. Your response is very welcome and encouraging.

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