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Beethoven's Fifth, the Conductor's Nightmare

Updated on February 9, 2019
Frances Metcalfe profile image

Frances Metcalfe first learnt to read music at the age of four. She is now a retired peripatetic music teacher specialising in the violin.

Oil Painting of Beethoven


Title Page of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony


The Conductor Thinks About Tackling Beethoven's Fifth

Spare a thought for the conductor tackling one of the most famous pieces in history - Beethoven's fifth symphony. Nearly everyone in the western world will have heard at least the opening five bars jumping onto the stage with thunderous authority as if Beethoven is determined to take the audience by the throat and shake it.

A conductor has to live up to so much - all the past illustrious performances from the great maestros, the high expectations of the audience, and arguably even higher from those who've bought a recording of any work committed to preservation. Open the score of Beethoven's fifth on the music stand and you're potentially on a hiding to nothing, Nevertheless conductors open it on a frequent basis. But this work is Trouble with a capital T.

Orchestral Parts Used For the Premiere of Beethoven's Fifth


The Challenge of Beethoven's Fifth

So, exactly what are the challenges facing the conductor?

1) The first beat is silent.

2) The fourth note is paused, Beethoven does not specify for how long.

3) After this pause there is another silent beat.

4) The eigth note is also paused, and held on over to a ninth. Again Beethoven does not specify for how long.

5) The following beat is silent.

What to do?

Caricature of Beethoven as Conductor


Conductor's Baton

Silver mounted conductor's baton made in the nineteenth century.
Silver mounted conductor's baton made in the nineteenth century. | Source

The Conductor's Job

The conductor's job is to keep the beat steady and keep all the musicians playing together, as one unit. There are times of course, when the beat is not steady either because the composer continually changes the number of beats in a bar, a common feature of Bartok's works, or alters the speed.

To explain further, Bartok might may start a work with a bar with five beats, the next may have three, the following seven and so on. Not an easy fellow to play. Or the music may slow down, particularly at the end when it eases up. How much it does so will be up to the conductor. Some will draw it out, others hardly touch the brakes, and naturally there is everything in between.

When it comes to Beethoven's fifth symphony the conductor has to decide how to bring in the orchestra given that the first beat isn't played. Thereafter it's the matter of controlling the orchestra giving instructions as to when to come off the pause. And the conductor is right back to the next beat when no one plays but has to be straight back in at correct speed on the next. Did you follow that? No? I'm hardly surprised. I can tell you some conductor's consider it a nightmare, and I’ve been on the end of the baton trying to follow it.

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Furtwangler Conducts Beethoven's Fifth Symphony

Wilhelm Fürtwangler

Etching of Wilhelm Furtwangler, 1928.
Etching of Wilhelm Furtwangler, 1928. | Source

Approaching the First Note.

Conductors tend to carry an egotistical notion of superiority around with them, convinced they know best how the great works should be represented. They are frequently addressed as 'Maestro' and revel in the deferential rarified air they like to surround themselves with.

To be fair, that overblown possession of self esteem encouraging someone to think they have the right to stand on the podium in charge of seventy or so experienced musicians may pale before these first five bars laid out before them. What on earth do you do to stop them coming in on the first beat instead of the second? How to maintain that authoritarian stance without losing face? It's well known that conductors get their baton in a twist over it.

Wilhelm Fürtwangler conducted it at least two hundred times and recorded it three, so you'd assume he didn't have any hang ups about it. As it happened he would stand waving his baton around in a trembly manner before they began, ostensibly to create excitement in the players, which does make you wonder if was unease on his part, or if it really was his desire to build up tension within the Berlin Philharmonic. It's one of the greatest orchestras in the world creaming off the most brilliant musicians many of whom are soloists in their own right. I've no doubt they could get in the mood by themselves without baton antics quivering before their eyes. That said, Fürtwangler's recordings remain a cornerstone of the gramophone library.

In the late 1950s in San Francisco, the comedian Danny Kaye was rolling out a routine with the comic conducting the start of Beethoven's Fifth. As it happened, Sir John Barbirolli, was also in town. He was a great fan of Kaye, and gave him a lesson on how to conduct it. During the evening performance, Kaye turned round and shouted to the eminent conductor of the Hallé Orchestra who had come to see the show, "Was that alright Johnny?"

Beethoven Portrait

1803 portrait of Beethoven, painted on ivory by Christian Horneman
1803 portrait of Beethoven, painted on ivory by Christian Horneman | Source

Players Take Charge of Beethoven's Fifth

The conductor I played under had several attempts to tame the opening of this hallowed symphony and resorted to engaging in discussions with those he was desperate to direct. After much discussion and trials, releasing the held note with the left hand, bringing the orchestra back in with the right, was the agreed tactic. And to be honest we'd sort of got the gist of what he wanted and just did it ourselves. In the end we in fact took charge of him, rather than the other way round.

Pause Notation. Arc Over a Dot


Pause For Thought. How Long to Hold It On?

It remains without saying, players have to be prepared before they begin a piece and as a rule this presents no problem at all. Musicians are used to following directions and generally speaking openings are straightforward. The aim is for all aboard the orchestral boat to leave the dock together, not leave any stranded on the quay.

It's not so much that the work doesn't start on the first beat, many don't, it's the fact that there's a pause on the fourth note, and it's the restart that's the conundrum. But before anyone reaches the restart, there's an important decision to be nailed down. How long do you hold on that fourth note on for?

Although Beethoven would be perfectly aware that performers are an opinionated breed, they have a consistent habit of ignoring directions and ploughing ahead with an interpretation of their own, regardless of style, flow, musicianship even. Many will linger over a telling phrase to the detriment of momentum, as if to suck on a particularly delicious sweet before swallowing and reluctantly moving on. Unfortunately, there are some works more than others which induce performers and conductors alike to take unbridled liberties. Unfortunately, this is one of them.

Because it is so well known, the temptation is to make your unique mark on it, do something with the opening that hasn't been done before. Think that and you're on a hiding to nothing.

Beethoven doesn't given any direction as to how long the pause should be sustained. All he has written is the notation mark for a pause over the note. It's up to the discretion of the conductor. The conductor has to have it clear in their head how long the duration of the paused note should last, bring the players off, and also somehow indicate the silent beat that follows it before they resume.

To overdo the fermata, the official term for a pause, has it's temptations. This is one of the most, and some might argue a case for it being the most dramatic of entrances an orchestra could make. Part of the exhilaration emanates from the pause, but to hang on, like the last guest at a party simply overworks the dough. As these fermata occur elsewhere in the piece the ear cannot afford to be fatigued. It is all too easy for a conductor to wallow and the listener is left with the sensation of being sucked down into quicksand.

And although I've indicated Beethoven doesn't specify how long to to maintain that first pause, the fact that the second pause spills over onto another bar, means the first one must not be too long. in other words, keep it short otherwise the second loses its effect. May be because conductors are so embroiled worrying about engaging in the very business of conducting, they need extra time to think about the following gesture, unwittingly drawing out the procedure. I'm afraid all too often, this is the trap they have fallen in to.

How Not to Conduct Beethoven's Fifth. Mr Bean on the Podium

Are Conductors Overcomplicating The Opening?

Now, I'm going to put a spanner in the works. Why do conductors make such a meal of it? I'm talking about the really well-known ones, experienced, years of training and standing on the podium? Hey, they've managed Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, for heaven's sake - much more of a challenge.

That old adage, 'keep it simple' would serve very well here. There are plenty of works in the classical repertory starting minus their first beat, the last movement of Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik to name but one, and they don't present any particular difficulties.

To indicate how fast or slow a conductor wishes to take a certain piece, ordinarily they will bring up the baton at the speed of the beat they want the orchestra to come in. Musicians are a canny breed, they can easily adjust to whatever speed it is. It's similar to taking a breath - the speed at which you take the breath is the speed at which you proceed. Not rocket science.

I propose, therefore to bring up the baton at the start of Beethoven's fifth at the desired locomotion and what's more there is that extra silent beat which is a bonus.

What to do about the pause? I couldn't improve really on the use of the free empty hand cutting a swipe to indicate the termination of the note. It should do the trick for both occasions.

And the restart after the pauses? Surely another flick up and down of the baton would suffice, and once the second pause has been surmounted the music runs on relentlessly, a juggernaut under its own steam.

Mätzel Metronome 1815


The Speed of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony

In 1816, Johann Mätzel patented the metronome on the back of an earlier invention by Dietrich WInkel. Beethoven was most taken with the new device and set about penning his advised speeds to his scores.

For the first movement of his fifth symphony, Beethoven advocated 108 beats per minute. That's bat out of hell velocity. Incredibly fast, and most performances don't come anywhere near. Some are downright leisurely. But John Elliott Gardiner comes close. His performance with the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romatique fairly gallops along.

Watch the no nonsense start. He launches in with a ferocity to match the celebrated emphatically monumental statement. It's an exciting and powerful performance that has you on the edge of your seat. I think Beethoven would have approved.

© 2017 Frances Metcalfe


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