By Miranda Wilson

Every great composer has a few signature devices that happen so often, and in so many compositions, that an experienced listener can instantly identify a piece by the characteristic. For Brahms, that might be hemiolas, syncopations, and certain favored chromatic passing tones. For Mozart, it’s the perfectly balanced Classical period  sentence structures. For Stravinsky, it’s octatonicism. When it comes to Beethoven, there’s a highly characteristic device that we can find in all the style periods of his composing career: the abrupt dynamic change.

In some of Beethoven’s compositions, this takes the form of a crescendo that makes a sudden drop to piano or pianissimo instead of the expected climactic conclusion on forte or fortissimo. In Ex. 1, from the recapitulation to the first movement of the Violin Sonata in F major (“Spring”), Op. 24, Beethoven has the violinist take over the melodic material from the pianist by way of a crescendo that rises out of the texture, only to drop back to piano again.

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On other occasions, a p passage startles players and listeners with a surprise forte or fortissimo, such as the one found in Ex. 2 from the Cello Sonata in A major, Op. 69. And sometimes these two phenomena—the sudden piano and the sudden forte—occur within the same breath, as we can hear in Ex. 3 from the beginning of the String Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 74.

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In all cases, the performer must execute the dynamic change with scrupulous faithfulness to Beethoven’s markings. Unlike many of his predecessors, Beethoven was very specific and detailed in his markings of articulations, slurs, dynamics, and other expressive parameters, and these markings are very seldom left to the performer’s judgment.

However, the difficulty of faithfully performing Beethoven’s markings is considerable. Some performers are practically unable to make a surprise piano or forte without an involuntary diminuendo or crescendo as they approach it, which spoils the surprise effect. What’s more, given what we know about Beethoven’s personality, we can only imagine his rage if a performer were to insert a crescendo where one didn’t belong!

Others get around this problem by taking a split second of time before the dynamic change to “reset” the bow in a new dynamic—a solution that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, since these changes often occur during a slur or a passage of repeated notes, as you can see in Ex. 4 from the first movement of String Quartet, Op. 59, No. 1, where the first violinist is in the middle of a tie, the second violinist is playing middle-part “passagework,” and the cellist is at the tail-end of a rapid arpeggio.

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Yet another only moderately successful method of getting the change is to arrange the bowing so that the surprise forte takes place on a down-bow and the surprise piano on an up-bow—but again, this is often impracticable in context and can be awkward, to say the least.

The art of making Beethoven’s dynamics is dependent, therefore, on having the technical command of the bow that allows you to change dynamic abruptly in any part of the bow.

The method for doing this is not as difficult as it seems, but requires some forethought and preparation. One effective way to do this is related to the fundamental principles of bowing: that is, the three interdependent actions of contact point, arm weight, and bow speed that go into producing sound. Of the three, arm weight is the one that is most useful in making sudden dynamic changes, because the ability to lift and drop arm weight at a moment’s notice is the most effective method of instantly changing the dynamic color of the sound.

To demonstrate just how useful arm weight is in this process, consider that the average human arm weighs eight pounds (assuming a total body weight of 150 pounds), which is far more weight than you actually need to produce sound with a bow on a stringed instrument. If you cup your left hand around your right elbow and relax the full weight of the right arm into your palm, you’ll notice the strength of what you naturally have at your disposal. So if you arrange your bowing technique to ensure that you can drop the maximal amount of bow-arm weight into the string at the loudest point of a forte and instantly take it off again for a subito piano—and the reverse—you’ll be able to execute Beethoven’s dynamics fluently and accurately.

You can incorporate this sudden dropping and lifting of arm weight in daily scales practice. Start (Ex. 5) with a pentachord from the major scale (the exercise is in D major, but you can use any key and any part of your instrument’s range), playing the first four notes forte with the bow arm’s full weight relaxed into the string. On the fifth note, “snatch” the loud dynamic away by suddenly lifting the arm’s weight out of the string to make a sudden piano. Practice this starting down-bow, and repeat it starting up-bow.

Now practice the opposite by playing the first four notes piano and the fifth note forte (Ex. 6). Play the exercise at a variety of tempi for fluency and control, recording yourself and listening critically to the results to ensure that no crescendi or diminuendi have sneaked in unawares.

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Next, apply the exercise to an entire scale in four-note slurs, alternating forte with piano (Ex. 7). Alternate bowings on the repeat so that you gain muscular control of making surprise dynamic changes on both the up-bow and the down-bow stroke.

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Punctiliously adhering to Beethoven’s dynamic markings—even exaggerating them—is one of the top ways you can portray the structure and meaning of his music. The sudden forte, even when you know it’s coming, has a certain shock value, while the sudden piano is like a withholding of the listener’s fulfillment. The idea is to keep the listener yearning for a resolution that is held out of reach. Beethoven himself yearned for many things in his life that fate, and other people, would not allow him to have. It’s no wonder, then, that unfulfilled yearning is such a hallmark of his style.

The desire for fulfillment is what keeps us listening to this great music—so as interpreters, it’s our task to represent Beethoven’s careful markings truthfully and meaningfully.

Miranda Wilson is associate professor of cello at the University of Idaho, and author of Cello Practice, Cello Performance.

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