It has always been a matter of interpretation and some mystery. What is the proper length of the four notes under fermatas in the most famous first two lines of classical music, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony? Conductors usually hold those notes in direct proportion to the size of their egos, and I don’t mean to suggest there’s anything inherently wrong about that. Holding those notes to dramatic lengths certainly keeps us in suspense.
And then there is the question–which will never be definitively answered–if the meaning of the fermata is to hold a note to some indeterminate length, why did Beethoven add a half-note to the second and fourth of those fermatas? (You can read the startling answer below.) The typically reasoned answer is that he wanted those to be longer than the first and third. There is some sense to that, but if that’s what he wanted wouldn’t it have been a lot easier just write the customary word, lunga, over those fermatas?
I think the real answer requires some awareness of the history of the fermata. Perched on our 21st century practice stools we’re used to the notion that the meaning of the fermata is to hold a note longer than indicated. Indeed, that’s the way it’s been for the past 150 years or so. But before that it isn’t so clear.
Here’s the key: The Italian word fermata has nothing to do with length. The word comes from the verb fermare, to stop. In the Baroque era, the fermata was an indication, like the double bar, of the end of a movement. Nothing more, nothing less. And this was an important indication because composers, always an economical lot who didn’t want to waste valuable paper, would start writing the next movement on the same line of music as the preceding movement. The musicians needed to know where one movement ended and the other began. Hence, the fermata. Stop!
Here are a few examples:
In this Passepied by JB Bach you can see the fermata dead center, right before the repeat sign. This was a common use of the fermata in two-part dance movements in which each part is repeated and then the musicians return to the beginning for one more go at the first part. The fermata indicates where JB wants the movement to end. Whether he also wanted the last note to be held longer is both speculative and secondary.
In this example, Veracini places the fermata not over the last note, but over the last rest. Clearly, the length of this rest is immaterial. The piece is over! If the fermata was meant to indicate holding the silence out, one can only imagine the chagrin of the musicians as the conductor kept his arms up while the audience was already applauding the dramatic ending of the Fugue.
You can see here that Sarti was not only a skinflint with paper, he also was hard up for ink and put repeat signs all over the place instead of writing out the music. As in the JB Bach example you can see the fermata in the middle of the music (this time over the entire measure) to indicate the end of the movement. What is particulary noteworthy about this example, however, is that Sarti lived until 1802, when Beethoven was already 32 years old. Beethoven started composing the 5th Symphony only two years later, in 1804.
My startling conclusion: There is reasonable historical evidence that Beethoven did not intend for those notes below the fermatas to be held out at all! That they should be held only for their proper metric duration, and not an iota longer. This answers the question of why he added a half note of length to the second and fourth fermatas: Those notes should be exactly twice as long as the first and third.
So what then should be done with the fermatas? I believe the dramatic effect would be far greater if we take the meaning of fermata literally and historically. Stop the music! Stop those fermata notes in time and abruptly, creating a deafening silence, and then make the ensuing silence–which follows every one of those fermatas–of suspenseful, indeterminate length. That would give the audience that titillating sense of “What is coming next?” that is so missing from contemporary performances and so integral to Beethoven’s esthetic of surprising the listener. The next time I conduct Beethoven’s 5th that’s exactly what I’m going to do.