A Controversial Interpretation of the Fermatas in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony

Beethoven 5 excerpt

Opening of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony; first edition of the 1st violin part

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:

Example 1

JB Bach, Overture in G minor, Passepied

Passepied from the Overture in G minor by Johann Bernhard Bach (2nd cousin to JS) 1676-1749

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. 

Example 2

Veracini, Fugue w:4 subjects, excerpt

Fugue on 4 Subjects by Francesco Veracini (1690-1768)

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. 

Example 3

Sarti, Sinfonia in E, excerpt

Sinfonia in E by Giuseppe Sarti (1729-1802)

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.

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Beethoven’s manuscript of the 5th Symphony

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11 thoughts on “A Controversial Interpretation of the Fermatas in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony

  1. rlbaldwin2

    You present a good argument, but unless we develop a time machine, we’ll never truly know what Beethoven intended. I often wonder what a composer like Beethoven would say if they could eavesdrop onto the endless debate about things like this. My guess would be an exasperated “Mein GOTT!” and then an admonition to just get on with it.

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  2. eliaspattn Post author

    Yes, we’ll never truly know. At the same time, I don’t think we should always rely on tradition which, as Toscanini famously said, “is the last bad performance.” I say, let’s break the mold that’s been hardened around us for so long and do something different AND historically valid.

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  3. jmcollis

    I would call this well reasoned, supported by lots of research into performing practice and not even controversial. I’m sure I have even played in at least one performance a few years ago where this was done.

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    1. eliaspattn Post author

      I’m intrigued! I see that you’re from New Zealand. I lived and performed there for four months in 1986 and am wondering which orchestra you played with that did the Beethoven in the manner you describe. If there’s a recording, I’d love to hear it.

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  4. Richard Lewis

    Really enjoyed that discourse. I didn’t even know that the symbol had a name. Now I know more about the fermata than anyone else I know (except you, of course). Thanks so much for sending it to me.

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  5. David Cowley

    This is an interesting idea – well argued of course. It would give a very different energy to the opening – more like the effect of the first two chords of Eroica. I’m wondering though where that leaves the principal oboist in interpreting the two fermatas in the little cadenza. It could work to apply the same principle. The first G would be a bar in the tempo of the movement, just clearing the tutti quarter. The final D would be a quarter in the Adagio tempo. That would be an interesting break with tradition too.

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    1. eliaspattn Post author

      David, I had been thinking about that, too. Considering that Beethoven did take the trouble to write Adagio for that measure, yes, indeed it could be done that way. However, during the Baroque, fermatas were also used to indicate a cadenza and this is in that tradition. (All the other instruments have a fermata indicated over their rest in this measure.) That being said, I’m not rigidly dogmatic about this. A cadenza is a cadenza and the oboist should feel free. What I AM dogmatic about is the ritardando that most conductors take before that measure, and then having the strings play mezzo forte instead of fortissimo so as not to cover up the oboe. I think this is totally opposite what Beethoven intended. The music should sound exactly like the exposition (i.e. not ritardando and with a real fortissimo) making the oboe extension a total and dramatic surprise.

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  6. Shawn Charton

    It has always seemed odd to me that Beethoven described this as fate knocking at the door when the fermatas are about as un-like knocking on the door as you can get. And, this coming from the father of program music purported to begin with Symphony no. 6.

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  7. Dan Hudson

    Food for thought, this sign is not called a ‘Fermata’ in L’Italiano. anzi che e’ chiamato “Corona” o “Punto Coronato”. Literally ‘crowned’ or place/point that is crowned.

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    1. eliaspattn Post author

      You’re right, the visual image of the symbol is referred to in Italy as a corona. But for musical purposes we then need to also understand its musical intent, which is why the Italian word fermata was adopted not only in Italy, but internationally.

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