Essays in musical analysis symphonies

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Essays in Musical Analysis: Symphonies v. 1

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Symphony Orchestra Essay

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Beethoven 5th Symphony: Analysis by Gerard Schwarz

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Essays Musical Analysis Symphonies Orchestral by Tovey Sir Donald Francis

Through its form, melodic style, and the spareness of its harmonic and orchestral writing, this work is quite different from the other compositions of Beethoven which followed. But in the first and second movements one can notice from time to time certain rhythmic patterns which the author of Don Giovanni has admittedly used, but very rarely and in a much less striking way. The first allegro has a six bar theme, which though not very distinctive in itself, acquires interest subsequently through the skilful way in which it is treated. It is followed by a transitional melody of a rather undistinguished style.

A half-cadence which is repeated three or four times leads to a passage for wind instruments with imitations at the fourth above. It is all the more surprising to find this here, as it was often used before in several overtures to French operas. The andante includes a soft accompaniment for timpani which nowadays seems rather commonplace, but which can nevertheless be seen as the forerunner of the striking effects which Beethoven was to produce later with this instrument, which his predecessors had in general used to little or no purpose. This piece is full of charm; the theme is graceful and lends itself well to fugal developments, through which the composer has been able to exploit it in ingenious and witty ways.


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The scherzo is the first born in this family of delightful musical jests scherzi , a form invented by Beethoven who established its tempo. In almost all his instrumental works it takes the place of the minuet of Mozart and Haydn, which is only half the speed of the scherzo and very different in character. This one is delightful in its freshness, nimbleness, and charm. It is the only really novel piece in this work, in which the poetic idea, which plays such a large and rich part in the majority of works which followed, is completely absent.

This is admirably crafted music, clear, alert, but lacking in strong personality, cold and sometimes rather small-minded, as for example in the final rondo, which has the character of a musical amusement. In a word, this is not Beethoven. We are about to meet him. Everything in this symphony is noble, energetic and proud; the introduction largo is a masterpiece.

The most beautiful effects follow in quick succession, always in unexpected ways but without causing any confusion. The melody has a touching solemnity; from the very first bars it commands respect and sets the emotional tone.

Music The Symphony

Rhythms are now more adventurous, the orchestral writing richer, more sonorous and varied. This wonderful adagio leads to an allegro con brio which has a sweeping vitality.


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  • The grupetto in the first bar of the theme played by violas and cellos in unison is subsequently developed it its own right, either to generate surging crescendo passages or to bring about imitations between wind and strings, all of them at once novel and lively in character. In the middle comes a melody, played by clarinets, horns and bassoons for the first half, and rounded off as a tutti by the rest of the orchestra; it has a masculine energy which is further enhanced by the felicitous choice of accompanying chords.

    The andante is not treated in the same way as that of the first symphony; instead of a theme developed in canonical imitation it consists of a pure and innocent theme, presented at first plainly by the strings, then exquisitely embellished with delicate strokes; they faithfully reproduce the tender character of the main theme. This is the enchanting depiction of innocent joy, scarcely troubled by passing touches of melancholy. The scherzo is as openly joyful in its capricious fantasy as the andante was completely happy and calm.

    Everything in this symphony smiles, and even the martial surges of the first allegro are free from any hint of violence; they only speak of the youthful ardour of a noble heart which has preserved intact the most beautiful illusions of life. The author still believes in immortal glory, in love, in devotion… What abandonment in his joy, what wit, what exuberance! The various instruments fight over particles of a theme which none of them plays in full, yet each fragment is coloured in a thousand different ways by being tossed from one instrument to the other.

    The finale is of the same character: it is a scherzo in double time, perhaps even more delicate and witty in its playfulness. It is a serious mistake to truncate the title which the composer provided for the symphony. It reads: Heroic symphony to commemorate the memory of a great man. As will be seen, the subject here is not battles or triumphal marches, as many, misled by the abbreviated title, might expect, but rather deep and serious thoughts, melancholy memories, ceremonies of imposing grandeur and sadness, in short a funeral oration for a hero.

    I know few examples in music of a style where sorrow has been so unfailingly conveyed in forms of such purity and such nobility of expression. The first movement is in triple time and in a tempo which is almost that of a waltz, yet nothing could be more serious and more dramatic than this allegro. The energetic theme on which it is built is not at first presented in its complete form. The rhythmic writing is extremely striking in the frequent use of syncopation and, through the stress on the weak beat, the insertion of bars in duple time into bars in triple time.

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    When to this irregular rhythm some harsh dissonances are added, as we find towards the middle of the development section, where the first violins play a high F natural against an E natural, the fifth of the chord of A minor, it is difficult not to shudder at this depiction of indomitable fury. This is the voice of despair and almost of rage. Yet one wonders, Why this despair, Why this rage? The reason for it is not obvious.

    Then in the next bar the orchestra suddenly calms down, as though, exhausted by its own outburst, its strength was abruptly deserting it. A gentler passage follows, which evokes all the most painful feelings that memory can stir in the mind. It is impossible to describe or merely to indicate the multiplicity of melodic and harmonic guises in which Beethoven presents his theme.

    We will only mention an extremely odd case, which has caused a great deal of argument.


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    • The French publisher corrected it in his edition of the score, in the belief it was an engraving error, but after further enquiry the passage was reinstated. The first and second violins on their own are playing tremolando a major second B flat, A flat , part of the chord of the seventh on the dominant of E flat, when a horn gives the impression of having made a mistake by coming in four bars too soon, and rudely intrudes with the beginning of the main theme which consists only of the notes E flat, G, E flat, B flat.

      The strange effect produced by this melody built on the three notes of the tonic chord against the two discordant notes of the dominant chord can easily be imagined, even though the distance between the parts greatly softens the clash. But just as the ear is about to protest against this anomaly, an energetic tutti cuts off the horn, ends piano on the tonic chord and gives way to the entry of the cellos which then play the complete theme with the appropriate harmony.