Tuesday, August 3, 2010

8/3 The Ludwig Code

Beethoven's compositions are notorious for having some "paradoxical" instructions.  Kind of like the square root of a negative number .  For example, B. sometimes has a note in a piano piece where you are supposed to hit the note and then swell like in a crescendo (without hitting another note).    Unless you are playing a midi piano with a breath controller that simply is not possible.  What do the pros do?  Well, see Daniel Barenboim's answer below at around 1:58.

Did you follow that?  Me neither.  I think he said something like "use a petronus spell". Or something about will.

Check out this mysterious instruction from bar 27 of the Grosse Fugue string quartet:

Those 2 eighth notes are slurred together.  That's means 'slide' from point x to point x.  Played literally, it sounds like 1 quarter note.

So why didn't Beethoven just write 1 quarter note?  Because he meant 2 eighth notes slurred together.  But then what's the difference?   Michael Tree from the Guarneri Quartet says:
"We all agree that something should be done, but not on what should be done.  Interpreters of Beethoven have struggled with this question for more than a century and a half."  

Here's a good one from Piano Sonata 31, Opus 110, kind of similar:

The two slurred 16th notes are the same as one 8th note.  To make sure you know something is happening, B says to use your 4th finger for one note and your third finger for the next, as if that makes any difference (and the lone 16th note where he asks you to hit one key with 2 fingers is almost straight out of the John Cage playbook).
Artur Schnabel:
"The key which is touched by the 3rd finger should produce a tone hovering between reality and imagination - but must be heard nonetheless."
OK.  You just heard it from the most revered Beethoven pianist of the 20th Century.  So let's see how he actually played it in 1935:

Hmmmm.  You know, I think I actually heard something magical in there.

One last odd mystery is something I heard in the somewhat recent film "In Search of Beethoven" by Phil Grabsky.  In it, Emmanuel Ax explains how in one of B's piano compositions he specifies a fingering that is literally impossible for a human to play.  The keys are too far apart for one hand to reach.  He thinks it might have been a joke....or maybe Beethoven was an alien....ludwig coooode....

(The Michael Tree / Artur Schnabel quotes are from The Art of Quartet Playing, interviews with the Guarneri Quartet, by Michael Blum.  Recommended.)


  1. I much enjoyed listening to "The two slurred 16th notes". That makes sense. As for the WILL one must possess to in some way create a crescendo out of a pitch that is doing nothing but sustaining (i.e. a piano note struck once), I can certainly relate imaginatively, but in this so-called physical reality where physical sound resides? - that is difficult to believe :)

  2. Hi Ben! Since I wrote this post I've heard theories that in B.'s time there was this phenomena called "bebung" where if you hit a key hard enough there is a kind of sonic "vibrato" - this is not duplicateable on modern pianos....only historical fortepianos from the early 19th century.


  3. Interesting!
    The whole single-note crescendo thing reminds me of an Andras Schiff lecture where he talks about executing a forte-piano transition on one note by hitting it forte very quickly and then using either the damper or sustain pedal (Or both. It's been a while since I heard the talk) to hide a trick of rapidly pressing the key inaudibly in a sort of silent decrescendo. I can't execute it myself (not a pro by any means), but maybe the trick could be used to do a crescendo as well? (The lecture is either the "Pathetique" or "Moonlight" lecture in his series of free talks on Guardian.co.uk)

    I've never heard anything about Horowitz's piano philosophy before, but he seems to have been a really great communicator.

    I never knew that the clavichord vibrato effect had a name. Neat!