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Hearing in TimePsychological Aspects of Musical Meter$

Justin London

Print publication date: 2004

Print ISBN-13: 9780195160819

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2007

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195160819.001.0001

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Metric Flux in Beethoven's Fifth

Metric Flux in Beethoven's Fifth

(p.89) 6 Metric Flux in Beethoven's Fifth
Hearing in Time

Justin London

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The fluctuations in metric organization in the first movement of Beethoven's Symphony No, 5 in C-minor are described and discussed. While the basic duple meter never changes, the depth of subdivision and the presence of levels above the tactus (so-called hypermeter) changes radically over the course of the movement. The thickest meters occur at structurally stable passages in the piece, while the thinnest meters coincide with points of high drama and tension.

Keywords:   metric consonance, hypermeter, metric depth, Beethoven Symphony No. 5 in C-minor, Op. 67

Some Preliminaries

The first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is perhaps the most famous piece of Western classical music; indeed, it is in many respects the icon for Western art music. It can be heard in concert halls and as a cell-phone ringtone; it is used in movie scores and television commercials. Yet the symphony still retains great expressive power and aesthetic significance in spite of its ubiquity. Although much of the movement's energy and drama stems from its motivic materials and tonal design—from the opening motive that supposedly symbolizes fate knocking on the door, to the appearance of a new theme at the very end of the work in the coda section—here it is argued that its sweep and power owe just as much to its metrical design.

Epstein cites a common view, that “once established on the level of measure, metric structure in this repertoire [i.e., Western classical music from the 18th and 19th centuries] tends not to change…. It seems likely, therefore, that an experienced listener would assume an ongoing, invariant meter once it has initially been determined, rather than continually process and redefine it as a work runs its course” (1995, p. 43). Epstein is partly correct, in that certain aspects of meter, such as the basic beat period and measure, usually do not change. Yet other aspects of meter can and do fluctuate. Meter may shift from relatively rich patterns of expectation with several additional levels of structure above and below the beat and measure to patterns of expectation that are relatively sparse, a bare bones series of beats. Thus while some periodicities remain invariant, other periodicities on the musical surface may come and go, and such shifts from thick to thin meters may be as dramatic, if not more dramatic, than changes in the basic pattern of beats (see also Nauert 1997, pp. 62–64, on active vs. inactive metric levels).

(p.90) In Beethoven's Fifth there is a great tension between extreme continuity below the level of the tactus (quadruplet subdivisions are almost always present, and the few times they are absent are highly significant) versus discontinuity on the tactus and higher levels. This is a piece that keeps starting and stopping, lurching forward and careening to a halt. Beethoven never allows the listener to settle into a particular meter, but is constantly adding and subtracting metric levels. In other words, just when the meter appears to have settled down, it changes.

Before plunging into the analysis, several points need to be made. The first is the distinction between notated versus expressed meter (as discussed earlier). In this piece, the tactus is at the level of the half-note, so that each written measure represents a single beat. The meter we hear, however, involves two, four, or eight notated bars. The second point is that for most of this piece, the boundaries of rhythmic groups and measures are out of phase. The famous fate motive, which is the main motivic idea for the piece, consists of three short notes that serve as a pickup to a much longer note. That longer note almost always falls on the beat, and often this motive serves to mark the downbeat as well. Beethoven can and does exploit its significance as an intraopus template, one that cues (or ought to cue) a particular metrical orientation. A third point, especially for readers who are not music theorists, is in regard to the claims that I make in the analyses given here. A musical analysis is grounded in the way one hears the music—in this case, my introspective sense of my metric engagement with the music. Whereas I believe that most of what I say has intersubjective validity, some observations may, of course, be peculiar to my experience of the piece. Nonetheless, I assume my experience of the piece is broadly representative. Finally, although I will often speak about the meter in a given measure (or the meter emerging at a given measure), this is to be understood as a shorthand for “the meter that arises in response to the rhythmic patternings present at measure X.”

My main concern is the emergence of various levels of meter above the notated measure, that is, above the tactus level. For expediency, metric levels are indicated with brackets, rather than “dot” notation, but these brackets should not be confused with grouping analysis. Rather, by using dashed versus solid brackets, I am able to indicate latent or emerging versus established levels of metric structure, respectively. For we do not entrain to a metric period the first time it is present in the rhythmic surface of the music—we have to hear it at least once in order to grasp it. Likewise, a level may persist for a while even though cues for that level of structure may be absent, given our internal metric inertia. Anacruses are marked with a curved arrow, where the arrow points to the anchoring beat.

The analysis here will first walk through the piece, lingering over particular sections where appropriate. Then more general points will be made with respect to metric pacing and metric form, that is, the large-scale strategies Beethoven uses in arranging different varieties of meter. To save space and make reading easier, examples have been reduced from full orchestral score to a simple treble/ bass staff with instrumentation noted where appropriate.

(p.91) Starting and Stopping: The First Theme and Exposition

The first five measures show, in miniature, what the metric game will be in this movement: discontinuity (see ex. 6.1). The short notes launch the piece with decisive motion, but the fermata then halts it. These short notes are too fast to be the tactus, but it is clear that the tempo will be fast. The piece starts up again in measure 3, and again, it is a false start. Beethoven's notational details are worth scrutiny here. The first fermata is a single measure; it is often possible to count through it, so that the beat level becomes attenuated, but doesn't break. However, the second fermata is attached to an extra measure, and this is a strong hint to the conductor and performers to make the second fermata longer than the first, and indeed, long enough (greater than 1500–2000 ms) to stifle the emerging sense of pulse. Moreover, as a result of the extra-long fermata there is a metric gap—the pulse train has stopped, and it doesn't palpably resume until the downbeat of measure seven, as the pickup notes lead to, but do not articulate, a beat. Thus measure six does not have a downbeat—it is a notational conceit, but it is not heard.1 This is the legacy of the opening measures: (1) strongly imply motion and then jam on the brakes, and (2) imprint a metric template whose very short notes are all heard as metrically unaccented relative to the following long note that articulates the beat.

The meter finally gets going in the following measures as two- and four-beat levels emerge. For as the motive in the strings unfolds, we hear a half-half-whole note figure, arpegiating tonic, and then dominant triads (mm. 6–10 and mm. 11–14). This figure consistently marks off two- and four-beat metric levels, and they then emerge in our metrical entrainment. These levels are called into question

Metric Flux in Beethoven's Fifth

Example 6.1. Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, mvt. I, mm. 1–21.

(p.92) in measure 21 with reprise of the opening fermatas. When the music resumes in measure 26 (after another metric gap in m. 25), the cascading figures do not really articulate a two-beat level, so we hear just an undivided four-beat measure. While we have the potential for an eight-beat level to emerge, it is not to be. As can be seeing in example 6.2, in measures 34–37, a two-beat level clearly returns (while the four-beat level continues). But then the four-beat level, which had persisted without difficulty, hits mud at measure 44. Starting in measure 38, the ascending scalewise sequence undermines both the two- and four-bar levels—there is no pattern of grouping that reinforces the meter; it must persist in the listener's ear on its own. Whereas the two-beat level can be maintained, at measure 44 the forte outbursts, change of motive, registral peaks, melodic contour, and harmonic rhythm all effectively shift the phase of the four-beat measure, enabled by our metric attenuation.

Four-beat measures continue, though again without a two-beat level, until measure 56. Once again, the surface of the music is broken by silences. But in measures 56–59 there are no fermatas, and the meter continues on through the rests to the horn call that announces the second theme (ex. 6.3). There is some metric ambiguity here, as the downbeat location/phase orientation of the violin figure in measures 63–66 (echoed in the clarinet at mm. 67–70) is uncertain. While one can hear both two- and four-beat metrical levels, it is unclear whether they simply start at measure 63, which would make the horn call a truncated three-beat measure, or if measure 63 functions as pickup to measure 64, with grouping and meter again out of phase. The latter, more conservative hearing is given in example 6.3: the phase orientation from measure 60 is maintained on the four-beat and two-beat levels.

Metric Flux in Beethoven's Fifth

Example 6.2. Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, mvt. I, mm. 32–47.


Metric Flux in Beethoven's Fifth

Example 6.3. Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, mvt. I, mm. 56–70.

The rhythmic activity then lessens somewhat, as the second theme is not undergirded with constant eighth note quadruplets, but the basses (which keep presenting the fate figure) reinforce the subdivision just enough to keep it going in the listener's mind. Thus there is a sense of quadruplet underpinning to the beat throughout this section. At measure 83, the eighth notes become more pervasive; at the same time, the four-beat level is again attenuated, and dies out by measure 88 (ex. 6.4). Four-beat patterns reemerge at measure 95, and, indeed,

Metric Flux in Beethoven's Fifth

Example 6.4. Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, mvt. I, mm. 79–95.

(p.94) an eight-beat level seems to be settling in as well, giving a sense of stability and security to the closing theme.

Metric Crisis: The Development

After the repeat of the exposition, we launch into the development section, and it begins with a metric rupture much like the very start of the movement. The four-beat measures then resume, and eight-beat measures may emerge, starting at measure 138. Not surprisingly this does not pan out, and even the four-beat level is soon in trouble (ex. 6.5). First, there is a rhythmic stutter at measures 176–80. Following the emphatic repeated eighth notes in measures 171–74, we are desperate for a downbeat (note the use of a shortened version of the anacrustic fate figure). The violins then try to set matters aright at measure 180, but the lower strings counter with an offbeat/syncopated entry at measure 182. There is, however, a subtle reinforcement of a four-beat metric level with the F𝄰 in the low strings in m. 184, as it is the first bass note that occurs on the beat (that is, the notated downbeat) we have heard since measure 179.

As the development continues, the eighth notes in the music are rapidly evaporating, and then quarters are gone, such that by measure 196 there is nothing but half notes (ex. 6.6). This is a moment of high tension, not only dissonant and harmonically remote, but also metrically most tenuous. For the quadruplet subdivision of the beat that had been almost constant is now gone. Two- and four-beat measures are clearly present, but just as before at measures

Metric Flux in Beethoven's Fifth

Example 6.5. Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, mvt. I, mm. 175–90.

Metric Flux in Beethoven's Fifth

Example 6.6. Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, mvt. I, mm. 195–216.

63–64, the phase orientation of the measure is unclear: is the downbeat at measure 199, or measure 200? While the principal motive at measure 195 strongly points to measure 196 as a downbeat, the harmonic resolutions and melodic inflections give structural accents to measures 197 and 199. Indeed, we are in a metric fog at this point, and while one can impose either metric orientation, Beethoven then further calls one's metric sense into question at measure 210, breaking up the motive into single half-notes (alternating between strings and winds). Imbrie has aptly described the effect of this passage:

The motives have been liquidated; the texture has been radically simplified and now consists of the raw alternation of chords between winds and strings; the harmonies seem to have traveled far from the home tonic…. The rhythms, too, I believe, have been deployed throughout the preceding measures in such a way as to prepare the ear gradually for the metrical dislocation. Both the preparation and dislocation are accomplished through metrical ambiguity on a large scale. (1973, p. 57)

The upshot of the conflicting metric orientations is that they cancel each other out, much like those in the passage from Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte (ex. 5.4). While in the song subdivisions still were present underneath the beat, and there one could readily maintain one sense of measure (or another), here there is no ongoing sense of downbeat and no subdivisions; we are down to a bare pulse, weak and thready. In some sense, at this point there is no meter, as there are neither subdivisions of the beat nor patternings of beats into larger measures. Not (p.96) surprisingly, in performance this is often the slowest passage in the movement, as the very lifeblood of the tactus has been drained away.

The Recapitulation and Coda—But It's Not Over Yet

At measure 228, the fate motive returns, marking measure 229 as a downbeat, and we are relieved to be able to start hearing two- and four-beat levels, but this leads us right to … the recapitulation, which, of course, starts by stopping with the fermatas at measures 249 and 252. Another dramatic pause occurs in measure 268 with the (in)famous oboe mini-cadenza; this is marked adagio, and is often performed without a discernable sense of pulse. The recapitulation then proceeds as did the exposition until measure 374, where Beethoven launches into an extended coda with a constant barrage of forte and fortissimo eighth notes. Two-beat and four-beat levels continue through measure 386, where Beethoven writes out a number of rests including an extra measure of rest at measure 389 (ex. 6.7). The result is a bit of a stutter, cued not by any event in the music but by the absence of an expected pickup figure in measure 389 or downbeat articulation in measure 390. The fortissimo pickup figure that does occur in measure 390 jarringly shifts the location of the downbeat (this is an especially clear example of the kind of metric collision Krebs described as an indirect dissonance). Two- and four-beat levels resume, although the two-beat level is attenuated over measures 399–406, with the two-beat level dropping out at that point.

Metric Flux in Beethoven's Fifth

Example 6.7. Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, mvt. I, mm. 382–95.


Metric Flux in Beethoven's Fifth

Example 6.8. Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, mvt. I, mm. 423–39.

The entrance of the new theme at measure 423 restores metric stability, as the two- and four-beat levels are again secure (ex. 6.8). Indeed, it seems that a latent eight-beat level might finally emerge. But the sequential patterns run on too long and fail to reinforce the four-beat level at measures 431–40. Order is then restored at measures 339–440, and the four-beat level reemerges at measure 441. Indeed, the eight-beat level finally does emerge at measure 449. But this soon evaporates, as we come again to the fermata figures from the opening of the movement—in their most emphatic statement yet—at measures 475–82 (the opening pickup notes have been drawn out for four measures here, mm. 475–78, leading to a downbeat at m. 479). From here on, however, the metric organization is utterly regular, with clear two- and four-beat levels. In light of what has come before, this is almost banal.

The very ending also involves a bit of metric mischief, as it is possible to hear a “missing beat,” that is, a measure that Beethoven left unnotated (ex. 6.9). If the listener maintains the regular meter through the end, he or she will interpolate an extra downbeat, and thus instantiate an extra “measure 503” consisting of a rest. Hearing the ending this way depends on maintaining the tempo through the end of movement, as even a modest ritardando may be enough to put the brakes on our metric entrainment, such that we would not project an extra beat following the final chord. In either case, the result is a closing gesture that is both highly overstated and strangely unconvincing—which, I would argue, is precisely the effect Beethoven was aiming for.


Metric Flux in Beethoven's Fifth

Example 6.9. Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, mvt. I, mm. 483–end.

Summary and Discussion

Meter is not static but constantly changes in this movement. Whereas Krebs (1999) has described the way that metrical dissonance can fluctuate over the course of a piece, here the fluctuations of metric “consonance” have been described. The primary indicator of the metric flux in this movement is the presence or absence of subdivision.

The quadruplet subdivisions give a lot of energy and continuity to the tactus level, thus enhancing the dramatic impact when the tactus is broken by fermatas or extended rests. They also enhance the effects of phase or downbeat shifts, as the finely textured subdivisions give us a very precise sense of where the beats and downbeats ought to be. Conversely, for the most part there are only a limited number of levels above the beat. Although two-beat measures are present most of the time (though not always), it is significant where and when locally stable four-beat and eight-beat periodicities emerge, and how the emergence of those levels compares with the absence of subdivisions. Meter is thickest and most secure at the end of the exposition, recapitulation, and coda—thus, metric stability is correlated with high-level formal closure.

Conversely, the point of the highest tonal and dramatic tension is coeval with the near-elimination of meter, and almost of the tactus as well. With only a pulse in measures 210–28, we are at a loss to predict the patterning of future events. Without subdivision, we lack a sense of the gestural quality of that pulse and rhythms that embody it. For while a pulse provides a modicum of temporal anticipation, it is anticipation at its most anxious. Though we can still anticipate (p.99) from beat to beat, we are very much in the dark, so to speak, as to when we may expect events on a larger scale. We have no sense of rhythmic groups or gestures longer than a beat, so not only do we lack a sense of when significant events will occur, we have no idea of what they will be (two-beat? three-beat? four-beat?). In this movement, meter and metric fluctuation plays an equal role with harmony and melody in creating large-scale processes of tension and release and shaping its larger form.

One reason for tracking the metric changes through this piece is that elsewhere this book concentrates on meter in steady states, that is, the nature of a particular pattern of attending, the constraints on its structure, and so forth. The Beethoven analysis acknowledges how supple and fluid meter can be. Now, of course, the ways in which one meter can morph into another are highly constrained—a two-beat level, once established, will naturally accommodate higher levels of four, six, or eight beats, but not five beats, for example. These are relationships that are detailed in the tree diagrams given at the end of Chapter 2.

The comings and goings of metric levels in this movement from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony are an index of the listener's sense of motion and continuity. This movement is atypical in that Beethoven, at various points, completely breaks the thread of the tactus, and at the moment of highest tension in the development, breaks the continuity of metric cycle, eliminating a sense of downbeat. This movement is often used as a textbook example of a sonata-form movement in a minor key, and textbooks note both how it follows as well as how it alters the thematic and tonal conventions of the sonata form archetype (e.g., presenting the second theme in the recapitulation in the parallel major, rather than tonic minor key; introducing a new theme in the coda, and so forth). By the same token, this movement involves both conservative and radical uses of meter, establishing dense and rapid continuity—all those quadruplets—only to keep bringing it to a dramatic halt.


(1.) Of course, the conductor will need to give some cue for the entrance of the 2nd violins in measure 6. One can have a quiet release, and then cue the upbeat for the 2nd violins in the left hand, thus effacing the downbeat in measure 6. It is also possible to cue the release of the fermata with a downbeat gesture, and the resultant “bump” (slight sforzando) on the release may mark a downbeat. Or one can have quiet release, and then conduct a downbeat to cue the 2nd violin entrance—but this effectively adds a downbeat and hence an extra measure to the music. I am grateful to my Carleton colleague Hector Valdivia for his helpful discussions on how to conduct this and other passages in this movement.