6.2 Making Choices

Are you beating that in 4?” A classic example of a loaded question from an experienced musician. What they really mean is something like: “I’ve played this piece more times than you’ve had hot dinners sunshine and it’s always in 2 there. Do you really have no idea what you are doing?”.

Suffice to say that we will constantly be faced with choices about what we should or should not do. How do we go about making those decisions in an informed manner?

Often there will be a number of possible solutions and a range of factors that will inform our choice: 

  • An obvious factor is the standard of the ensemble. My own scores contain many annotations I have picked up over the years from different conductors. I was recently working on Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances and came across a note I’d made in the second movement (4 measures before figure 42 which is a very fluid, languid phrase in 6/8). I don’t even remember who said it but the advice seems sound: in 6, unless the orchestra is really good
  • A difficult acoustic might require more beats to be given if the musicians are unable to hear each other as well as they would like.
  • A Beethoven symphony performed with a string section of 60 players may need different tempo choices and therefore different technical solutions than the same piece with the 25-30 string players that Beethoven might have had in mind when it was written.

Sometimes it might just be a question of personal choice. The finale of Dvorak’s New World Symphony is a good example: almost every measure of that movement could be in 2 or 4, and quite a lot of them also work in 1. Having the technical skill to be spontaneous is something to aspire to.

This little bit of a Hungarian Dance by Brahms is also a good example of that, and a useful way to work on changing what you beat. The choice between beating in 1 or 2 could go either way; the players probably don’t need someone to beat time to keep them together and almost any series of choices can work. Practise this firstly all in 2, then all in 1, before finally mixing it up. Remember it is not compulsory to have at least one gesture in every measure; you might even get one gesture to last for 2 measures in this. 

Moving on to Beethoven’s Eroica and assuming one takes a tempo somewhere close to the composer’s metronome mark, the first movement of this great symphony is a minefield of decision-making. In 3? In 1? In a subdivided 1? In 3 but not showing all the beats? No pattern at all? Showing the hemiola cross rhythms? A bit of grunting? All possible! 

One specific thing to mention is at the very beginning. While it is entirely possible in 1, I personally want a sharper attack for the first two notes. I get that by using a quarter note impulse, something I wouldn’t achieve if the impulse was a dotted half note. Notice how it is possible to give a quarter note upbeat to measure 2 and then whilst the ensemble is playing that measure, giving a dotted half note upbeat to measure 3.

Finally, the opening of Brahms’s Symphony No.1 requires choices to be made. Traditionally, it is conducted in eighth notes, and often in quite a sedate tempo. This presents the challenge of showing a long, continuous line. In recent years, a liking for slightly quicker tempos in Brahms have developed; this is influenced by knowledge of the smaller string sections that were common (although not universal) in Brahms’s time. Recordings by period instrument orchestras, or even examples on modern instruments by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra with Sir Charles Mackerras and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen with Paavo Järvi are worth exploring for this approach. This has led to some conductors choosing to beat this opening in 2, not 6. This can help in having contact with the melodic line, but makes ensemble a little more difficult. 

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