6.3 Transitions

This is really where we earn our money – returning to Ozawa’s statement about conducting the music/musicians, this is exactly what he means. We start the piece off, the ensemble plays in the tempo we’ve indicated, and everything is going fine. We are dealing with matters such as phrasing, adjusting balance, bringing a little je ne sais quoi to proceedings, and then along comes a transition. Immediately, our job is to switch into practical-mode and help the ensemble to “turn the corner”. Once the transition has been successfully negotiated we can go back to the music again. 

The opening to the final movement of Beethoven’s 1st symphony is a well-known test for a conductor. Points to note include:

  • it’s not necessary to beat through the first note, but it will be helpful if the cut-off is the beginning of the preparatory gesture for the second note.
  • look at how the third beat in each of the first five measures is slightly different according to the nature of the music it prepares. 
  • the downbeat of measure five is slightly delayed, and given without a strong impulse, in order to show and allow time for the subito piano
  • the cut-off in measure six also functions as the first of two preparatory beats for the allegro molto e vivace. 
  • measure seven can be in one, or two, or somewhere in between. From measure eight, one in the bar is a good choice as long as the groove has been established

Verdi’s Overture to La forza del destino is a minefield of transitions. It’s incredibly popular in conducting auditions and competitions and is also a really great concert work. As such, we have included a lot of material relating to it.

Workbook 44 is an abridged version in 4 parts and the video focuses only on the transitions. It’s pretty difficult to play in this reduced format but practising only the transitions with your ensemble might be helpful. 

We have also created a new arrangement of the entire overture for a chamber ensemble of 13 players and this is Workbook 47.

Watch the video while following the score, then work through the advice below. The measure numbers below are from the abridged version (Workbook 44).

1The opening contains a quarter note impulse, but the second beat isn’t prepared actively.
3, 7The cut-off of these notes also serves as the indication of measures 4 and 8.
7-9Notice how the conductor raises his baton as he cuts off measure 7 with his left hand, stopping at the top during the fermata in measure 8.
This prevents any confusion as the next movement can only be down, which will clearly show the beginning of the 3/8 in measure 9. Otherwise, one might give an upward impulse which might confuse the players on whether the impulse is a preparation for the measure 9 (the first 3/8 bar), or is measure 9 itself.
39Going back into the Tempo 1 here is relatively straightforward because there is time during the half note of the measure to re-establish the tempo.
47As explained in Technique 2, it is necessary to passively indicate the eighth note rests in this Andantino in order to avoid confusion about whether the melody begins as an upbeat into measure 47 or 48.
62-63The cut-off serves to indicate that we are now in measure 63. As long as you stop moving for a reasonable period of time there should be no difficulty to start the next section.
64The andante mosso here is not difficult to start. Therefore, the preparatory gesture should focus on showing the dynamic and colour of the beginning of this “prayer” section. 
71The transition into the presto come prima needs conviction as it is not possible to prepare the tempo. The beat here should be smaller than the previous measures because the tempo is significantly quicker. 
Remember that the tempo is established in the minds of the players by the second gesture in that tempo, so in this case it is vital to go positively from the first 3/8 measure to the second.
92Going into the andante come prima, show only the barline in a passive way, then invite the solo player to begin 
99 The allegro brillante that starts on an eighth note pickup can be done in 4. However, being 2 might feel more natural and should be the goal. Therefore, a precise upbeat is important. As seen in the video, moving a little before changing direction at the start of the upbeat is very helpful. 
Because of the nature of this transition, it’s quite likely that the first note of the melody will sound a little late and probably come with your downbeat – this is a good thing so don’t change it!
This final section contains lots of subjective decisions about whether to be in 2 or 4. The video demonstrates one possible set of solutions.

Another favourite of auditions and competitions is the opening 130 measures of the final movement of Brahms’s first symphony. Not only does it contain many transitions to negotiate, it also requires many technical and interpretative decisions. This arrangement is for an ensemble of 13 players, but we have also included a piano reduction of the wind and brass parts so that you can still do this with just a string quintet and piano. You will also be able to find other solo or four-hand piano reductions freely available online. 

Watch the video while following the score and then work through the advice below.

1The opening is usually in quarter note beats, in a very slow tempo which can be around 30 beats per minute. The preparatory gesture is beat one and then you need to go clearly to the left for beat 2; it needs to be accompanied with a positive breath to help coordinate the low strings with contrabassoon (trombone in our arrangement). The dynamic is piano not pianissimo.
2-5Show how you want the fortepiano to be played and over the next few measures you might imperceptibly gather a bit of tempo.
6-7Traditionally, the pizzicati here are subdivided. If so, be sure that there is a precise relationship between your eight-note and quarter-note pulse. It can also be in 4 if the orchestra is good. At this point, you might have reached a metronome mark for the eighth notes of about 72.
Don’t suggest any accelerando until you are in measure 8. Unless you have consciously decided it’s what you want, beware of getting a crescendo with the accelerando or a diminuendo with the rallentando.
8-11Aim to get back into 4 somewhere in the second half of measure 8 or in the first half of measure 9. Show some restraint at first, and then really go for the accelerando in measure 11. The tempo should end up somewhere above 132 for the quarter note.
12The in tempo comes on beat 2. Stop the downbeat with absolutely no rebound and then show the winds where to place the second beat, along with a very positive breath.
15-19The same points as before apply here, but this time the accelerando is only over 2 measures so get on with it. This time you’ll need to be in 4 before the end of measure 18.
Stop momentarily at the bottom of beat 4 in measure 19 to give the low strings time to change from pizzicato to arco, and give the upbeat to in tempo (measure 20), in tempo! 
20-21If you have mastered the section in subdivision in chapter 5, you will be able to conduct measure 20 in quarter notes but with subdivisions only on beat 4, and measure 21 with subdivisions only on beats 3 and 4.
22-27While it is not written, the tradition is to quicken through measures 22 and 23 so that measure 24 is around eighth note = 120. All of this passage from measure 22 is usually in 8.
28Here is a good place to go back into quarter notes, and the tempo of around quarter note = 60 is then what you will adopt for the Piu Andante (measure 30).
29However, you have to first decide what to do here. Often in Brahms, we need to pay attention to the timpani part. What might appear at first glance to be very flexible in terms of pulse might need more rhythmic rigour as a result of what the timpanist has to do. Timpanists will often take great pleasure in pointing this out to you! 
There can be many solutions. Here are just a few options: slow down so much in the first 2 beats that it is possible for the timpanist to play the noted 12 notes per quarter note, then connecting the speed of the 12 to the 6 in the following measuretry not to slow down much at all, thinking that Brahms made a mistake with his notation and he really meant 6 notes per quarter note instead of 12don’t make any attempt at reconciling this dilemma and ask the timpanist to carry on with a roll, switching to measure sextuplets only in measure 30none of the above – you’re the conductor, you decide! 
30Nevertheless, from measure 30 you do need to keep the timpani in your ear. This doesn’t mean being brutally metronomic but any phrasing, breathing and rubato does need to have a sense of logic so the timpanist (and the strings) have a sense of the pulse.
38-41Characteristically, Brahms frees you for a few measures before bringing the timpani back at measure 42.
42-47Be clear about how much crescendo you want in measures 42 and 43.
Be aware of the change to pizzicato at measure 47 which usually requires the strings to omit the last note of two of their final sextuplet. Getting the pizzicato together with the trombones is the challenge; a breath will help, and the impulse must be in the upbeat – a strong impulse on the downbeat and the trombones will be late.
47-51The tempo tends to relax in this phrase. It’s just you and the timpanist in measure 51 to re-establish the pulse.
60By now you will be glued to the timpani part so you should see/hear the change from 6s to 4s here. Don’t slow down too much so that this change makes sense.
61-77The Allegro non troppo, ma con brio is probably more commonly conducted in 2 these days, but a quarter note impulse and perhaps only indicating a couple of beats in a measure is a strategy worth considering, as is doing basically nothing. Most great orchestras have a tradition of how they play this melody and you may decide to go with their idea for the first 16 measures or so.
Another typical Brahms gesture is the use of poco forte: what does it mean? The answer is subjective, but the size of the string section and the nature of the acoustic may both be factors to consider
78When the winds take the melody, you should have probably settled into alla breve but there are certainly occasional moments where beating quarter notes can be helpful for character as well as ensemble
94, 118Consider how to interpret the animato markings in these measures.
This takes us to measure 136, just another 321 to go! 
Scroll to Top