Sunday, March 13, 2016

Notes On A Silence

A small part of my world has just come unhinged.

Today I looked at the score for Beethoven's 9th Symphony for the first time in forever, and for what I believe to be the first time ever, I noticed how it ends.

It does not end with a strong, rapid set of chords that bring the piece to a rousing finish.

It ends with silence. Indeed, with an extended silence.

See for yourself:

There's the last chord, then a quarter rest - then a half rest to finish the measure. But the half rest has a FERMATA.

For those who don't know, the fermata is the symbol you see above each measure at the end which looks like a dot sitting under an arch. It means "hold this note longer than usual." Or in this case, "hold this silence longer than usual." There's no hard and fast rule for conductors or performers to tell them how long to hold a fermata. 

So the 9th ends with a silence which Beethoven wants the conductor and orchestra to hold for longer than the two beats of the half rest. How long? Well, in theory the silence could last forever (musicians,check me on this if I'm wrong). Conductors are at liberty to hold it for as long as makes sense to them, or for as long as feels right.

What's throwing me off is that I never knew that that fermata was there, so I never knew that the symphony ends in silence at all. Having heard the 9th Symphony more times than I can count, I may have never heard it rightly.

How could I? Silence doesn't record well - the only way you know that it is there is when it ends, when some sound comes after it. So I could listen to a thousand recordings of the 9th without ever knowing that it ends in silence, because nothing comes after that silence.

More to the point, how would I know as a member of the audience at a live performance that the symphony ends in silence? If I do not already know the score, will a conductor's gestures tell me, after that final thundering chord, "It's not over. Wait."?

In this performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Riccardo Muti clearly ends with the chord (start at 1:18:00 if you have, you know, less than 80 minutes to spare):

Conversely, Leonard Bernstein seems to take the silence to heart at the end of this performance by members of assorted orchestras on Christmas, 1989, which celebrated the end of the Berlin Wall. Indeed, whether due to exhaustion or to emotional fullness, he stands quietly even after the audience erupts in applause (1:25:00 and following).

Did this audience know that the symphony ends in silence? I can't tell.

This is pretty certain: Beethoven wrote all of his works for live performances, not recorded ones. With each, he wanted to evoke something from a live audience.  What was Beethoven after in crafting the ending we have here? Did he want, in the end, to evoke an awe that stuns men into silence?

I have no idea, yet. In order to have a clue, I need to read some conductors' tutorials or something. Meanwhile, the next time I conduct the finale of the 9th in my living room (come on, some of you have done it), I'll end with silence, and open myself myself to awe.

What do you think?
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