Where Is That Meter?

2011Symposium_1_2Recently, I attended a chamber music concert that included the first of Beethoven’s “Razumofsky” string quartets, the Op. 59, no. 1. The performance was by an ensemble made of advanced musicians from prestigious music conservatories that had gathered to attend a music festival. As the performance got under way, I quickly became unsettled. I couldn’t quite grasp the meter, even though I knew it was in common time. Eventually, the meter sorted itself out in my perception, but wondering what was causing my confusion distracted me. A day later, I have discovered that there are indeed metrical elements in this quartet that pose a challenge to those who perform it, and that this student ensemble did not always meet those challenges.

Looking at the score, It interests me to examine the opening theme, and see why the meter was so illusive.


Through enculturation, we become accustomed to perceiving meter through certain cues composers place in their music. Because meter is a pattern of strong and weak beats, the listener must have some way of knowing which beats are strong. One such cue is that usually, chord changes occur on strong beats. In the opening bars of this Op. 59, no. 1, there is a harmonic ostinato, and when it finally ends in the seventh measure and a chord change occurs it is not on the downbeat, but on beat 3 in common time. It is no coincidence that this is the very spot where my sense of meter began to falter. It was here I began to doubt I was hearing common time, and became persuaded that it was instead two-four meter. To deepen my doubt, at that exact same spot, there is the start of a relatively long duration, which is another cue for strong beats. This happens at the beginning also, but when we get to that same seventh measure, two quarter notes follow four eighth notes. In other words, both a chord change and a longer duration occur on beat three.

Yet another cue for perceiving meter is the onset of a relatively long articulation. At the very beginning, with the second violinist and violist playing the steady eighth-note ostinato, the entire burden of establishing metric structure falls to the cellist. The longest slur, one and a half measures, is in the third and fourth measures, beginning on the third beat of the third measure. Not only that, but this relatively long slur also starts on a harmonically strong pitch, the tonic, giving that third beat even more weight. As a result this third beat, like the one in the seventh measure, can easily be heard as a downbeat. Interestingly, Beethoven does not articulate the parallel occurrence of this theme the same way. When the first violin plays the same melody staring in the ninth measure, the slur has been shortened, so that the new relatively long slur does begin on a downbeat, supporting the perception of quadruple meter. So what is a player to do in order to overcome these ambiguities?

Phrasing and interpretation become essential. The first step is to be aware of the challenges present in the music. Beethoven was moving into his middle period when this quartet was composed, and here, as in the Eroica Symphony, he was experimenting with metric ambiguities. Although I will only be discussing those in the opening bars of Op. 59 no. 1, they are found throughout the work. To be effective, these devices must be set in relief against a well-established metrical structure. The cellist playing this quartet must be certain to inflect the opening phrase so that a tactus at the half-note level is established. The tactus in music is the pulse listeners perceive as the beat of reference. It is the steady beat a conductor indicates and to which a listener is apt to move. If the listener is perceiving the half note as the tactus, then the irregularities of articulation and chord changes will be perceived for what they are meant to be—essentially, syncopations. With a half note tactus, the pattern of strong and weak beats at the whole note level (each measure equaling one beat) comes off as first strong and then weak.

The relatively long notes fall on strong half-note beats, and the longest note of the theme, the whole note in the fourth measure, is rightly heard as the ending note of the phrase. With a quarter-note tactus, the dotted half note that begins the second measure takes on more prominence, and the first measure sounds like a weak measure dominated by the ensuing dotted half-note event. The quarter notes in the first measure must be handled expressively so that the dotted quarter that immediately follows them sounds like closure to the first sub-phrase, and likewise with the two quarter notes in the third measure followed by the whole note. Although this is somewhat counter-intuitive, it is an essential part of Beethoven’s rhythmic structure at this point in the work. Beethoven’s indication of “e dolce” serves not only as an expressive marking, but as a practical matter for helping to establish the meter.

Finally, the cellist must be sure to play the last note of the theme, the whole note in the eighth measure softly, even though it is completing a phrase that has up to this last note been played with a crescendo. The inception of a relatively long dynamic usually occurs on a strong beat, and the piano dynamic at measure nine is an example of this.

During the early moments of the performance I attended, these important points were not observed. The cellist played in a steady tone and dynamic that concealed the metric nuance I needed to grasp the metric structure. My experience with that performance and my subsequent reflections on it highlight the importance of analysis and interpretation to good performance preparation. Though the players competently played the pitches and durations in the score, their weakness was not paying enough attention to analysis and interpretation, and realizing their importance to a successful performance.

This is the lesson for us as we study scores and then teach repertoire to our students. Analysis and interpretation are not just academic exercises; they are integral parts in the performance process and cannot be overlooked. Remember, an audience rarely sees the score, they can only hear the music. Metrical form is more than time signatures and bar lines, for an audience see neither. Metrical form is a musical structure that must be perceived aurally, and therefore placed into the musical surface, beyond what the musicians see in their scores. Meter is not self-evident to an audience or even to the performers. It must be felt, perceived, and communicated.


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