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BCP#6: It's a Dance (or Conversations with Dead People)

I spend hours of every day alone in a practice room. It's just me and the violin, learning how to work together. Or it's me and the composer, in this case Beethoven, having a long conversation, where I try to unearth the message he's left for me in the notes of his music. I ask questions that he's not here to answer, and then I try to discover a reply in the music. For instance, this month I've asked him about the third movement of the concerto - why this cute, perky little theme, after the heft of the first movement and the celestial realm of the second movement? It didn't make sense to me, and I couldn't find a way to deliver the third movement that felt like I was saying something truthful, because I couldn't find a way to connect to Beethoven's concept of it.

I started finding clues, the first one being the time signature of 6/8. If you're not a musician, here's a quick exercise to help you understand what I'm talking about: count aloud "1-2-1-2" and clap every time you say "1". This is the kind of rhythm that a lot music is based on, and you can feel how easy it would be to march to this beat. Now, count "1-2-3-4-5-6" and clap on the 1 and the 4. It changes the feel of the beat to divide it up in this way - this rhythm feels like it would be easier to dance to than to march to, because it has a swing to it. Can you feel it?

This latter pattern of 6 beats divided into two sections is what I'm referring to when I talk about 6/8 time. When Beethoven uses 6/8 in other pieces, it signifies something very special (for example, in the last movement of his Pastoral Symphony, subtitled "'Shepherd's song. Happy and thankful feelings after the storm.') This rhythmic structure connects with dance, and in Beethoven's time, it connected specifically with folksy types of dances - with farmers celebrating harvest by doing a jig at a party, or shepherds playing the same sorts of folksy tunes on their pipes. This was the music of simple people, which Beethoven heard when he left Vienna and stayed in the country to find some peace and respite. His happiest moments were those spent walking in the country, as he tells a friend in a letter:

"How happy I am to be able to wander among bushes and herbs, under trees and over rocks; no man can love the country as I love it. Woods, trees and rocks send back the echo that man desires."

Once I realized this connection, it transformed how I played the third movement of the Violin Concerto. It's playful! Even the parts where it goes into the minor mode are full of humor, and you feel Beethoven winking at you. And there is a delightful moment where he quotes the opening of the first movement, like he's going to get all serious and heavy again, but suddenly stops the music completely and returns sheepishly to the quaint, simple main theme of the third movement again. He's playing a big joke on us all, by getting excited and letting us feel swept away by the moment, then quickly saying "just kidding!" And he returns to the happiness of the romping, dancing music.

The last word he chooses to leave us with, after this huge musical journey of the concerto, is one of pure joy at being alive.

Schönbrunn Castle in Vienna

Schönbrunn Castle in Vienna

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