The Function of Dynamics in the Music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven: Some Implications for the Performer

October 1, 1976

Most agree that ties between music theory, history, aesthetics and performance are not often clear in the conservatory and college training of young musicians. The advantages of such an integration have already been advocated eloquently in the College Music Symposium and elsewhere by performer-musicologists such as George Houle and Denis Stevens.1 This article continues their endeavor, but it is more of a demonstration than a pep talk. It is, of course, a limited demonstration as the title above indicates. An attempt will be made to base certain thinking about classic performance upon eighteenth-century concepts of form.

Explaining the influence which musical form could have on artistic performance inevitably involves meanings and evaluations which are vulnerable to controversy. You cannot quarrel with a compilation of facts, but you can argue against ideas that try to explain the connections between these facts. If hypotheses eventually prove to be poor tools, they should be modified and improved, or dispassionately discarded. In some cases it matters not whether speculations are right or wrong. If they prompt new thought or better approaches, they serve a good purpose.

The writings of theorists such as Edward T. Cone, Leonard B. Meyer, and Erwin Stein have encouraged me to compose the following essay, not because I disagree with their explanations, but because I find their insights and their pluck so stimulating.2 It is hoped that the approach in this presentation will seem complementary rather than conflicting. The main focus is upon the role of dynamics in illuminating the structures of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.

Dynamics often promote within various contexts a closer balance, psychologically, between the elements of unity and variety. If the impression of chaos is caused by too much variety, and if monotony is caused by too much unity, anything that helps to avoid either extreme may help to entice a more attentive ear.3 When the composer's markings clarify or heighten the contrast between a pattern, departure, or restatement, emphasis is commonly given to that which is smaller in its qualitative and/or quantitative effect. This provides an articulation and bolsters an agent of unity and variety at the same time.

Patterns and departures occur in many different sizes and guises. A chromatic note in any diatonic style is a departure from the basic pattern of the scale. A dissonance is a departure in a style in which consonant texture predominates. A syncopation is a departure from the basic pattern of the meter. Variations or changes of figuration provide departures from the main motives in a phrase. Melodic peaks are departures of range or tessitura. These are some manifestations of the statement-counterstatement dualism on the lowest level of composition. In a rondo, episodes among refrains are departures of melodic character and tonality. This illustrates the dualism in a larger dimension.4

Notes, phrases and sections must be justly scaled to one another within the overall form. Although the emphasis which gives the impression of size and shape to these units is often written into the composition with modifications of dynamics, texture, timbre, and so forth, occasionally it should be supplied or reinforced by the performer with unnotated changes of dynamics. Leopold Mozart, for example, wrote: "The notes raised by a sharp and a natural should always be played rather more strongly, the tone then diminishing again during the course of the melody. . . . In the same way a sudden lowering of a note by a flat and a natural should be distinguished by forte.5" C.P.E. Bach called for stressed dissonance as well as accented accidentals: "In general it can be said that dissonances are played loudly and consonances softly. . . . A noteworthy rule which is not without foundation is that all tones of a melody which lie outside the key may well be emphasized regardless of whether they form consonances or dissonances. . . ."6 And, of course, any performer with a good sense of rhythm will bring out melodic syncopation with tasteful accents and a steady tempo.

Emphasis for diminutive deviations of this kind creates minor climaxes and individual profiles for motives, phrases and phrase members. (In this essay, "climax" refers to any event calling for dynamic accentuation.7) The advice of Leopold Mozart and C.P.E. Bach is appropriate for the sensibility style (empfindsamer Stil) where most of the interest resides in details. In the high classic style of W.A. Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, on the other hand, the most interesting profile belongs to the overall form. Classic art has a passion for balance on a grander scale.

If unmarked, a major climax is often harder to identify because it involves considerations that are more widely spaced in time, and sometimes greater in number. The performer must often decide what kind of dynamic shape a period or phrase group should have, or which fortissimo among several in a movement should sound the highest. The problem may be more or less complex, but style analysis frequently suggests the same solution on every level. When departures are brief, they are usually in relief; returns often stand out for the same reason. Dynamic change is one of the means used to highlight these departures and returns.8 Sensitivity to the most important events in the music, to the desired impact of each event, and to the degree of explicit compositional emphasis can thus guide the performer in planning an effective hierarchy of climaxes. Differences (if any) between desired impact and the effect of a straight or literal rendition can then be lessened (if not eliminated) by tasteful dynamic adjustments. This is one of the performer's artistic contributions.9

Since a design of keys supplies the framework of classic form, the most significant statements, departures, and returns in this style are tonal.10 Moreover, the other elements are often related to cadential action in a common effort to suggest, establish, confirm, or reaffirm the constituent tonalities. Commitment to key feeling is thus the hallmark of the style; it controls the behavior of almost every element. Though supported by theoretical writings of the eighteenth century and by style analysis, the concept of classic form as an outline of keys has not influenced performance as much as it could. Themes need attention too, but harmonic considerations should not be underrated or overlooked. The strength and length of each key create areas of stability and instability which supply a sense of movement and arrival on the highest level of structure. Stability and a sense of arrival are facets of unity. Instability and a sense of movement are more closely related to variety. By stressing one value here, the other value there, dynamics help to give the overall form a contour and an entity as well as balance and kinetic continuity. The ultimate and finest control of volume is, of course, in the hands of the performer.

In classic music the important departures involve changes of key or lesser degrees of harmonic stability within a single key. The most important returns involve the principal keys, or greater degrees of tonal stability within one key. Such activities need space larger than the phrase in which to operate effectively. This is one reason why periods and phrase groups—that is, the units defined by the most conclusive punctuations—are the standard building blocks of the style.

The first two periods of Mozart's piano sonata in A major, K. 331, exemplify different kinds of balance within a single key. The opening period is perfectly symmetrical. The relative instability of the half cadence in bar four is balanced by the stability of the perfect authentic cadence in bar eight. In the next period, a four-bar antecedent is answered by a six-bar consequent. (Another interpretation would be four plus four plus two.) By delaying the full cadence, relative instability within the period is prolonged. To those practiced in the style, unmatched dynamics cannot upset the strong impression of balance conveyed by two or more cadences equally spaced. All kinds of dynamic schemes are found in symmetrical periods. However, dynamics can redress the imbalance conveyed by nonsymmetrical phrases and the avoidance of expected repose. A climactic resolution produced by a change from piano to forte thus underlines the close of the second period. It produces a "qualitative" or "psychological" balance, as opposed to a "quantitative" or "spatial" balance.11

Strengthening the cadential effect is also possible without changes of volume; the crucial chords can be stretched out, repeated, preceded by pauses, or highlighted by other kinds of contrast. In the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, cadential action—the clearest indicator of key—is often reinforced at the end of nonsymmetrical units. Dynamic contrast is one of the main devices employed for this purpose.12 Without authorization, it would probably be unwise to taper the phrases terminated by full and unevenly spaced punctuations. A downward curve is difficult to resist when a period or phrase group has only one general dynamic, or no markings at all. But a long diminuendo could contradict the composer's intentions. If the other methods of underlining the cadential effect are absent, a decrescendo may enervate the cadence, and consequently weaken the classical sense of balance, key and form. (See, for example, the final period in the Trio of Haydn's Symphony No. 71.)

The Trio of Haydn's Symphony No. 101 presents a clear and simple illustration of departures involving a change of key. As in Mozart's theme in the Piano Sonata, K. 331, statement and counterstatement are leveled merely by faithfully following the composer's markings. In the first reprise (the first part of the binary form), twelve bars in the tonic oppose only four bars in the dominant. The impression of the initial key is particularly strong because all three notes of the tonic triad are constantly reiterated as pedal points.13 The scale would be tipped too far in favor of the tonic key without the weight given to the dominant by a towering contrast of texture and dynamics. Haydn's fortissimo helps to create a tall vertical to balance the long pianissimo horizontal. Because the instability at the beginning of the second reprise (mm. 113-137) is countered by prolonged stability at the other end, the return in measure 138 does not require the same degree of contrast; a change from piano to forte suffices.

If a happy hierarchy of climaxes requires finer gradations, it is not as clearly indicated. In the first movement of Beethoven's Quartet in F minor, Op. 95, the fortissimos of the exposition and recapitulation underline some brief and rather jarring harmonies set within a relatively calm and stable context. (See mm. 19-20, 38-39, 49-50, 84-85, 107-108, or 117-119.) Joseph Kerman perceives "sore" notes sticking out of the "fabric."14 Leonard Ratner hears the influence of opera, with the dramatic interjections suggesting recitativo accompagnato, and the relaxed cantilena suggesting the style of a smooth flowing aria.15 The weightiest dynamic joins forces with a short compression of harmonic and melodic extremes to provide ballast for the broad, floating, high flying aria. In so doing, climaxes lasting about two measures each are given to the two main sections of the exposition and recapitulation. But which fortissimo, among the eleven that appear in the Allegro, is the main climax of the entire movement? The same principle that governs the broader handling of dynamics—supplied by the composer—can be used to govern the subtler treatment—supplied by the performer. Making the fortissimo in the coda (m. 138) the highest point seems to satisfy because it is the only peak elevating an authentic cadence in the tonic key.

After a series of explosive departures, a fierce return comes as a relief. It is the sole climax projecting an element of harmonic stability, and it occurs appropriately near the end where the tonic key needs to be anchored. (The effect is supported by a quickening of rhythmic excitement in the cadential approach.)

If "a fortissimo in search of an authentic cadence in the tonic key" explains one of the plots in the drama of this piece, "a theme in search of its tonic key" could describe the Scherzo of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony. Here, the dénouement is clearly marked by the composer. In the beginning, a change of key greets the theme whenever it emerges from the briskly chugging strings which begin most of the periods. The theme surfaces at irregular and unexpected intervals right after the first reprise, but this tactic is not immediately successful. Each time the tune sneaks out, it finds itself nose to nose with a foreign tonality. These initial contretemps help to make the rendezvous with the tonic an event of some importance. The point would be much less clear, and the moment much less dramatic, if preceding arrivals sound significant; so Beethoven directs the musicians to play "sempre pianissimo." Perhaps the warning is necessary because those accustomed to the style would have a tendency to play the cadences of expanded or contracted periods emphatically. The awaited moment is made glorious by a grand fortissimo in bar 93 as the complete theme and the tonic key finally meet for the first time.

A similar situation exists in the Minuet from Haydn's Clock Symphony, although the climax is not as obviously set off. (See example.)


Example: Minuet from Haydn's Symphony #101 (The Clock)



Here we have the key of D major reaching for its complete scale and its conclusive cadence. The behavior of the protagonists always depends upon a tonal scenario. The melody stretches stepwise from D up to B on successive downbeats in bars 1-6, but sinks quickly back to E at the half cadence in bar 8. After a rest (m. 8), it lurches through the whole octave (mm. 8-14), but overshoots the mark: the line slides across the upper D on a weak beat and lands in the key of the dominant, where it thrashes about, piqued and frustrated, until the end of the section. A period of subdued insouciance intervenes before the next try. The third attempt is exactly like the first, but the fourth shows more craft. After climbing to an A, the theme pauses (m. 62). The prize lies just over the bar line in measure 66. Suddenly the material turns back a few steps (mm. 63-64), scampers up over the final hurdle (m. 65), and pounces upon the high D with dramatic enthusiasm (m. 66 ff). The goal is crowned with the tonic's most conclusive cadence and flaunted with seven repetitions in the space of four bars. The minuet ends with nine sturdy cadences. While the aesthetic effect is that of a grand and victorious achievement, the structural function is that of a keystone.16 In classic music, tonal definition is most concise at the end of extended periods, phrase groups, or sections. This trait is not an irrational quirk. Among other duties (e.g., rectifying harmonic imbalance) it often helps to shape a hierarchic organization by becoming involved in a hierarchy of climaxes. The "angry pique" in measures 14-28 creates a climactic area for the first reprise. The "joyous peak"17 in measure 66 begins a primary climax for the entire minuet.18

The Trio of Haydn's Symphony No. 71 also strives for a perfect authentic cadence in the tonic key. Although the goal is quite similar, rhetorical stress is slightly different. The first period (repeated) can only attain an imperfect cadence in the tonic—that is, a V-I progression with the root of the tonic chord in the lowest position but the third of the chord on top. The next period, however, secures perfect cadences in the dominant key with surprising ease. It batters the dominant with six successive V-I progressions (implied) and the Trio's loudest dynamic. After a short transition, the first period returns, and finally manages to pull down a full cadence in the tonic key. The moral of the story: practice in the dominant makes perfect at the end! In this case a primary climax does not spotlight the harmonic objective. Molding the final phrase with a diminuendo, however, would throw away the punch line. A long diminuendo here would violate stylistic consistency as well as weaken the structural point. Unless the cadential effect at the end of a nonsymmetrical period is reinforced by a pedal, by repetitions of the V-I progression, or by prominent contrasts in texture, rhythm, tessitura, and so forth, a performer conditioned by the style would tend to underline the final chord.19

In works having these metaphor-prone and goal-oriented adventures, the dramatis personae may change somewhat, but harmonic vigor is always the key issue. In the finale of Beethoven's Quartet, Op. 59, No. 3, the tonic takes an extra trip through the coda to collect some cadences and another tune it could not find elsewhere. In the first movement of Op. 59, No. 1, the theme seeks its root harmonization. Understanding such objectives aids the performer in constructing a scale of climaxes that gives appropriate significance to the most eventful happenings.

In most of the examples cited above, tonal returns are major pinnacles because of a projection of key which is uniquely strong, although delayed or relatively brief in duration. When a return is delayed, its tenure is usually shortened. In other examples, harmonic departures are climactic for the same reasons. William Newman observes that the primary climax in the Allegro movements of classic piano sonatas "occurs most often at the shift to the dark or subdominant side of the tonal orbit in the coda."20 If harmonic instability is negligible in the recapitulation, a harmonic digression in the coda will bring the relief that attracts a certain emphasis. Newman also notes that a secondary climax is often reached at the start of the recapitulation.21 If harmonic exploration in the development has been quite long and wide-ranged, the return will stand out.

And so, climaxes may be either departures or returns, depending upon which need to be boosted for a better balance. The attempt to clarify or cultivate a psychological equilibrium on various levels results in graded climaxes. If the crests are correctly shaped and properly proportioned, a hierarchy of units should take form, a cohesive and monumental structure should be more easily grasped, goal-directed processes should have drive, dramatic expression should be strengthened, and a sense of poise should be more secure.

1Houle, "Performance: The Profession and Preparation for It," College Music Symposium 14 (Fall 1974), 32-40. Also Stevens, "IIb Objectives," in Guidelines for the Doctor of Philosophy Degree in Musicology, prepared by the Committee on Curriculum and Accreditation of the American Musicological Society (Alexander Ringer, Denis Stevens, George J. Buelow), First Edition, December 1969.

2Esp. in Cone, Musical Form and Musical Performance (New York: W.W. Norton, 1968); Meyer, "Critical Analysis and Performance: The Theme of Mozart's A-Major Piano Sonata," Chapter 2 in Explaining Music, Essays and Explorations (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), pp. 26-43; and Stein, Form and Performance (London: Faber and Faber, 1962).

The concepts which Grosvenor Cooper and Leonard B. Meyer developed in The Rhythmic Structure of Music (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960) have strong implications for valid musical performance, but this is not the primary goal of their book. Meyer believes that "every critical analysis is a more or less precise indication of how the work being analyzed should be performed." (Explaining Music, p. 29.) I would agree with this statement completely if the word "precise" were deleted.

3Of course, monotony can also result from continuous variation. When every element is in a constant state of change, there is a paradoxical lack of variety.

4In many analyses it is useful to make distinctions between words such as repetition, return, coherence, cohesion, the norm, stability, arrival, redundancy, consistency, statement, pattern, etc., and between expressions such as prolongation, delay, elaboration, the irregular, perceptual information, shifts, disturbance, movement, departure, counterstatement, etc. Some of these terms are more aptly used for explaining one level of composition than another. But the approach in this essay is benefited by stressing the basic connections between the events so variously labeled. Those in the first group are more closely allied with unity; these in the second are usually closer to variety. Facets of unity and variety are, of course, found on every level of composition.

5Leopold Mozart, A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing, trans. by Editha Knocker (London, New York, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1948), p. 218.

6Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments, trans. and ed. by William J. Mitchell (New York: W.W. Norton, 1949), p. 163.

7Thus the term as used here is identical neither to Meyer's concept of the stable accent, nor to Cone's concept of the structural downbeat, for these "strong points" are not necessarily emphasized dynamically. E.g., see the analysis of the theme from Mozart's piano sonata in A major, K. 331, in Cone, pp. 28-29; and in Meyer, p. 39. Both consider the cadence of the first period a strong event, though it is marked piano.

Discussions of climax in music usually include consideration of dynamics. Compare Ernst Toch, "The Bases of Form," Chapter X in The Shaping Forces in Music (New York: Criterion Music, 1948), pp. 153-72; William S. Newman, "The Climax of Music," The Music Review XIII (1952), 283-93; George E. Muns, Jr., "Climax in Music" (Ph.D. diss., University of North Carolina, 1955); and Arnold Elston, "On Musical Dynamics" (Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 1939).

8Although Leonard Meyer perceives the same processes operating on all levels of a composition (such as the rhythmic groupings that employ the terminology of prosody), he does not see them functioning in the same fashion on all levels. Trochees, for example, might characterize the details, iambs the larger gestures. (See, for example, Explaining Music, p. 39.) Presumably the author uses the same basic criteria on all levels to locate the strong areas of these rhythmic units. Similarly, I perceive the same principle influencing the location of dynamic emphasis on all levels, but I do not see the means of producing this emphasis operating uniformly in both large and small. Texture, for instance, is usually more important in highlighting the long and middle range than the short. Also, departures tend to be stressed more on lower levels, returns more on higher levels.

9Of course, the performer also has at his disposal the possibility of applying temporal gradations which can shape as well as emphasize. In the classic style, however, dynamics play a more important role. The timing of chordal, tonal, textural, and melodic changes as well as accents, melodic peaks, cadences, and so forth, is often carefully calculated in the structures of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. In such cases, rubato, retards and acceleration would weaken a built-in contrast between regular spacing and irregular spacing, or between conflicting units such as the steady measure and a variety of motive and phrase lengths. Regularly occurring events (or an expectation of the same) usually provide a basic reference or background against which the irregular can be highlighted. A steady tempo is desirable to clarify rhythmic counterpoints of this kind, for they often produce a momentum that heralds the approach of a structural goal.

10See Leonard G. Ratner, "Harmonic Aspects of Classic Form," Journal of the American Musicological Society II (Fall 1949), 159-68, and "Key Definition—A Structural Issue in Beethoven's Music," JAMS XXIII (Fall 1970), 472-83; William S. Newman, The Sonata in the Classic Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1963), pp. 19-42; and Fred Ritzel, Die Entwicklung der "Sonatenform" im musiktheoretischen Schrifttum des 18. und 19. Jahrhunderts (Wiesbaden: Breitkopf u. Härtel, 1969).

11Cf. Ratner, Music: The Listener's Art (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966), pp. 217-19, 223-25.

12These matters are dealt with in greater detail in my article "Variant Dynamic Markings in Music: Some Examples from Mozart and Beethoven," The Music Review XXXIV/3-4 (August-November 1973), 189-97. E.g., the dynamic change may be (a) gradually or abruptly louder, or (b) abruptly softer. (A decrease rather than an increase in the thickness of the texture or in the frequency of rhythmic change is the kind of reinforcement—if any—that normally accompanies a decrease in volume.)

13Most conductors make a "correction" in the repeat, changing to a dominant chord in measure 102 and back to the tonic in measure 104. H.C. Robbins Landon, an authority on Haydn, believes the harmony should remain unchanged. (See Joseph Haydn, Critical Edition of the Complete Symphonies, ed. by H.C. Robbins Landon, Vol. XII [Vienna: Universal Edition, 1968], p. LXXI.)

14Joseph Kerman, The Beethoven Quartets (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967), p. 171.

15Ratner, "Key Definition—A Structural Issue . . . ," p. 480.

16Cone and Meyer would view this minuet as a variation on a single rhythmic form; an extended upbeat followed by its downbeat in measure 66 would probably be Cone's interpretation while a high-level iamb would probably be Meyer's. This is an example in which the concepts of structural downbeat, macrorhythmic accent, and major dynamic climax coincide.

17The characterization of these arrivals ("piqued and frustrated," "joyous and victorious") is perhaps what Roger Sessions means by interpreting "the inherent gesture" in the composer's notation. (See Questions About Music [New York: W.W. Norton, 1971], pp. 49-70, or The Musical Experience of Composer, Performer, Listener [Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1950].) The specific treatment which conveys a certain quality is sometimes difficult to pinpoint. The performer must be like an actor who tries to think and feel like the person he is portraying. The characterization is then communicated by the sum total of many nuances, inflections, postures, or movements, each of which may be insignificant by itself or too subtle to prescribe and control separately. In this example, at least one specific can be singled out. The gesture could be clarified by a stronger dynamic.

18Unfortunately, none of the recordings I have yet heard (in performances conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham, Eugene Ormandy, Leslie Jones and Otto Klemperer) makes these points evident. A subtle surge would be very nice. A cataclysmic climax, of course, (as in Wagner) would be out of place in any classic work. Beecham: Capitol GCR 7198. Ormandy: Columbia MS 6812. Jones: Nonesuch HF-73019-1. Klemperer: Angel S35872.

19If the conductor prefers the same general dynamic for the entire phrase, the final chord of Haydn's Trio could be underlined by a careful temporal adjustment—e.g., by a slight delay. This would compensate for the lack of a positive dynamic accent. Better yet, I think, would be a temporal hesitation combined with a negative accent, e.g., an abrupt piano. Combining two devices would draw more attention to the crucial chord. (See fn. 12.)

20The Sonata in the Classic Era, pp. 149-50.

21Ibid., p. 150.

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