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Mastering the Unforgettable: Conquering Beethoven's 5th Symphony Second Movement

Updated: Sep 12, 2023

The second movement of Beethoven's 5th Symphony is one of my favorite musical moments, and it makes an absolutely lovely excerpt. It is at the top of the list of standards, so you can pretty much count on playing it in most viola auditions. We encounter an array of challenges-rhythm, intonation, and tone quality are all major factors here, so do not be deceived that this is an easy excerpt. Rhythm is a great place to start. We open with a series of dotted figures, it is a lilting song that is anything but static. My favorite way to practice this rhythm is by subdividing the entire first excerpt into the smallest common denominator-the 32nd note.

Here the metronome is set to quarter=80

Try this first with the metronome set on quarter note=60. The key is to feel the rhythm without accenting it-If we work too hard to emphasize the rhythm, it may sound like we are double dotting. If we get comfortable and let the rhythm be whatever it may be, it will sound like triplets. The key is to truly subdivide for the entire excerpt. This practice allows you to feel the subdivision and to hear it. The bow stroke will be legato, and you will stay as smooth as you can in between the string crossings.

For intonation, our best tool is the drone. The general rule is to use the tonic of the key you are trying to harmonize, so we will start with Ab. Before tackling the actual excerpt, let's spend some time tonalizing the key of Ab. Play the first 5 notes as long tones. Then sing those first 5 notes.

Listen carefully to the blend of these pitches to the Ab on the drone. Now play these five notes again. How well did they blend with the drone the second time? Now sing them again and ask the same question. Do this no less than three times. I would personally do this at least five times before touching the excerpt for that day. This is going to put your ear into top gear. The most beneficial exercise you can do for intonation is to practice opening your ears to the most precise balancing of harmony. It seems tedious while you are doing it, but it only takes a few minutes so it's something that we can all certainly make time for. Actively listening for intonation could be challenging and once you start questioning your own intonation it could feel frustrating. Just remember that frustration often leads to breaking through the next level of precision and artistry. So let yourself get frustrated!

Mastering the tone is another challenge of this excerpt. How do we maximize the smoothness when there are so many string crossings? Place your bow on one string, but maneuver the angle so that your bow is on another string. How close can you get before you are actually hitting the next string? Layering the notes in the excerpt as double stops can help practice preparing one note to the next as you are learning this excerpt. You will prepare the motions you need to make in order to cross the strings with your left hand and with your right.

Practice this with no specific rhythm in mind. What is more important is how close you can get your bow to both strings so that the string crossings are as smooth as possible. Preparing your left hand ahead of time as well will only add to the power of this practice.

Beethoven 5 excerpt #1

Try practicing all of these exercises at least four days in a row for best results. Happy practicing!


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