Beethoven's Uses of Silence

By Cooper, Barry | Musical Times, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Beethoven's Uses of Silence


Cooper, Barry, Musical Times


SILENCE WITHIN MUSIC has been the focus of much attention in recent years, including a whole book on the subject,' but its use by Beethoven has never been examined in depth, despite the extraordinary range and variety of ways in which he exploited it. Here is not the place for a philosophical or aesthetic discussion of what constitutes silence, nor of the ways in which different sorts of silence might be classified; and certain types, such as those that routinely occur between staccato notes, can be disregarded for present purposes. Instead the aim is to investigate the range of contexts in which Beethoven exploited silence in unusual or original ways - an aspect of his style that is generally overlooked.

In order to appreciate Beethoven's inventiveness in this area, let us recall how silence had been used in earlier music. It was generally one of two types, 'structural' or 'dramatic'. A 'structural' silence is one that occurs between sections of a work or between individual phrases. Such silences, which usually occur on weak beats or half-beats, are commonplace and generally merit no special attention. By contrast a 'dramatic' silence can occur in the middle of a phrase, as well as at the end of one, and it consists of delaying the expected continuation for expressive purposes - a kind of metrically disruptive pregnant pause that intensifies the power of what follows. It will either unexpectedly prolong a structural silence or else intrude in midphrase, generally by occurring on a strong beat, and its effect is increased if notes have occurred on the previous weak beat or part-beat.

Silences were also used occasionally by early composers in other contexts, usually for pictorial or narrative purposes in vocal music to depict the idea of silence. This could be as brief as a short rest to represent a gasp in the middle of a word, or a longer silence, as in Mozart's Così fan tutte (act 2 scene 5), where the disguised Guglielmo is completely at a loss for what to say to Dorabella once he realises she is willing to go for a walk with him. Humorous silences can also appear in instrumental works, such as at the end of Haydn's 'Joke' Quartet op.33 no.2, where Haydn (whose uses of silence also deserve extended investigation) writes a three-bar rest before the final phrase, to lure the authence into thinking that the work has finished.

Beethoven used all these types of silence - structural, dramatic and pictorial. One of his most notable examples of pictorial silence, for example, occurs in the dungeon scene in his opera Fidelio, at the words 'Gott! welch' Dunkel hier! O grauenvolle Stille!' ('God! What darkness here! O horrible silence! '). At this point the silence operates on several levels. As well as simply representing itself, it is the aural equivalent of the 'darkness' mentioned; and it is a truly '"horrible silence ', where Florestan feels surrounded by nothing - completely alone, isolated, cut off. And this silence of isolation resembles what Beethoven himself was experiencing at that time, from his encroaching deafness. As Alan Tyson has pointed out, if one substitutes 'deafness' for 'darkness' here, the text begins to resemble phrases from the Heiligenstadt Testament, where Beethoven laments ? heard nothing'.2 However, deafness as non-perception of sound is not the same thing as true silence, the absence of sound, which can be used very positively to communicate meaning or emotion.3 Moreover, Beethoven's use of silence at this point in Fidelio is not particularly original, for there are three other operas from this period based on the same subject - by Pierre Gaveaux, Ferdinando Paer and Simon Mayr - and in all three of them the orchestra is provided with a pictorial silence at this point.4 More interesting, surely, are Beethoven's many uses of silence for more unusual purposes - those that are not merely structural, dramatic, or pictorial silences, though they may have one or more of these functions too.

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