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How rare was it, in classical and romantic periods, for composers to notate eighth note and sixteenth note beams across measures? Are there examples from composers other than Schubert?

In two of Schubert’s works (that I know of), he has beams between eighth notes across measures.

In “Letzte Hoffnug” from Winterreise (IMSLP): Letzte Hoffnung start

From the fourth movement of his second piano trio (IMSLP): Measure G in the second trio, fourth movement

In both cases, it is obviously an attempt to bring out the syncopation.

I am assuming this is Schubert’s notation, because it is in various versions of these scores I’ve checked in IMSLP, but it could be that these are all publisher notations. (Presumably, at the end of the line of the Winterreise example, the notator would have preferred putting a beam on the last C flat, extending to the next measure on the next line, but had no ability to typeset a “half bar?”)

I’ve seen this done in a few 20th century pieces, but I’m honestly more of a Schubert-phile, so I haven’t seen nearly as many scores from other composers from the classical and romantic periods. Enough to know it isn’t common.

But how rare was this during these periods, before and after Schubert? Are there examples from major compositions that I just don’t know about due to my narrow score-reading?

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    These scores were engraved, not typeset. You can engrave anything you want. They may well just have decided that it wasn't possible to make it look good.
    – phoog
    Jun 13 at 7:24
  • Interesting. The printed scores I've seen seem so regular, I assumed some advanced type-setting. As a mathematician (by nature, if not profession,) I am well aware of the ways that typesetting limited printed notation, and assumed music had the same limitation. Jun 13 at 13:21
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    Typesetting has been used to produce musical scores and parts since around 1500. Petrucci had a process that required multiple impressions: staves, notes, and text were printed separately, so it was necessary to pay a lot of attention to precise alignment. This proved difficult and did not persist. Later in the 16th century, movable type became popular, leading to staves with telltale gaps between the pieces. This method was popular in 17C Italy and Germany, but examples may be found (especially hymnals, popular songbooks) into the 19C or early 20C.
    – phoog
    Jun 13 at 14:09
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    Copper plate engraving seems to have been popular first in France, but by the late 18C it was the dominant way of printing music. In the notation here the note heads and letters were actually stamped into the plate rather than engraved. There's a video of the engraving process on the Wikipedia page.
    – phoog
    Jun 13 at 14:14
  • I might be off here, but personally I would write the two examples in 6/8 instead. The beat seems to be two beats per bar and this would fit better with note beams over 3 eight notes instead.
    – ghellquist
    Jun 13 at 15:43

3 Answers 3

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I wouldn't consider it to be rare in the Romantic period - it's not in every piece, but it shows up fairly frequently; it didn't take me long to find instances in Chopin (Etudes Op.10, No.3):

Cross-bar beaming in Chopin's Etude Op 10 No.3

in Liszt (Reminiscences de Norma):

Cross-bar beaming in Liszt's Reminiscences de Norma

or in Brahms (Variations on a theme of Paganini):

Cross-bar beaming in Brahms's Variations on a theme of Paganini

It's rarer in the pre-Romantic periods, but it still happens. You can find multiple instances of it in Beethoven - reproduced from early editions on IMSLP below, but visible in the first editions uploaded there as well:

Symphony #8, second movement:

Cross-bar beaming in Beethoven's Symphony #8

Piano sonata #7, second movement:

Cross-bar beaming in Beethoven's piano sonata #7

so it isn't an invention of Schubert. I wouldn't be surprised to see instances of it earlier than Beethoven either, but I haven't found any so far.

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  • Thanks, these are exactly the kinds of examples I was hoping to see. Jun 13 at 13:18
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I don't have a great gauge on how rare beaming across measures was in all Romantic-era music - I do have a strong feeling it was pretty much nonexistent in Baroque and Classical-era music due to their relative lack of syncopation! - but since I wasn't familiar at all with your Schubert examples of beaming across measures despite having seen cross-measure beaming before, I suspect beaming across measures is rare but not unheard of in Romantic-era music.

The first example that popped into my head is the 3rd movement of Alexander Scriabin's Piano Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 6, which starts off with an 8th note beamed across measures and retains this cross-measure-beaming habit persistently (IMSLP): Scriabin's Piano Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Movement 3, Start

A second example is the 1st movement of Charles-Valentin Alkan's Grande Sonate "Les Quatre Ages", "20 ans", which doesn't take long before it uses cross-measure beaming (IMSLP): Alkan's Grande Sonate "Les Quatre Ages", Movement 1 "20 ans", Start

I suspect cross-measure beaming is even more common in 20th-century works, albeit still rare: the Music Stack Exchange question Why are notes beamed across the barline in this piece? amusingly brings up a second example of cross-measure beaming, this time by Igor Stravinsky in his Three Pieces for String Quartet: Stravinsky's Three Pieces for String Quartet

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  • Thanks. 20th century examples are not surprising to me - a lot more metric changes and variation start occurring in the 20th century. I don’t look at a lot of 20th century scores (fewer freely available online,) and I’ve still seen a few examples. Jun 12 at 22:19
  • @Dekkadeci: Why 'amusingly' btw? Jun 13 at 0:34
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    I would not use "lack of syncopation" and "classical-era music" in the same sentence. Syncopation was also prominent, if less so, in baroque music. But beaming was less standardized, so I wouldn't be surprised at all to see beams crossing bar lines in baroque music.
    – phoog
    Jun 13 at 7:28
  • @phoog - Ah, now I recall the infamous syncopated opening of the 1st movement of Mozart's Symphony No. 25 in G minor. I'll edit that sentence a little.
    – Dekkadeci
    Jun 13 at 16:33
  • @Dekkadeci and of Mozart's Requiem, and of many other examples. But these usually do not go over the bar line. On reflection, I think the beams I recall seeing in baroque music were in vocal music, where beaming is used to show text underlay (even then usually not crossing the bar line, but I believe I've seen some examples where it did).
    – phoog
    Jun 13 at 17:19
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I suspect you're right that it was Schubert's innovation rather than his publisher's. (Do publishers innovate?) A way to bring out the syncopation, as you say, or to make the phrasing more emphatic. But it can also be a way to make it fun for the performer(s): something composers try to do more often than is mentioned. (It seems to me something Beethoven considers, for example.)

I'd be surprised to hear of an earlier composer than Schubert doing cross-bar beams.

The end of the Polovtsian Dances popped into my head.

                  Polovtsian Dances

The last movement (marked 'Allegro di molto') of Haydn's 'Surprise' symphony shows how earlier composers might 'spell' a passage to achieve a syncopated result without using cross-bar beams.

enter image description here

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  • Publishers do innovate, unfortunately (for the most part).
    – yo'
    Jun 13 at 8:47
  • @yo': Could you mention some examples? A few years ago most of them were using Sibelius. Jun 13 at 13:50
  • @OldBrixtonian Sibelius is an image editor with some music-related layout engines built in. It's not restrictive enough to limit innovation overmuch. (Lilypond might be, but even then, you can do some weird things.)
    – wizzwizz4
    Jun 13 at 14:14
  • @wizzwizz: I've been using Sibelius since it first appeared: long before it went to The Dark Side. I know what it can do. Innovations in Sibelius - and it seldom comes up with any - aren't really the publishers'. Composers had more freedom in the days of transparencies. They could make their scores visually interesting: great swirling staves etc. I'm not sure how publishers would reprint works of that kind today, but then they don't get performed today so why would they? (Yes alright: I'll take one of my pills!) Jun 13 at 15:38
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    @yo': Haha. Yes. That kind of innovation I have seen. And their letters of apology: 'But we thought that was what you meant'. Paul Dessau's music for The Caucasian Chalk Circle is littered with the words, "Not a mistake!" Jun 14 at 15:09

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