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I've loved Shostakovich's 8th quartet for ages but only just now looked at the score. I imagined the second movement would be a sea of black notes given its breakneck pace and was shocked to see that it's mostly whole, half, and quarter notes. The indicated tempo is whole note = 120 (quarter note would then blaze by at 480 b.p.m.). Second movement is about 5 minutes in.

Why didn't he use 16th notes and a more standard tempo?

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    Good question. Maybe he was commissioned as a copyist for his own piece and was paid by the measure… :) Jan 21, 2023 at 1:31
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    My guess: 1) Visual consistency with the notation from the 1st movement, 2) Easier to read without lots of beams cluttering up the page.
    – Aaron
    Jan 21, 2023 at 1:44
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    P.S. You might consider making this a more general question, using the Shostakovich as an example of the larger idea: why use long notes instead of short. (But be careful to make clear the question is not about the time signature itself but rather the choice of notational values.)
    – Aaron
    Jan 21, 2023 at 1:46
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    @nuggethead Understandable. I've seen enough scores with long notes played fast and short notes played slowly, that perhaps I've just stopped noticing. (With regard to the latter, see the second movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata Op. 2, No. 3)
    – Aaron
    Jan 21, 2023 at 2:19
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    @phoog Oh, good point! Writing all those beams by hand .... Yikes!
    – Aaron
    Jan 21, 2023 at 3:44

1 Answer 1

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First of all you should note that this is notated alla breve, so comparing the time to quarters per minutes serves little purpose. Could this have been notated in 2/4? Yes, absolutely! Writing it like this though makes writing and engraving a lot easier, because it avoids beams.

Furthermore it is not an uncommon practice in orchestral music to resort to bigger note values with faster tempi. Just consider the famous Scherzo from Beethoven’s 9th:

enter image description here

This is notated in 3/4 with a MM of whole bar = 116, which would account to whopping 348 quarters per minute, with the later Presto section in 2/2 accounting to (disputed) 464 quarters per minute.

The final Presto of Beethoven 5 is notated alla breve with whole measure = 112, accounting to 448 quarters per minute.

And yes, these are quite extreme cases, but it shows that orchestral musicians are not entirely unused to such notation, as all of this cases could be notated in half the tempo with halved note values. And yes, Shostakovitch’s tempo is even a bit more extreme than that, but not by far, and considering the nature of the piece it is not unreasonable for it to be extreme.

Of course there are many reasons for why one does this: It could even simply be tradition to notate certain types of pieces in certain time signatures, and then the tempo gradually increased. But you need to keep in mind that with increasing number of staves notation quickly becomes increasingly complex, and having beams everywhere does not really help there.

So arguable Shostakovitch could have notated this differently, but it is not like this notation here is particularly weird or uncommon. In fact this is not the only time Shostakovitch resorts to big note values for fast pieces. Take his Db fugue: It is indicated at 138 dotted half notes per minute, or 414 quarters. And if you look at the score I think it is quite clear that notating this with half note values in half the tempo would absolutely make this much less transparent to read.

In this particular case the benefit is a bit less. Compare for yourself:

enter image description here

The second one is just a bit more cluttered, but not to the extent that it would be really hard to read.

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