Most anacruses are less than a bar long. Often a one note pick up. An example that brings up my question is 'Fur Elise', which seems to have a pick up which lasts for four beats (in 3 time), before the tune proper starts. Is it a fact that an anacrucis can last, well, as long as a composer wants?

  • I believe that Für Elise actually ends each phrase in a 6/4 bar, only, Beethoven didn't write it out because he though meter changes would confuse players. – leftaroundabout Aug 17 '15 at 13:48

When your editor suggests calling it a "prelude", you might be overdoing it. As a rule of thumb, it has to fit in a pickup truck.

Joking aside, the only hard limit is what your editor is willing to accept. Usually the mark of an anacrusis is that it fits with the beat: for a 3/4 beat, that puts the plausible limit at something like 2/2 when starting with a partial hemiola. If you start with an actual unmetered cadenza or something which might more reasonably be called a meter change, limits become fuzzy.

But all those are common-sense limits, not hard music theoretic ones.


The situation here is that time signature and the bar lines don't correspond to the "beat" of the music. We don't know why Beethoven notated the piece in 3/4 time, but rhythmically there is one beat per bar not three, and the first bar line corresponds to a weak beat not a strong one. So you are correct that, with Beethoven's notation, the anacrusis is four quarter-notes long.

Beginner pianists might not prefer the piece to be written in 6/4 time using half the number of bar lines, or in 6/8 time using 16th notes, but those notations would make the "problem" disappear.

Beethoven habitually used this type of notation in faster pieces. The scherzo of the ninth symphony has the instruction "Ritmo di tre battute" (i.e. three bars of 3/4 are really one bar of 9/4) and later "Ritmo di quattro battute" (i.e. four bars are really one bar of 12/4). See http://imslp.org/wiki/Special:ImagefromIndex/108612 pages 9 to 12.

  • According to en.wikipedia.org/wiki/F%C3%BCr_Elise#/media/… the first edition was notated in 3/8. Arguably that first barline shouldn't be there I'd say - just have a long bar to avoid anybody thinking there should be a strong beat in the middle of that opening line, but I don't know the conventions of Beethoven's time (too late for me) - how strong was the idea then that bar lines add emphasis? – Matthew Walton Aug 17 '15 at 15:29
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    FWIW in the baroque and early classical era it was quite common for notation in common time (C time signature) to shift the pattern of "strong" and "weak" beats by half a bar in written-out repeated sections of music. Looking at the score in your wiki image, I had forgotten that the two-bar rhythm "skips a bar" at the second-time repeat. That rhythmic feature appears elsewhere in Beethoven. I suppose that might account for the "short bar" notation. – user19146 Aug 17 '15 at 15:56
  • Actually, there is a more radical solution to all this. If you ignore "performance tradition" and take the first bar line as the strong beat (so that the first phrases end on weak beats) the entire piece falls neatly into alternating strong and weak bars, makes musical sense, and doesn't contradict anything in the original score. – user19146 Aug 17 '15 at 16:21
  • The same issue appears in "On Top Of Old Smoky", which is also generally written in 3/4 but has a four-quarter-note anacrusis. If one were to notate it in 6/8 or 12/8, the problem would go away. I don't think 6/4 would work for that piece or Für Elise, since 6/4 generally "feels" like three pairs of quarter notes rather than two groups of three. – supercat Aug 17 '15 at 16:49

I'm not sure what kind of official answer you're looking for. Four minutes, 33 seconds?

In Rhapsody in Blue, there's a trill and a glissando, both of which can be stretched as long as the clarinetist wants.

  • Length in bars was what I had in mind. Rubato is another subject ! – Tim Aug 17 '15 at 8:15

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