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There is a great answer here about recognizing anacruses, but my question is about how to perform them.

The Wikipedia page has a quote on this:

An anacrusis may also be evoked solely metrical (non-rhythmical ), i. e. tonal, that is, without the downbeat perception enforced by a relative long value.

I’m not sure what exactly that means, but I think it’s saying that the anacrusis is usually sounded/heard as an “upbeat”, contrasting with the emphasis on the following downbeat, while at other times it can seem to (melodically/harmonically/smoothly/naturally) flow right into the first downbeat and where there is no clear perception of a difference in emphasis.

My main question is, in regards to piano performance, should one always emphasize the first downbeat more, or at least slightly de-emphasize the anacrusis relative to the first downbeat? I have two particular examples from classical music in mind: enter image description here (Excerpt from Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat Major, Op. 9/2) enter image description here (Excerpt from Beethoven’s Sonata No. 1, Op. 2/1)

In the Chopin Nocturne, it is pretty intuitive to the ear that the anacrusis should be played as how I suppose they usually are -- de-stressed/de-emphasized relative to the first downbeat -- and in the case of this popular piece, I basically almost always hear it as such. It is like “taking a breath” on the anacrusis (Bb) and then “breathing out” on the first downbeat (G). However, in the opening five notes of the Beethoven Sonata, this notion of breath certainly doesn’t seem to fit -- not least because it is fast-paced, yes, but also it is a “Mannheim Rocket” with strictly ascending notes of the same value. To my memory, I have heard András Schiff, a renowned pianist, comment that the anacrusis should be played like an upbeat (even if just/albeit subtly). I have listened to some recordings by other famous pianists: Barenboim, for example, doesn’t seem to subtly play it as an upbeat (or maybe he does, I can’t hear that precisely), while Schnabel does.

Is this a matter of interpretation in more equivocal cases like the Beethoven Sonata? Is the existence of an anacrusis in cases like the Beethoven Sonata more because of theory or such, or simply just a matter of composition and the composer -- in this case I suppose there are five notes because, well, Beethoven wanted five ascending quarter notes starting on the C, but it’s in 4/4 so there kinda had to be an anacrusis.

Sorry if this question comes off as lengthy and pedantic -- I kinda simply enjoy seeing what other musicians in this knowledgeable community might have to say about more specific stuff like this. I also just really enjoy many of these classical piano pieces and would like to know how to best perform them, whatever that may mean.

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Well, after 50+ years playing classical music, IMO the "Music" section of Wikipedia article is just word salad. I couldn't make any sense of it at all.

The basic point is that the listener (who is assumed to be hearing the piece for the first time ever, even though that is rarely the case in reality) has to be able to figure out the rhythm from what he/she hears. On piano, the main tools you have to work with are

  • relative loudness of the notes
  • articulation - i.e. the length of the note as performed, compared with its nominal written length
  • agogic accent - i.e. altering the length of a beat (or part of a beat), compared with mathematically strict time.

These can vary in "intensity" (and in any combination) from blatant to subliminal.

Also, remember that the listener can't figure out the tempo until he/she has heard at least two notes, and can't figure out the rhythm until he/she has heard (at least) two accents.

The Chopin is straightforward: you want the listener to hear 4 beats in the bar, and the first main beat of the first bar is the second note he/she hears, not the first.

The Beethoven is a bit more complicated, because notation doesn't really correspond to the rhythm. Although it is written in cut time (2 beats per bar), arguably there is really only one beat per bar, and a two-bar rhythm of alternating strong and weak beats - though which beats are the strong and weak ones shifts around a bit as the piece progresses. So, you first have to decide whether the first "main beat" is really on the first complete bar, or the second. Different performers may have different opinions about that, and after the first 4 bars you may think the pattern shifts by a bar anyway.

To throw in another example for free, Bach's BWV 851 (the D minor prelude and fugue in http://imslp.org/wiki/Special:ImagefromIndex/411479) is more complicated again. At the start of the prelude, arguably the "strong beats" are the 2nd and 4th beats of the bar, not the 1st and 3rd. But at the first cadence (in F major, bar 6) the first beat is obviously the strong one. Leading the listener gently down the garden path and then subverting his/her expectations is all part of the game.

In the fugue the basic rhythm is "one TWO three" (the slurs and staccato dots are original, not editorial). Your first task is to make sure the first note is not heard as being on the beat. The second task is to set up the conflict between "the first beat of the bar" and "the main accent". I would probably phrase the start something like this (the tempo is Andante, not Allegro):

enter image description here

  • Interesting, about the garden path and expectations. So, I'm sorry, I liked your answer, but now it seems it is even more complicated depending on the piece, haha. I didn't think it was that possible for a piece in 3/4 to have a BASIC rhythm of "one TWO three" (as opposed to "ONE two three" usually)... according to your accents, wouldn't the first three bars be something like "one TWO three, ONE TWO three, ONE..."? Thanks for the example, though. – fioritura Aug 16 '16 at 4:10
  • Also, do you know why Beethoven would have indicated cut time, then, if it might seem like it should be in common time? (This is also something I've wondered about before -- occasionally I find some pieces in cut time and think to myself, "wait, it sounds just fine if it were common time (like one beat every four quarter notes)." – fioritura Aug 16 '16 at 4:16
  • Beethoven's Fifth starts with an anacrucis that doesn't sound much like one initially. In fact, I think a lot of folk think the anacrucis is beat no.1. – Tim Aug 16 '16 at 10:33

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