As I arrange the Scherzo movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony for a piano quintet(though I might expand this out to a sextet and use a double bass in place of a second cello), I notice something odd at the first fortissimo, repeated forte dynamic markings. I have seen repeated forte markings before, but usually this is after a dynamic change has occured within the measure(for example fortepiano for several measures followed by continuous forte, sometimes that looks like repeated forte dynamics until you zoom in and see that there are in fact piano dynamics marked right next to the forte dynamics).

However, that is definitely not the case in the first fortissimo of the Beethoven's Ninth Scherzo. Beethoven is definitely wanting to keep it at a loud dynamic here.

There are 3 reasons that I can think of as to why Beethoven decided to mark repeated forte dynamics in the first fortissimo. Those are:

  1. He was marking sforzando to get across accents within the fortissimo but forgot the s, so every edition afterwards simply marked forte in those bars, not knowing that Beethoven really meant sforzando and not forte
  2. He wanted a diminuendo to forte, but didn't bother marking diminuendo, figuring that the orchestra would diminuendo to forte just from seeing the repeated forte dynamics
  3. He didn't think the orchestra would sustain the fortissimo from that one fortissimo marking, so he used repeated forte dynamics to tell the orchestra "Keep it loud, sustain that fortissimo that I marked at the beginning of the passage."

However, none of these make sense when you look at his other symphonies or his piano sonatas(which sometimes get that symphonic orchestral sonority). His fifth symphony has repeated sforzandos, similar to the repeated forte of the Beethoven's Ninth Scherzo, but with the s preceding the f, suggesting that the repeated forte dynamic isn't just a case of Beethoven forgetting to write the s.

Also, when I see repeated dynamics being used to indicate a more gradual change in dynamic, usually, I will see repeated piano for a diminuendo and repeated forte or sforzando for creschendo. For an example of this in Beethoven, look no further than his Piano Sonata no. 1 in F minor. In the first theme, there are 2 sforzando markings. These are generally interpreted as being a creschendo to the fortissimo at the end of the first sentence in the theme, not just strong, forceful accents within an otherwise quiet passage.

The third reason seems to be the most probable to me, but then again, his other symphonies clearly show that you only need 1 or possibly 2 fortissimo markings to sustain a fortissimo dynamic for a significant length. Here is the passage in question showing the repeated forte dynamics:

enter image description here

You can see that 4 bars into the fortissimo, the repeated forte starts. This repeated forte keeps going for 16 bars. That's about twice the length of the sforzando passage from Beethoven's Fifth. After those 16 bars, there is a fortepiano marking.

What is Beethoven trying to get across here with 16 bars of repeated forte dynamics in the first fortissimo passage of the Scherzo of his ninth symphony? Is it a sforzando? Is it telling the orchestra to sustain that fortissimo?

  • Do we have access to Beethoven's manuscript or autograph/holograph for this symphony movement? It's Beethoven's 9th; I hope this is the case.
    – Dekkadeci
    Feb 24, 2020 at 11:12
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    I recommend -- strongly -- listening to 3 or 4 orchestral recordings and observing the dynamics as performed. Feb 24, 2020 at 16:46
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    What is the source of this particular edition? The editors may well have changed the markings from the original. Feb 24, 2020 at 16:48
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    @CarlWitthoft The edition for which I am showing an image is the Beethoven's Werke edition. And yes, if you look up Symphony no. 9 on IMSLP and click on the Beethoven result that pops up, you will find Beethoven's manuscript of the entire symphony, even with a cover saying Symphony no. 9. It's like 400 or so pages long, and I have no idea where the Scherzo starts in those pages. And I find Beethoven's manuscript to be hard to read in general, what with all the crossing out and worse penmanship than most other composers(for example, when I see a Mozart manuscript, I can normally read it well).
    – Caters
    Feb 24, 2020 at 18:50
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    @CarlWitthoft I listened to 3 recordings by 3 different orchestras and I honestly don't hear a dynamic change other than the textural dynamic change of no tympani to tympani strike. That is unlike the similarly notated sforzando passage in Beethoven's Fifth, where I feel and hear a dynamic change with every sforzando, not just the creschendo, but like another layer of subito forte on top of it. It could be that at fortissimo, this subito forte can't be heard as well or it could be that subito forte when already at fortissimo isn't practical and the forte marks get ignored as a result.
    – Caters
    Feb 24, 2020 at 19:44

3 Answers 3


It's kind of obvious what it means: every bar starts equally loud.

That is not the way any human musician would have been be likely to play it, without the instruction. Bars usually combine into phrases.

At other points in the movement Beethoven explicitly writes "ritmo di tre battute" and "di quattro battute" when he doesn't want this effect.

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    If it were that obvious, the question wouldn't be asked. Beethoven is (in)famous for dramatic dynamic shifts, and we need to be careful how to interpret his markings. Feb 24, 2020 at 16:47

I'm thinking back to the Bach cello suites. No dynamic markings until number 6 suite first movement, Then appear f and p. Would he be indicating as for another register or keyboard of a harpsichord? That would mean a gap in loudness or character.

Those early keyboards had trouble making a note in a line stand out the way a human voice or cello can do. Haydn and Mozart. It can be hard to tell their dot over a note whether it be more like a spike which Louis Spohr used in his Violin School to mean change the bow direction - a way of making a note stand out. On a harpsichord that can be done by shortening it - a dot or spike over it.

I suggest adding emphasis as a dot after a note adds duration to it. So for that controversy, now for forte mean louder rather than an absolute level Beethoven used the mf marking scarcely. Some people say because he was a very gruff character.

If I take f and p as relative I don't have to worry about that. Sempre p could mean always softer or sempre pp as in Brahms sometimes (St Anthony Variations) over a long passage would give a long exciting diminuendo. Nothing in a voice is really constant and Casals calls diminuendo the life of music. Beethoven's extra f marks each bar when the music has already got louder would be putting life into the bars - the notes are anyway never constant loudness.

That's probably how a good musician plays anyway no two repeated notes in a bar are ever the same force.

And ff could also mean the general sound level feels greater to the composer since more instruments are playing - say a tutti in older music. Or he is putting more notes in his chords on a keyboard sometimes.

Watch Glenn Gould discussing with Yehudi Menhuin that pp does not have to mean ultra-soft in Beethoven's 10th Piano and Violin Sonata


It is a common to play a repeated phrase more quietly the second time (as an echo). As the first 4 bars of the forte section in the top line (many of the other lines also quote themselves to an extent) repeat in the next 4 bars, a conductor might mistakenly expect such an echo. Beethoven clearly wants none of that.

As for why Beethoven didn't write sempre forte and move on, I have no idea, but I have 2 rather bad guesses: first, Scherzo is Italian for Joke, so ... maybe not every joke is for the audience. Second, it's possible that in this or another contemporary piece, Beethoven's desire for sempre forte was thwarted by a section or conductor and he put these markings in to emphasize his desire that they entire phrase be loud.

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