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The “Ready… Set… Go!” phrase structure in Classical Era music

Ready… Set… GO! We all know the joyful anticipation of that exciting phrase. Whether getting ready for a “race” with my granddaughter or waiting for the gun at the start of a half-marathon, just the thought of it brings a bit of an adrenaline rush. This mindset transcends culture, space, and time, and presents itself structurally in Classical Era music. Let’s dig in to discover how the anticipation of “ready…set…GO!” is captured through composers’ clever use of phrase structure to catch the listener’s attention and move the music forward.

Few people can say they’ve never heard the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with its “ready…set…GO!” driving two-measure “ti – ti – ti – tah” that is restated a step lower for three measures, and then takes off in a sixteen-measure whirlwind. Experiencing formal structure is a journey and the journey is carefully crafted. Excitement is created by manipulating the structure “in good taste.”

Good taste starts with Vierhebigkeit as Johann Philipp Kirnberger describes in The Art of Strict Musical Composition (1771): “The best melodies are always those whose phrases have four measures.” But, that’s the typical, predictable route. As I heard Malcolm Bilson say, “all great composers follow the rules…most of the time!” Let’s see how this square formula can be manipulated.

In The Classical Form (1998), William E. Caplin describes the hybrid structure benignly as “presentation + continuation”. But to get at the pathos, the energy, the excitement, we need to feel that we are going somewhere. The below diagram reveals the vibrant momentum that is palpable in great works:

1 + 1 + 2 Structure. Beethoven, Twelve Minuets WoO 7, no. 11, mm. 1-8. Copyright 1990 by G. Henle Verlag, Munich.

This formula lends itself beautifully to the forward propulsion in Classical pathos. Taking it to the literature, let’s start small, with a Beethoven Minuet. Listen to the energetic surge in the simple 1 + 1 + 2 structure.

1 + 1 + 2 Structure. Beethoven, Twelve Minuets WoO 7, no. 11, mm. 1-8. Copyright 1990 by G. Henle Verlag, Munich.

This formula is also found in many sonatas such as those by Beethoven.

2 + 2 + 4 Structure. Beethoven, Piano Sonata op. 2, no. 2/I, mm 1-8. Copyright 2007 by The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music.

Again, the momentum created is audibly compelling.

2 + 2 + 4 Structure. Beethoven, Piano Sonata op. 2, no. 2/I, mm 1-8. Copyright 2007 by The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music.

The more scores I study, the more I find a preponderance of “ready…set…GO!” and begin to wonder if this clever manipulation of Vierhebigkeit isn’t the norm, rather than a hybrid structure.

Haydn and Beethoven take it to a whole new level. For instance, in the third movement of Haydn’s Piano Sonata Hob. XVI:50/III, the opening section throws the listener for a complete loop (particularly a Classical Era listener who is anticipating some semblance of balance). Rather than an expected four-measure question followed by a four-measure answer or even a 2 + 2 + 4 “ready…set…GO!” plan, the phrases follow a 7 + 3 + 13 plan which I call calculated chaos. Give it a listen.

7 + 3 + 13 Structure. Haydn, Piano Sonata Hob XVI:50/III, mm. 1-24. Copyright 1990 by G. Henle Verlag, Munich.

Or Beethoven, who takes the norm and demonstrates his manipulative genius in Piano Sonata, op. 31, no. 1. In the first movement, the phrase structure found in measures 136-193 of the development is perfectly yet atypically crafted. Each of the first three phrases outline tonic, supertonic, dominant in ascending key centers (B-flat, C, and D) before settling on D for 32 measures, where tension ever-increases by starting with the dominant, then layering the dominant-seventh, and finally, the dominant-ninth to take the tension as far as he can before the final return to the tonic key in the recapitulation. The Skeleton Table plots out the overall plan.

Skeleton Structure. Beethoven, Piano Sonata op. 31, no.1/I, mm. 134-193.

Listen to the carefully crafted frame Beethoven sets down.

Skeleton Structure. Beethoven, Piano Sonata op. 31, no.1/I, mm. 134-193.

Now, over this frame, Beethoven creates an exciting, frenzied journey from development to the recapitulation.

Beethoven, Piano Sonata op. 31, no.1/I, mm. 134-193. Copyright 2007 by The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music.

Perhaps you are now ready to discover your own “ready…set…GO!” to bring new energy and vitality to your performing. Following these three suggestions will make your job easier:

  • Work from Urtext scores to ensure you are decoding from what the composer wrote.
  • Don’t dismiss small forms; they didn’t. Start simple with minuets and dances. There are dozens and dozens left to us by Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart.
  • Dissect the score down to bare bones—bass line alone, first note of each measure, bass and soprano—to determine harmonic function and structural direction.

Awareness and use of this “ready…set…GO!” phrase structure tool not only brings historical veracity to one’s playing, it invigorates the experience with a sense of joyful anticipation from the first notes. Grab a score, dig deeply to uncover the bare bones, and perform your own “ready…set…GO!”

Feature image: Fortepiano by Donna Gunn, used with permission.

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