The Most Powerful Effect in Music – The Grand Pause

Mozart is said to have declared that the most powerful effect in music was – no music. That is to say, a skillfully placed rest, or perhaps more specifically, a “grand pause.”

It is strange that this fact is so little appreciated by the ordinary run of musicians; the cutting short of rests, especially those intended by the composer to be of dramatic significance, is so common as almost to pass without comment, although the earnest observance of them would add immensely to the effectiveness of the performance. This fault is not entirely confined to amateurs; professionals whose work is almost entirely of a solo nature are likewise prone to it in many cases.

The best cure for it is habitual practice in ensemble playing, or in orchestral playing under a really good conductor. Lacking this, much may be achieved by a resolute counting of time.

One of the most familiar examples is found in the opening measures of Beethoven’s Sonata, Op. 2, No. 3.

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Here the rest on counts “three” and “four” serves to fix the opening motive on the mind and arouse expectancy for what follows, but if the player yields in the least to a careless tendency to cut the rest short, the only impression made is that of uncertainty and rhythmic deformity.

An almost parallel case is found in the well-known Lenten hymn, St. Andrew of Crete, which suffers mutilation at the hands of many careless organists.

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As we have quoted Mozart’s opinion in the first paragraph of this article, it seems but fair to furnish an example from his works, and we present an excerpt from the minuet of his violin sonata in E minor. (No. 4). Here a charming little melody which first appears with a half-close (just before the entry of the violin) in the following inconspicuous form:

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Is greatly enhanced in beauty on its later appearance by the enlargement of the half-close and the introduction of rests. One should observe these rests with most minute accuracy.

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Analogous to the effect of actual “rests” is the conscientious rendering of a group of staccato notes, for a staccato note is really nothing more than a very short note followed by a very short rest, the two together making up the exact nominal value of the printed note. A very common failing is to omit the “rest” (if we may so term it) which should come after the last note of a staccato group as certainly as between the previous notes.

It would be well if piano teachers more commonly gave the same attention to this small, but important details that is observed by good violin teachers. In Kreutzer’s Fourth Etude, great stress is always laid on the fact that there must be a decided break between the last sixteenth note and the half note which follows:

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(For the benefit of those unfamiliar with violin technic we should explain that the curve used in this example is not regarded as a legato sign, but merely as an indication that the notes are taken in one bowing, the staccato remaining as decided as ever.)

Sometimes a great artist may produce a wonderful effect by the skilful insertion of a very minute pause in a place not specifically indicated by the composer, yet wholly in sympathy with the composer’s idea. The writer still retains a vivid memory of such a proceeding on the part of the great Russian violinist, Adolf Brodsky. Although unable at the present moment to verify the source of this quotation, he is able to give it from memory with sufficient accuracy to illustrate the principle:

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A perceptible break after the last sixteenth note caused the long note which followed to have the effect of being wonderfully and powerfully accented – an accent so intense, that any attempt to have produced it merely by the force of the bow would have resulted in an unlovely harshness of tone.

There are some passages which admit well of this treatment in the Finale of Beethoven’s Quintet in C major.

We have chosen several illustrations from violin music because small points of phrasing are more distinctly audible as rendered by the violin bow, but they are equally important in piano music. It is a very common fault with pianists, both old and young, to slur the last note of a staccato passage. Remember that the last note marked staccato is every bit as staccato as the others.