Music and the Heartbeat

Brun-nurse-stethoscope-sm-200x300Repetition is based on body rhythms, so we identify with the heartbeat, or with walking, or with breathing.

-Karlheinz Stockhausen

In 2008, researchers at the University of Illinois medical school discovered that the 103 beat-per-minute pulse of the Bee Gees’ 1977 disco hit Stayin’ Alive provided the perfect tempo for resuscitating the heart through CPR. From the satisfying groove of a disco or techno beat to a Bach Brandenburg Concerto, musical rhythm has long been tied to our internal rhythm. Pulse is what makes music come alive.

In Renaissance and Baroque music, tempo often grew out of divisions of the heartbeat. Listen to Handel’s Water Music and see if you can feel this sense of heartbeat. Then, listen to a few more pieces which are directly tied to the heartbeat:

Beethoven’s Fourth

Hector Berlioz described the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, Op. 60 this way:

 As for the adagio, it defies analysis… So pure are the forms, so angelic the expression of the melody and so irresistibly tender, that the prodigious skill of the craftsmanship is completely hidden from view. From the very first bars one is gripped by emotion which by the end has reached an unbearable pitch of intensity. It is only among one of the giants of poetry that it is possible to find something to compare to this sublime movement from the giant of music. Nothing resembles more the impression made by this adagio than the feelings one experiences when reading the touching episode of Francesca di Rimini in the Divina Commedia, the narrative of which Virgil cannot hear without bursting into tears, and which at the last verse causes Dante to fall, just as a dead body collapses. This movement seems to have been breathed by the archangel Michael when, seized with a fit of melancholy, he contemplated the universe, standing on the threshold of the empyrean.

The persistent musical heartbeat which runs throughout the movement begins quietly in second violins. As the first violins enter with their singing melody (0:20), notice that this underlying heartbeat motive remains. We might be tempted to write it off as insignificant rhythmic filler, but it’s too relentlessly insistent. Then, suddenly, this motive explodes into the foreground, played by the entire orchestra (1:03) in a powerful unison.

As the movement progresses, listen to the way the heartbeat moves around the orchestra from the double bass and cello (3:38) to the solo bassoon (6:16) to the tympani (10:37):

Schumann’s Liederkreis

In the fourth song of Robert Schumann’s Liederkreis, Op. 24, published in 1840, the repetitive sound of the heartbeat is compared to the sound of nails being hammered into a coffin. Here is a translation of the dark text by Heinrich Heine.

Fauré’s First Violin Sonata

The second movement of Gabriel Fauré’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in A Major, Op. 1 opens with a heartbeat rhythm. A similar rhythm can be heard in the opening of his Nocturne No. 7 in C-sharp major, Op. 74.

Here is a live 2013 performance at New York’s Merkin Concert Hall by violinist Giora Schmidt and pianist Rohan De Silva. This is such a great performance that I couldn’t resist including the entire piece. The second movement begins at 9:56:

Mahler’s Irregular Heartbeat

Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 (“Pathétique”) depict failing heartbeats and the inevitable approach of death. Leonard Bernstein heard a similar failing heartbeat in the opening of Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. Mahler was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat in 1907, four years before his death. The Ninth Symphony, written between 1908 and 1909, was the last symphony Mahler completed. At moments, it veers sharply towards the world of atonality. While the opening movement is centered in D major, the final movement ends a half step lower in D-flat. The heartbeat motive, heard at the opening of the first movement, returns later in the development section in an ominous fortissimo:

Zoltán Pongrácz’s Mariphonia

Let’s finish up in the late twentieth century world of electronic music. Hungarian composer Zoltán Pongrácz’s 1972 tape piece, Mariphonia manipulates recorded sound, including the human heartbeat (5:39). The progressive rock band Pink Floyd used a similar recorded heartbeat on the album, The Dark Side of the Moon, released in 1973.

The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe to match your nature with Nature.

-Joseph Campbell

Mendelssohn’s Octet: Youth Meets Maturity

The original manuscript of Mendelssohn's Octet
The original manuscript of Mendelssohn’s Octet

If you’re beyond your teenage years, take a moment and try to remember what you were doing when you were 16 years old. Then listen to Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat major, Op. 20 and consider that this is the music of a 16-year-old. It brims with youthful joy, virtuosity, vitality and a playful sense of delight in showing off. At the same time, there isn’t a hint of immaturity in this music. Amazingly, as a teenager, Mendelssohn was tapping into the deepest source of musical creativity.

The Octet’s final movement, built on an eight part fugue, quotes “And He Shall Reign” from the “Hallelujah” Chorus of Handel’s Messiah. Mendelssohn boldly interrupts Handel’s original motive with his own ending. There’s no way of knowing if the quote was intentional or subconscious. Throughout his life, Mendelssohn was drawn to the music of Handel and J.S. Bach. At age 20 he conducted a performance of the St. Matthew Passion, which inspired a renewal of interest in Bach’s music. You might hear a momentary hint of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos in the development section of the Scherzo (in the passage following 23:39).

Completed in October of 1825, the Octet is scored for four violins, two violas and two cellos. In the score Mendelssohn writes:

This Octet must be played by all the instruments in symphonic orchestral style. Pianos and fortes must be strictly observed and more strongly emphasized than is usual in pieces of this character.

Whether I’m performing or listening to the Octet, I’m always amazed by the dramatic action going on in the inner voices. For example, listen to the explosive scale lines around 3:04 in the first movement. Throughout the piece, the eight distinct voices may suggest unique personas. Listen to the way they interact and converse with one another. Amid the final movement’s dense counterpoint, listen for the moment toward the end of the movement when Mendelssohn brings back fragments of the Scherzo (29:52).

Here is a recording of the Amati String Orchestra:

  1. 00:00 – Allegro moderato ma con fuoco
  2. 14:08 – Andante
  3. 21:22- Scherzo
  4. 25:52- Presto