Following on from last week’s post on rests, I’m going to move on to the fermata – or the pause. We find this marked on rests as well as on notes, and also on bar lines. What is a fermata, and how long do we hold it for?

Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians tells us the fermata “signifies that the note over which it is placed should be held on beyond its natural duration”, but how long is a piece of string? The pause might indicate nothing much more than a lift or a short breath, or something much more obvious and dramatic. The good news is there is no fixed rule.

Some fermatas are vocal in inspiration, reflecting how a singer would hold on to a special note in a line in bel canto aria. If you are not familiar with this particular type of operatic style you’re going to find it very hard to bring off the fermata at the end of the first paragraph of Liszt’s Un sospiro, for example.

Notice how Claudio Arrau spreads out the semiquavers at the end bar 11 to accommodate the singing line as the F is held.

Harold Bauer does it differently, by suspending the accompaniment until the top F is ready to resolve, and playing the semiquavers with a forward direction over the bar line.

On the piano we have to factor in the natural decay of tone – meaning that every sound we make has a finite life before we end it or allow it to blend into silence. Sometimes we want to make the most of the silences after we finish a piece by holding on until there is no sound left at all. In Rachmaninov’s C# minor Prelude, we can absolutely hold on until the last chord disappears. Don’t feel self conscious about doing this – you will create a magic moment for your audience to savour and they will thank you for it. Keep your body completely still, and release the keys very slowly for maximum effect.

I hope in last week’s post on the rests in Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata bar 9, I made the point clearly that the silence was significant – that mere counting out of the beats is not enough. What do we make of the fermatas over rests at the very ends of movements? When I was young, this struck me as absurd until I realised that we can hold the tension in our gesture and body language to show that while the last sound has been played the music hasn’t finished yet. Often there is a “missing” extra chord or beat that we expect will end the phrase, but which Beethoven leaves out. Instead of sound we are met with silence. At the end of the first movement of the Sonata in D, op 10 no 3 we hold the tension at the fermata by keeping our hands over the keyboard until the last bar has been accounted for.

If there is a fermata over a note in most cases we need to hold onto the keys, but what happens in our imagination? The sound will always be dying away, but is the musical intention a diminuendo? I want to look at two long notes in this movement that have fermatas. In bar 22 I listen to the decay of the sound, and when the ff has subsided to the dynamic level of I know I am ready to begin the next phrase. I use the fermata to match up tone.

Towards the start of the development section there is a long held A. This note is the dominant of the home key of D (in this case the tonic minor) but it ends up functioning as a pivot note, becoming the leading note of a new key, Bb major (we only know this in bar 133 though). Even though an actual crescendo is impossible here, an artistic crescendo – the illusion of getting louder – is absolutely possible. I communicate this through my body language and my placement of what happens after the double bar line.

In neither instance does the flow of the music stop on the fermata – something is happening energetically.

Changing the landscape rather, let’s move to the opening of the first movement of Scriabin’s Sonata-Fantasie (no 2 in G# minor) – one of the most exquisite movements I know. In the first 4 bars we find 3 fermatas, all placed over rests but with the pedal held through. Making sense of these can be quite disconcerting for the player who just wants to get on with things, until the poetic meaning is realised.

If I move my hands from the old position and cover the new, I am giving the game away. It just feels and looks wrong. For me the secret is to release my hands but keep them in place, just above the keys I have let go of. As I stay there, I feel as though I am musing on what to do next. In the spirit of fantasy, I pretend I just don’t know what’s coming. When inspiration strikes me, I move directly to the notes of next short phrase and play it in one gesture.

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When dealing with a fermata we need to figure out what it means, and as we’ve seen it can mean several different things depending on context.

Returning to our Beethoven op 10 no 3, I can’t resist sharing this clip where Daniel Barenboim recounts his memories of two great pianists – Edwin Fischer and Claudio Arrau – in which each master comes up with the exact opposite meaning for the finale of this sonata. Fischer believed the three-note motive that stops and starts was an example of Beethoven’s humour; Arrau saw it as an expression of tragedy. What lesson can we learn from this? There is no such thing as the one true interpretation for any piece or music, and no one correct way of realising it at the piano. Provided we are totally convinced by what we are doing, we stand a good chance of being convincing.

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