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The Rest Is Silence

January 03, 1988

In Endpapers (The Book Review, Dec. 27), you speculated about the meaning of the fermata over the final rest of the Beethoven "Pathetique" piano sonata. You concluded that its meaning must be mystical, or at least symbolic.

While I don't dispute the truth and the poetry of your conclusion, I must point out that, to a performer, there is a very concrete interpretation of this fermata. After striking the final, fortissimo chord, the pianist should remain quietly motionless as long as possible. The objective is to avoid any gesture that will signal to the audience that the performance is over. Ideally, the result will be an extended silence before the audience begins to applaud. Since the hearers, in effect, determine the length of the final rest, they collaborate with the pianist in the interpretation of the sonata; surely this was Beethoven's intention.

In the Schirmer's Library edition of the Beethoven sonatas, the following comments by the editors support my understanding of the fermata: "A ritardando in this epilogue would be in bad taste; the tempo must be strictly sustained to the close . . . (This is) almost the sole instance where this superlative (the final fff ) is employed by the Master. Hence follows the necessity of an unusually powerful crescendo in the preceding run.

LIONEL STERN

Los Angeles

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