BORING is the worst offence!
BORING IS A TECHNICAL TERM
It is not a description of a person. You could be the most interesting, lively, engaging person and the performance could still be boring.
A boring performance might stem from confusion; ineffectiveness; a wrong tempo; a misunderstanding of character; lack of shape etc.
Since we set out on this journey, we have begun to explore many ways to mitigate the tendency for music to be played in a boring fashion. Christmas carols; hymns in church; children’s performances and even performances of great masterpieces like Beethoven’s 9th tend to be played or sung in a mechanical, BORING fashion because essential decisions of shaping have not been made.
The clear articulation of 4-bar phrasing, which underlies all our music has opened one door. Here is another:
EVERY NOTE EITHER GOES SOMEWHERE OR COMES FROM SOMEWHERE.
Mahler 1st Symphony is an exception.
When this page of my score was posted on Facebook, it got over 28,000 views.
The very opening of Mahler’s First symphony – seven octaves of A from lowest A on the double bass through all the string instruments up to the stratosphere in the first violins – must enter imperceptibly, with no impulse whatsoever. It represents an image of stasis – the coming of dawn, or possibly the tuning of the universe, which has been there since the beginning of time. I often say that all that happens at the opening of the Mahler 1st is that God turns up the volume just a little bit.
When I conduct that opening, I do something rather naughty that my teacher Gaspar Cassadó told me he saw Toscanini do at the beginning of an opera. I conduct a slow silent bar before anyone comes in. I don’t know why it works so well, but it never fails. It certainly helps me to set a frame around the scene, but it also gives the players a silence they can join, and the audience, seeing the conductor begin to conduct, strains to hear the music that exists in the silence. In any event it sets a beautiful atmosphere for the music to unfold.
Of course, when the movement gets going the direction is restored – the imitation bird-calls are falling gestures, NOT equal notes. The most virtuoso wind players can even suggest a diminuendo as each call fades away. The players of BPYO are doing a great job with this most treacherous of moments, but in a couple of cases the lower note is actually louder than the first note.
DIRECTION IS ALL!
Here’s another door:
When we sang Christmas Carols as children, I always thought that the name of the good king in the song was Wences: “Good King Wences last looked out,” we sang, or so I thought.
I imagined that the window was rather high and the poor fellow probably had to first go down into the basement to get a ladder. The last time he had taken the trouble to perform this time-consuming exercise was way back the previous winter, around the time of the Feast of St. Stephen (New Year’s Day), when snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.
Later on, I came to realize that the name of the gentleman was Wenceslas and he probably looked out several times a day, including on the aforementioned Feast of St. Stephen, when …etc
“What belongs to what” makes all the difference.
The reason I was so confused about the king’s identity was because the tempo was so slow that we were putting an emphasis on every syllable (probably with an accompanying gesture of the head). At a slightly faster tempo it becomes possible to shape the phrases so that their meaning is clear. Moreover, by the use of timing and dynamics we can make it still clearer.
Now speak the phrase and you will see that you can make the meaning crystal clear by squeezing the syllables of Wenceslas close together, so that there is no ambiguity about what “las” belongs to, and then take a little bit of time before articulating the word “looked”. You can add even more clarity by fading away slightly at the end of Wenceslas and then adding a little emphasis on “looked” (with slight raise of the eyebrows) and you will have every 5 year old growing up with absolute clarity about the name of the king in the story.
Let’s see how this approach works with the immensely complex and ravishingly beautiful theme that opens the slow movement of Brahms’s Second symphony. But first let me warn you that this involves EXTREMELY detailed analysis. It may seem strange in the midst of a catastrophic pandemic, social unrest, talk of civil war and financial collapse to be talking about the minutest details of phrasing in a piece of music written over a hundred years ago. But these works of art endlessly preoccupy musicians as they practice and experiment and fuss over every detail. Think of these as notes to practice. Not just for cellists, but ALL you conductors!
So let’s go!
Follow the piano reduction for reference: click here.
The first F# is one of the most gorgeous notes for cello anywhere in the orchestral repertoire and when played by 10 or 12 great cellists it can melt the hardest of hearts. Dvorak used the same note to open the heartwarming second theme in the first movement of his cello concerto and Haydn for the first note of his radiant D major concerto.
It enters with the accompaniment of two horns, violas and double basses – all warm instruments – all playing F# – and, most surprisingly, the tuba in its lower octave. The presence of the tuba in this movement is remarkable. Can you recollect any other slow movement of Brahms that utilizes the tuba? Its presence suffuses the whole opening with warmth. A wise conductor would look over at the tuba player before ushering in the first phrase, both to welcome and to reassure this least frequent guest at a Brahms party.
It is tempting, because of its beauty and the fact that it is the highest note, to treat the first note as a down-beat. Indeed, it is often played (and heard) that way i.e. as if it was a 4-beat bar starting on F# and the bar-line had been shifted to the left. But, of course, its place as the 4th beat of the bar means Brahms wanted it as an up-beat. He would certainly have been aware of the ambiguity caused by having the highest (and best sounding) note on the weakest beat of the bar. That is the secret of Brahms. Ambiguity is the name of his game.
So the F# leads to the E and then falls from the E to the B#. The B# must end, without any suggestion of a crescendo or a join to the next phrase, which repeats the tragic, heavily weighted F#/E, but this time the phrase resolves to a resigned B natural. It’s a complete statement and requires a little time at the end of it and a slight diminuendo to create a sense of completion and expectation.
The tempo must be broad enough to be an Adagio (though ma non troppo, i.e. not too much, so that it moves enough to allow the two phrases to be felt in ONE, parallel and belonging together. It must be conducted in 4, though the occasional extra 1/8th is fine – for instance at the beginning, because the rising line in the bassoon needs help in order to be exact. The same is true for the tricky rhythm in the second bar. It mustn’t be allowed to become a triplet.
It isn’t easy to come up with a suitable bowing for the passage, but that is what conductors have to do. In choosing bowings one has to take into account the desired musical shape, the tempo and the natural tendencies of a modern bow. Downbows tend to naturally lose strength as they go towards the tip, while upbows tend to naturally gain in power as they go towards the frog. Since it is unlikely that Brahms expected the cellos to play each of these phrases on one bow, he probably thought of them as parallel falling gestures. This might be a case for staggered bowing – where each player decides for themselves, which would ensure that there is no false accent for the bow change on the D#. But it may be prime case for what I call “Round the Back Bowing”*.
When I was a cello teacher in England many years ago, I had a very young student, maybe 8 years old. He surprised me one day by asking: “Why does the bow go up and down? Music goes round and round. You should have a bow that goes round the back”.
I have been looking ever since, for a bow that “goes round the back.” Brahms would be so happy if we could find one, because so much of his music calls for legato playing in phrases too long to play in one bow…
In the meantime, here is a possible bowing that might help to bring out all the elements:
(The obvious and usual bowing F# E in one bow and a new bow for the next two beats, often causes a false accent of the D# in bar 1 and C# in bar 2. An up-bow on the first F# and a down-bow on the E will certainly give the feeling of leading to the E. Then a legato all the way to B# (or a delicate up-bow on the B#). Then up-bow on F#, down on B natural, with another up bow on the upbeat to bar 3.
Since auditions now-a-days are behind a screen it might be illuminating to record the phrase several times with different bowings and see which gives the smoothest result.)
Let’s go on.
Whatever bowing you do, the up-beat at the end of the 2nd bar must be an up-bow to ensure that it can lead to the E (with a slight agogic accent – lengthening) and then fall naturally all the way through the bar. It is good to think in quarter notes in bar 3 and play the eighths as legato as possible – as if the notes were all slurred in one bow. That means making a diminuendo to the B on an up-bow (a bit unnatural). Take enough time to end the phrase on the final B, so that what starts with the last beat of bar 3 is felt as completely new.
In bar 3 the cello is “filling out” majestic legato chords in the trombones, clarinets and flutes. What a color! The up-beat leads to E and then it comes from the E (“round the back,” without any accent on the half bar) to rest on the final B. It will need time to do so. The sound of the cello should meld with the warm majesty of the brass. I would think MM=44 is an ideal tempo.
In Bar 4 the music takes on quite a different affect. Almost like a male dancer lifting his partner in an arabesque, the motion up to the F# has a sweeping quality (only possible if it’s not too slow!). However, the F# is NOT a downbeat. The B at the beginning of the bar has that role, but the B is on the way to the F#.
There is no written crescendo fork in the cello part in bar 4, but there is in the winds, so it is perfectly acceptable to make one. Bar 5 does have a crescendo and it should be very exciting, as it sweeps up to the high (highest) B. The technical difficulty of reaching the high B should never be conveyed to the listener. It is an intense, ecstatic gesture. If you can raise your head Yo-Yo-like as you go up, it will liberate the B. The 16th and dotted-quarter note, of course BELONG to the arabesque each time.
Bar 6 (C# D#) is a new and separate a moment of poised calm. Let it end.
The last 5 eighth notes of bar 6 are an eloquent up-beat to bar 7 which includes the first 3 eighth notes of bar 7. Let the phrase end, falling from the B. The same pattern in bar 8 ends completely on F#. No hint of going on.
A new pattern begins on the B in bar 8. It goes up, then again it goes up to G# and then flows over to the next bar E#; comes back to E# with immense intensity and passion.
The final phrase leads through the G natural to F# crescendo legato and then down to the F# for the bassoon dotted rhythm as the violins take over the cello tune.
Adagio sostenuto ed espressivo
Notes for study and practice:
Follow the full score for reference: click here.
First, a note about the tempo of the introduction. Beethoven marks it “Adagio sostenuto ed espressivo.” Remember that the movement is in 4/4, not in 8/8! Many performers come to grief by adopting a tempo that is too slow, draining the movement of tension and any sense of momentum at all; and then, when they get to the climax, they speed the tempo up because they find they literally have no choice.
The first chord has an unusual demand for the pianist. Can a pianist make a true fp on a single chord? I remember hearing the great American pianist Leonard Shure get a breathtaking effect by catching the sound in a kind of rebound. I was trying to recreate that in the class last Saturday. It is entirely possible that Beethoven wrote fp here, and elsewhere in his piano writing, because the early forte-piano that he was writing for had a very short decay period; when you struck a chord forte it would diminish to piano in just an instant, so the fp, rather than being an instruction to the player might just have been the logical notation of the sound that would inevitably happen. But on a modern Steinway the decay period is very long indeed, so the marking of fp is something that the pianist, like Leonard Shure, might want to be creative about.
The scale in dotted rhythm starts p (not pianissimo) and leads in espressivo mode, all the way to the next bar. The way to make the direction clear is to avoid the temptation to accent the D just because it is the highest note. The scale down is leading, NOT coming from the D. As a prophylactic (just for yourself) lead (imperceptibly) first to the Bb on the 3rd beat. That will get the motion going in the right direction
Because bar 2 begins with a crescendo fork, it is necessary to back away very slightly during the last beat of bar 1, so that the beginning of bar 2 can begin softer to make way for the crescendo fork.
The cello entrance in bar 2 leads to the sf chord and must be played up-bow, whereas the figure at the end of bar 4 is the other way around – it falls from the B on a down bow, to prepare the entrance pp in bar 5.
Rinf. (rinforzando) in Beethoven always refers to the whole phrase, not an individual note. This moment, already in a movement marked espressivo, with the rinforzando marking is extremely intense and the turn very free and melodic.
What happens in bar 6 is an iconic “What belongs to what” moment.
The G at the beginning of the measure is an appoggiatura to the F#. The natural phrasing would be to treat the F# as an end and then to make the chord of Eb (with the G at the top) belong to the next phrase. I have heard it played that way countless times. What Beethoven writes is counter-intuitive and takes considerable effort to bring off. The chord of Eb is artificially included in the cadence on D7, as if it belonged there, and indeed it does: the melodic outline G–F#–G is one unit, which is then answered by the second half of the bar. Just as with Good King Wenceslas, there needs a clear division between the Eb chord and the chord on the third beat (which could have a little accent (and a raised eyebrow) to make it really clear. The phrase then naturally ends in the right hand of the piano on G.
An Elision is a moment in the music that simultaneously serves as both an end of the previous music and the beginning of something new. The G in the right hand of the piano is an end, while the G in the left hand of the piano and the D in the cello, is a beginning.
Bar 7 to 8
What happens here is extremely beautiful if realized as Beethoven intended.
There is a falling 5th from D over C, Bb, A, G, F# to G. In order to bring it off it is necessary to think mf on the D, so that it can fall all the way down to G. To keep that line over two bars takes terrific concentration and considerable intensity. If the beginning is too soft, it is likely that there will then be a crescendo in bar 8, which is especially tempting if the A at the beginning of Bar 8 is on an up-bow. Therefore, it might be wise to play the last two beats of bar 7 in one bow, bringing the A in bar 8 on a down-bow for a firm impulse. Then that bar will fall naturally to end quietly on the G in the cello in bar 9. If that phrasing is brought off, and it rarely is, it makes a deeply moving effect.
Bar 9 to 10
Bar 9 throws the melodic intensity back to the piano, now marked rinf., which refers to the whole bar and implies, I believe, a certain restlessness. The cello ends on G while the piano begins with the urgency of an octave leap on Bb. This must be strong and energetic enough to carry the line over two bars. The main impulse in bar 10 is on the F, NOT the Eb, though the turn and the two 16th note up-beats (Ab and F) make it awfully tempting to lead to the middle of the bar. 6/4 chord emphasizes that.
Bar 11 to 14
Bar 11 is another elision. The Eb’s in the piano end the previous phrase, separating them from the 16th’s in the right hand, which as a result are set free. The cello begins a new very grand melody over 4 bars. It is a rare cellist who realizes that the melody gets its main impulse from the Bb, rather than following their natural instinct to lead up to the D. A down-bow at bar 11 delivered with warmth and intensity will facilitate this, allowing the phrase to unfold and blossom through the bar and onto bar 12 and beyond. Natural instinct leads us through this huge 4-bar arc of melody, if the pianist keeps the shape in the 16th’s always going from 234 to 1. It grows to a climax of rhythmic complexity and register and finally to the destination of the chord in bar 15.
Bar 15 to 22
Bar 15 Initiates the scale which we see reflected in bar 16 The downward scale n in bar 16 starts off as if it is going to lead to another loud chord in bar 17. Instead, with the soft-edged 6/4 chord of Eb it changes direction and falls to end in the piano in 18. Meanwhile the cello leads up to the Eb in bar 18, which, though piano, launches the next four bars of fierce rising and falling scales. These scales follow the contour of the heavy and light bars, though the violent subito dynamics and the sequences seem to fight against it. The final flourish in the piano on the 3rd beat of bar19 stays f to the very end of the beat. That creates the greatest contrast and tension with the p entrance of the cello. The cello and piano fall for 2 beats in bar 20, then enter with a shocking attack at the half bar leading up to bar 21. On bar 21 the insistent dotted rhythm hammering at Bb 8 times till it explodes into bar 23.
N.B. With a dotted rhythm however much time is taken at the climactic moment it doesn’t affect the little note, which always remains quick.
Bar 22 to 27
This highly dramatic passage depends on rigorous attention to dynamics. The F in the cello in bar 23 is ff, while the piano has dropped to subito p. The cello in bar 24 joins the crescendo in the piano and both lead to the forte in bar 25. Bar 25 comes from the ONE.
The crescendo in 26 goes slightly longer in the piano than in the cello which starts to fall when it reaches to apex of the crescendo on the Bb. The beginning of bar 27 is p for both. The cello makes a big crescendo in the second half of bar 27, while the piano is reduced to pp and stays there.
Bar 28 to 29
The cello them falling from Eb this time to Ab, (instead of D to G) is different. This time there is a crescendo fork to middle of bar 29.
Did Beethoven forget it the first time? I don’t think so.
This in more consoling in the gentle Ab major tonality that the nobly tragic first statement. It’s true that Beethoven sometimes forgets things, but this is different in a number of ways from before which makes it seem intentional. In any event, this time the bowing can be as it comes for the crescendo fork to end on an up-bow.
Bar 30 to 33
These extremely dramatic and passionate three bars lead to the violent, abrasive climax of the introduction in bar 33. The last three sixteenth notes of bar 29 and the Ab in the left hand of the piano and cello must end gently, without giving any hint of the violence to come. Simultaneously, in another elision, the right hand launches a rising canon with the cello – Eb to F; F to G; G to A and A to the shocking arpeggiated ff chord in bar 33. All this depends for its effectiveness on a clear understanding of “what belongs to what.” The three sixteenths in the first beat of bar 30, liberated from the first sixteenth, can now drive impetuously to the sf on the second beat. The 2, 3, 4 to 1 pattern in the sixteenths is now established and each time, as it rises note by note.
The silence in bar 33 is one of the great moments in early Beethoven – a silence of taut eloquence. You will find in many performances that you hear that performers suddenly change the tempo during the rest, speeding things up because, at the funereal tempo they have adopted, the long rest is literally dead, and rather embarrassing. But this rest is the climax – everything leading up to it has been aiming towards this one moment, so be sure to hold it for its full length and choose a tempo that allows you to do so.
The pp entrance in the piano comes from the Bb and falls to the F. The four cello notes in bar 34 lead from the high D to the low D and should be played on an up-bow, and in a healthy p dynamic. The next piano entrance on F# in bar 34 is pp, and that F# leads to the following Bb. The cello entrance in bar 35 leads from the high G to the low G on a downbow. Then the piano enters in p, and the three 8th-note upbeats lead into bar 36, but because of the crescendo fork the line is directed all the way to the second beat. It then falls and ends at the first 8th-note of bar 37. The limping scales in cello and piano in bars 37 and 38 fall from the Eb sf in a gesture of piercing heartbreak.
Also, you will notice that the first beat of bar 37 is yet another elision because the right hand of the piano and the cello end and the left hand of the piano starts the pulsating D’s. The last six bars of this introduction are six of the most remarkable bars in all of early Beethoven and depend for their effectiveness, as I said before, on a tempo that is not so slow that it has to be modified out of embarrassment.
View all the Rehearsal Recaps in the BPYO during COVID Collection.