Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Saint-Saëns, part 2

Our concerts with Marin Alsop last week went well.  It was a difficult week for all involved with music that was mostly not standard orchestral repertoire squeezed into three rehearsals. 

We generally have four, sometimes five rehearsals for a concert cycle, so it was challenging to put the program together with less rehearsal than usual.  The first rehearsal for the week was 36 hours before the first concert, so there was also less time to react and absorb what we did in rehearsal before performing.

I'd like to spend this post talking about a particular passage in the first movement of the Saint-Saëns.  It is a passage that gives everyone involved trouble.  I'm sure it has been a problem since the inception of the Organ Symphony.  I know I've struggled with it every time I've played the piece.

This passage occurs twice in the movement and there are several other ones that are similar with articulated 16th notes.


The tempo marking is Allegro Moderato, the meter is 6/8.  The tempo usually clocks in the range of  dotted = 72-84.  Although the pattern always starts off the beat, there is always a pickupand downbeat every three bars in the bass line.

The pattern above starts with tutti woodwinds all articulating together.  Then, at the "p" marking, the texture thins out to just two clarinets and one bassoon. It is this particular spot with the clarinets that I want to examine.

What Usually Happens

In rehearsing this piece it's very easy for the woodwinds to get apart from each other and to get off-track from the strings and conductor.  This type of passages poses an extreme challenge for articulating on a woodwind instrument. Common problems are:
  • Slow tonguing speed
  • Inability to double-tongue when needed
  • Double tongue goes too fast
  • Players start the pattern after an eight rest instead of a 16th rest
  • Some players rush while others drag
The difficulty seems greatest for clarinet players, few of whom can articulate as fast as the rest of the woodwinds and fewer still can double tongue. I would place bassoonists a close second, though. 

When this passage doesn't fit together, a few things commonly happen.
  • The conductor may give ground on the tempo and slow it to help the woodwinds.
  • The conductor may ask the woodwinds to accent the beats in each bar to make sure the passage stays together.  This is a terrible idea which I would resist. The accents usually slow the passage down further by making the articulation heavier.  It also comes at a very awkward part of the pattern (see excerpt above) and gives a very unmusical inflection to the line.
  • The woodwind players agree on who will lead in the section to keep it together.
  • Some players make leave out a few notes to stay in place.
What Type of Passage Is This?

Sometimes understanding what kind of passage the composer is using is helpful in solving technical problems.  Of course, recognizing what the passage is makes for better music making, too.

Those of you with piano skills will recognize this passage as a type used by pianist/composers quite frequently.  

The bottom of the score shows the string section playing the 16th passage. On top of this the upper woodwinds play a counter melody that emphasizes the beats while the brass, timpani and basses give pickups and downbeats.

Composers for keyboard instruments used this type of phase shifted rhythm to give the piano or harpsichord a fuller texture.  The off-beat 16ths give the keyboard a more sustained sound by filling in sound between the beats.

This is usually accomplished by having the right hand take over the offbeat stuff (the string parts in the example above), giving the left hand the bass line and beats (brass, woodwinds and basses).  Generations of pianists are trained at an early age to play with the hands striking at slightly different times (instead of exactly together).

Saint-Saëns was an accomplished pianist and organist, so it's not surprising that he would use this technique.  However, it's much easier for one person to control both hands than for a whole orchestra to divide itself up this way, since the orchestra is trained to play together and not apart!

Here is another example from the last movement of the Organ Symphony.

Here the strings lead with the melody on the beat.  The same melody is outlined in the top note in each group of six in the piano parts (always the third note in the pattern).  However, this comes off the beat and sounds after the strings have played the same pitch.

Problem Solved (for now!)

By the Thursday night performance, the woodwinds got this passage together.  We did a little rehearsing separately and a few of us talked a bit about how we were approaching the 16th passages.

Here's what we came up with:
  • We thought of the 16th passage as starting on the beat.  In other words, we pretended as though the passage had been re-barred so the 16th rest at the beginning of the passage was gone.
  • However, we started the passage at the right time in relation to the conductor's beat, i.e., a 16th rest's worth of time later.
  • We continued playing as though the passage were on the beat with each change of pitch corresponding to an eight note beat.
  • Assuming correct tonguing speed, we ended at the right time
In other words, we played as though we were in a slight time phase shift with the rest of the orchestra.  Above all, we didn't look up to watch the conductor, for her beat wouldn't be helpful at all.

Ka" syllable on a conductor's beat can really mess up the double tongue.

I realize there's a lot of "inside baseball" in this particular post, but I thought I'd use this one to give a detailed glimpse into problem solving with a very specific example.

I should add that others in the woodwind section may have approached the passage differently from me, but the result was the same - together.  I think the oboes and flutes and second bassoon were all double-tonguing while the clarinets and I were single tonguing. Some may have felt more comfortable thinking of this passage as starting as printed - with an offbeat 16th note. It doesn't help to force your way of looking at things on others if they're not receptive or if they just solve problems in a different way.  The end justifies the means!

No comments:

Post a Comment