Saturday, February 11, 2012

Mozart Concerto and auditions -- the first phrase

You're looking at what has arguably become the most important phrase ever written for the bassoon!

While there is much other great music written for our instrument, the nearly exclusive use of the Mozart concerto in auditions has made this opening phrase extremely important for bassoonists today.

At our recent second bassoon audition, I had a chance to sample what some of the best bassoonists do with this phrase in an audition.  Since it's the first music we hear from a candidate, the phrase serves as a musical handshake -- a first encounter with that person's musical beliefs.

Many on the committee that day felt the handshakes coming from the Mozart were more like vise grips!  Excessively firm and rough.  The first note was often played as though the person shaking your hand was in a hurry to get to the next person in line -- extremely short and accented.

Another trend we noticed was -- along with chopping off the first note -- a tendency to treat the second note like a stressed syncopation.  Thus, the first phrase came off sounding like "dut-DAHH"!

I've thought about this trend for a while and have come up with a couple of possible reasons for why this mannerism has grown like a virus.
  1. Nerves.
  2. Younger players (most of our auditionees were on the young side) listening indiscriminately to bad YouTube performances, etc. More about YouTube as a force for musical good or evil in another post.
  3. The half note on beat two, being longer than the quarter on beat one, will sound more stressed than the quarter on its own simply because it lasts twice as long. 
But is this effective?  Is this musical?

Is there a precedent in Mozart for this motive?  If so, can we understand what he might have thought it should sound like when composing it?

Let's take a step back and provide some context for the ConcertoWritten in the summer of 1774, it's generally agreed that this was Mozart's second original concerto, the Violin Concerto #1 being the first. The earlier piano concerti are all arrangements of works by other composers and heavily influenced by Leopold Mozart (whose influence is now given even more weight in the early compositions than was once assumed).

All composers used models for their early work. Even Mozart did not compose new pieces without referring to the work of others or his previous work.  This is especially true of his youthful compositions.

In understanding the context for the first motive of the Concerto, it's important to acknowledge that many composers used motives, themes, etc. over and over again, reworking them for the different pieces they were writing.  This is the nuts and bolts of composing.

All of which is to say that the first notes of the Bassoon Concerto are not a unique musical gesture.  They are simply one variation on a larger theme at work in Mozart's mind around 1773-1774.

Here is how the opening motive is stated in the Violin Concerto #1 of 1773.

Below is the opening of the Bassoon Concerto.

Note the following similarities:
  • Same key: Bmajor
  • Same orchestration: strings, two oboes, two horns. Note the chords on the first two beats in the violins are EXACTLY the same in each piece--  more about this later.
  • Same opening two-note motive - quarter then half note.
Now listen to the opening of both pieces:

I didn't label the two clips, so you might be surprised at how similar they sound at the start!

Above is the opening of the Violin Concerto #3, written shortly after the Bassoon Concerto.  Notice the similarity of motive (quarter, dotted quarter this time, though), with bar one on the tonic, bar two on the dominant.

Listen to the opening:

Once again, the similarity is obvious.

Now, let's look closer at the scoring.  It's interesting to note that each concerto begins with double or triple stops in the violins.  Clearly, Mozart wanted a full, rich sound on the first note.

 In order above are:
  1. Violin Concerto #1
  2. Bassoon Concerto
  3. Violin Concerto #3
If you accept my argument that these motives are closely related in rhythm and scoring, then it follows that the bassoonist should play the opening motive with this context in mind.

Therefore, a short, and unemphasized first note has no place in the style of the Bassoon Concerto!

The violin cannot play a note as short as the bassoon, since the violin is a naturally resonant instrument. (The bassoon is not - see Arthur Weisberg's The Art of Wind Playing for a good explanation of this phenomenon.) In addition, the violinist must grab two or three notes at the same time.  Time and space must be made for this to happen.

For the bassoonist to execute the opening in a musically appropriate fashion, therefore, he/she must leave time and energy for the first note to sound and place the second note carefully.

A great image for success in execution is to imagine two down bows. The first down bow uses the whole bow, the retake for the next note provides just the right amount of separation before starting the next note.

Here's a great example of this technique.  Joshua Bell plays the Saint-Saëns Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso.  Start at about 9 minutes in and you'll hear the cadenza.  In it there is a series of dramatic down bow notes.  Notice the length and spacing required for this group of notes.  It's perfect for the opening of the Bassoon Concerto!

No syncopation!

I do not believe the second note (half note) is a syncopation.  A syncopation is rhythm in which a note other then a downbeat or a note on a strong beat is emphasized.  Look at the scoring of the three pieces above once more and you'll see that Mozart, in putting violin chords on the first beat, was quite clear that the second note in the bar should not be emphasized at the expense of the first note.

So what we are left with is two notes of equal strength separated by just enough space to make each sound clearly articulated. 

That was a lot of time and space spent on two notes!  However, as I said above, these two notes are often the first sounds someone who is evaluating your playing hears and thus, makes them very important.  It would be interesting to know what Mozart would have made of all this fuss about his little Bassoon Concerto!

Here is a link to a recent performance of the Concerto by David McGill, the Principal Bassoonist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  It's one of the finest live performances of the piece I've ever heard.  The streaming will be available until the middle of March, 2012, so listen soon if you can.  The Concerto starts just before the 15 minute mark.


  1. I think there's a good (or very bad, depending on how you look at it) explanation for why so many people are playing the concerto this way. Check out the editorial markings in this edition:

    The fact that this is the edition posted on IMSLP is compounding the problem. Several highly regarded summer festivals included this exact edition, wrong notes and all, in their audition excerpt packets last year.

    1. Mike,

      Very interesting! I love the Op.96 listing on the edition, too.

      Can we all throw out the Guetter edition (except for the piano reduction which is the best available), International, Peters, etc. and rely on Barenreiter or Universal for our Mozart, please?!

  2. I totally agree, IMSLP needs a new Mozart Bassoon Concerto part, people are going to download it, might as well make it a good version! So many students bring in this one with the link above printed off of there laptop because it's free, so I guess you get what you pay for. Best would be to just call Trevco or something like it of course.

    I had a question about the grace notes in measure 39 on beat 1. First of all, what edition is it that you have printed there at the top of your post? It has those little eighth notes printed over it, but my older Bahrenreiter just has it listed as a 16th note grace note. On the McGill recording that you posted as well as his recording with Cleveland he performs that grace note as a 16 note tied to a dotted eighth note instead of two straight eighth notes. In measure 64 it is printed the same way, how is it printed in your version? Same question about measure 88. I would assume that these three spots would be printed the same and should be performed the same. Just curious, thanks!

    Anthony G.

  3. Huh, not sure why that said I'm commenting as "unknown", sorry! - Anthony Georgeson

  4. Hi, Anthony,

    I think someone more versed in historically informed performance practice can answer the grace note question better, but here's what I think:

    The edition I have used above is the Universal Edition, which was edited (very lightly) by Milan Turkovic. It's basically the first edition, second printing of the piece published by Andre Offenbach in 1805, with some suggestions made in parentheses that reflect generally agreed practices.

    The performance of these two notes is a matter of controversy and taste. Mozart's father, Leopold states in his "Gründliche Violinschule" that the figure should be played either as two even eighth notes or as a normal dotted rhythm - not the reverse dotted rhythm used by McGill and many others.

    The problem is further complicated by the fact that Mozart, in his manuscripts, made NO distinction in how he notated a grace note or a single 16th note, so we don't always know what was intended. He notated them alike as we would notate an isolated 16th note today.

    Re: the reverse dot. I've noticed this choice in many recordings/performances of Mozart's music by period instrument ensembles, so there must be something to this way of playing it, however.

    Perhaps others adopt this way of playing it to call attention to the first note of the pair, since it's a suspension or passing tone and not a chord tone in the cases you cite?

    I agree, the three passages should be the same along with where they occur in the orchestral tuttis.

    Can someone else shed some light on this?

    While we're on the subject of editions, several pianists have told me that the Guetter edition has the best piano reduction, so there's still a reason to own it!

    The Barenreiter actually is quite poor in places, especially in the opening tutti of the third movement where it obscures the melody in the right hand.

    The Breitkopf/Henle edition is very good and comes with multiple cadenz and bridge suggestions by pianist and scholar Robert Levin. Using his suggestions, you can cut-and-paste a really nice authentic sounding cadenza.

    The Universal has some great cadenzas composed by Turkovic.

    Other editions offering cadenzas by Guetter, Garfield and others from mid-20th century performances are old-fashioned, either too long, or modulating to keys too remote from Bb major to be considered appropriate today.

    Has anyone heard Oubradous' recording from 1928? It has cadenzas by Ibert, including one in the first movement that goes up to high F! Really outrageous!

    I have this performance on 78rpm, and, with the fancy turntable my wife gave me for Christmas, I should, given time, be able to tranfer it and post it at some point.

  5. Hope you one day can post that Oubradous' recording from 1928!