Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Firebird Berceuse

This week I had the opportunity to perform the 1919 Firebird Suite with the Milwaukee Symphony. As an Assistant Principal, I don't often get to play the first bassoon part, but have on occasion. The Cleveland Orchestra plays this piece regularly -- perhaps once every two years, and more often on educational concerts.

One of my most memorable experiences playing the Firebird was when we played the complete ballet with Pierre Boulez in 2005. I reacquainted myself with the contrabassoon by playing the second contra part!

So my experience with the piece may be a bit unusual, but as I found out in Milwaukee, maybe not all that strange!

As I sat in to play the piece in rehearsal, the MSO's Principal Clarinetist, Todd Levy leaned over to me and said, "It's nice to play the whole piece -- it mostly shows up in fragments on educational concerts." I wonder if this is how the piece is most often performed in orchestras now?

In a previous post, I discussed how I prepared the famous solo in the Berceuse. In that post, I avoided taking sides in the D natural vs. Db controversy.

I'll tackle that head on in this post in a minute, but first I'd like to explain how it came up.

The bassoon parts to the 1919 Suite require some study, not only because of the technical challenges, but also there are some questionable markings in the parts.

During one of the rehearsals, Beth Giacobassi (who played 2nd with me) asked about an inconsistency in the Introduction:

Should the series of eighth notes be played with the same length or is the second series to played longer because of the portamento marking (slur)?

I've always played the two sections using the SAME length of articulation -- tenuto, but with a separation between notes.

However, since I was a guest in the orchestra, I decided to defer and ask the conductor at the rehearsal break.

The conductor, the very fine and very courteous Christopher Seaman, answered the question by asking that both passages be played with separation. He stated that there were no slurs in the original, complete ballet and that the Suite contained a mistake here.

I checked later and found this not to be the case. Below is the 1911 score

As you can see, the portamento is consistent between the two passages. Perhaps the point he was trying to make was that the two passages should be played with the same length of articulation, there being no good reason for a difference. Nonetheless, he made it clear he wanted a separated group of eighth notes with each note having some substance to the sound.

Now, going up to the podium during a break to ask the conductor a question might be a more diplomatic method than having a back and forth discussion during the rehearsal, but it carries with it certain inherent risks!

Such was the case here. After the discussion regarding the eighth notes, he turned to the Berceuse, which we had just played in our run-through. I had played my favorite D natural in the solo and he asked if I would consider substituting Db.

Perhaps aware that some bassoonists have exchanged less than courteous words about which Stravinsky told them to play, he went to the piano to demonstrate support his argument.

First a little background.

The choice of D natural (once the question of what Stravinsky told "Your Teacher " to play is removed from the argument!) is often justified because of the voice leading. A D natural in Eb minor is the leading tone, and thus, provides better voice leading in the phrase than a Db since, after an interpolated Cb and a couple of Bb's, it resolves nicely to a Eb.

Another justification used is that it synchronizes with the D natural found in the violins exactly on the second beat of the bar (bar before 7):

However, you'll notice in this score (1919 Suite, Boosey and Hawkes), the bassoon part contains a Db instead of D natural.

Seaman made his argument by playing the passage on the piano with the Db in the bassoon line and the D natural in the violin line sounding together. He said this was an example of an English cadence.

If you go to the link, you can see and even play back the chord progression involved. Although it refers to its use by English composers of the 16th and 17th century, he was proposing its intentional use in a famous 20th century piece. Half of the voice leading is correctly followed by Stravinsky-- the Db does resolve to a Cb, but the D natural in the violins instead of resolving up to an Eb, goes down -- to a Db, interestingly enough.

Although Seaman's argument may seem a bit far-fetched in linking Stravinsky with 16th century music, we know that Stravinsky developed an intense fascination with music from that period, although much later in life.

Suffice it to say, I played the Db for him and he was satisfied. I'm not sure I'm going to change my habit to Db the next time I play it, but I've now heard a pretty convincing argument for the Db, instead of "it sounds better that way", or "my teacher said to play the D (natural or flat)"!

The Firebird bassoon parts, especially in the Kalmus or Boosey edition are a real mess. The copyist did a poor job of indicating note values and rests clearly.

The use of dotted lines to indicate half-bar lines and the sloppy job of indicating rests along with the accretion of pencil marks by nervous bassoonists of the past make the opening very hard to count!

In the Berceuse itself, some editions have some glaring inconsistencies and obvious omissions:

Notice how a Bb needed to be added by hand to measure 2 of the solo!  I know of one famous conductor (still working today) who insisted that the Principal Bassoonist of his orchestra play two quarter notes (Bb and D only) and a half note in the bar instead of the quarter, two eighths and a half!  They were touring with the piece, so on some nights the bassoonist would sneak the Bb back in to the solo, only to be called into the dressing room later and asked to leave it out the next night!

Also, notice the lack of a slur over the two bar group beginning at 7! Clearly this part is not perfect and legitimate questions arise about the details!

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