Thursday, January 6, 2011


This weekend we play the 1919 version of the Firebird Suite.  I'm really looking forward to the concert.  It's a family concert featuring TCO with the Joffrey Ballet Academie.  We're also playing a number of shorter pieces they've choreographed, mostly Russian in nature.  I'm sure there will be a lot of aspiring young ballerinas in the audience!

In preparing for the Firebird, I'll spend much of my time on the Berceuse, of course.  That's what I'd like to discuss in this post.

I'll use my #2CD prewar bocal for this solo since it sounds the best in this range and try to find a reed that has a very warm, even tone in the solo register with an effortless legato.  The reed doesn't need to have a big sound, but needs to be very homogenous in tone quality from note to note in the solo.

For a great legato the blade thicknesses must be perfectly balanced so the blades vibrate together at all points.  I'll use my dial indicator to check this, as I can't really tell symmetry from a reed lamp or by feel when scraping.

I'll try to record myself a few times to be sure I'm not missing anything when playing it.  I'll listen especially for good pitch and rhythm.

Regarding rhythm:  The triplet figure in measure 3 is often mistakenly played as an eighth followed by two sixteenths, even in recordings of great orchestras!  Subdividing the quarter notes of the beginning of the bar will help avoid this trap.

This piece presents some challenges for intonation.  Bassoonists choose bocals and instruments partly based on how well they play in the "money" range!  This is a good test piece for such purchases!

  • Bb  To center my first Bb, I listen like crazy to the strings and harp in the introduction for pitch reference and tone quality.  
  • Db  Depending upon the fingering used, the next note (Db) can sound muffled or bright and sharp. This note must be matched beautifully to the Bb in tone and pitch.
  • Cb  Should not be sharp.  In fact, it sounds best if it's slightly leaning back towards the Bb (its resolution 2 notes later).
  • D  Should not be flat.  We're in eb minor, so this leading tone should point up towards its resolution two notes later -- Eb
  • Bb to F  This perfect fifth will stick out if it's not in tune.  The key is finding the center of the Bb again from the Eb before it.
To help give the line more direction I think of the Bbs and Ebs as magnetized anchors in the phrase that draw Cb (in the case of Bb) and D (in the case of Eb) into their orbit.  It's a bit controversial to say this, but playing the Cb and D in equal temperament hurts the expression and direction of the line in this slow solo. Slightly favoring (very slightly!) these notes helps direct the line.

I'm not a big fan of raised leading tones, but in this case I think it works.  More about this in a future post.

I'd like to avoid the question of D or Db in the last solo, since it's been debated ad nauseum in the bassoon world.  Suffice it to say that Stravinsky told different prominent American bassoonists different things during his career!  I'll be playing D natural.

For inspiration, I'll listen to a recording featuring the father figure of German bassoon playing in America, J. Walter Guetter.  The recording, made in the early years of electric recording, is from 1935.  Guetter's tone shines through with clarity and beauty.  Listen for the call and response between Guetter and Tabuteau.

The Berceuse starts about 1/3 of the way into this mp3.


  1. Hi, Barry. Thank you so much for starting this blog! I really enjoyed your masterclass during the Meg Quigley competition last spring, and am sincerely grateful that you're taking the time to do this blog. Happy New Year, Thom Moore

  2. So glad you started this Barry!

    I remember sitting in the Lansing Symphony section for a performance of the Berceuse and hearing some pretty amazing, call and response playing between you and Dan Stolper. Wonderful memory!

  3. Steven,

    We played Rite of Spring and then Firebird Berceuse as an encore. A big bassoon concert!

    Best wishes!

  4. Thom,

    Nice to hear from you! Feel free to suggest any topics you'd like to see here and comment again if you wish.