Friday, 12 June 2009

Eroica third movement

(Different prints of the score have differing opinions as to how the bars should be numbered, particularly in this movement. I'm going by the Eulenberg edition miniature score, which you can view online here.)

When performing this symphony the horns will be judged by how they play this movement, particularly the Trio section.

Apart from a few quiet notes, the horns' first entry is at bar 93. Although it is a sudden ff entry (after a steep 1-bar crescendo by the rest of the orchestra) you are part of the texture. A solid sound, but you don't need to try and drown everyone. The same goes for the other loud passages at 123 and at 159.

Now for the Trio. The choice of dynamic for the opening is very confusing, because you have just finished the Scherzo section with accented notes within an ff dynamic. And the start of the Trio doesn't include a dynamic marking for the horns, except for the sf on the second note, and yet there is a gradual crescendo only to f at the end of the passage. That implies that the start ought to be relatively soft - something which is reinforced by the fact that the rest of the orchestra is marked p at 173 and similar places.

Essentially there are two common approaches to this. One is to start at about the dynamic as you finished the Scherzo and crescendo from there. The other is to decide that Beethoven intended the Trio to start softly and crescendo only to f. I prefer this second approach, for what I think are a number of good reasons.
  1. The orchestra's intervention at 173 and similar places isn't drowned
  2. The first horn doesn't have to scream up to the top C, but can play it at a more comfortable dynamic
  3. The 2nd horn's low notes at the end of the crescendo have a chance of actually being heard.
  4. The sf held notes at 240, 248 & 256 can be permitted to just sing once the accent has been completed, and can have a beautiful tone without being forced.
  5. A forte climax will be quite loud enough and give a contrast the orchestra's piano entry at 181.
I suggest you start at a solo p, and have the sf within that context, crescendo to f (really mf) and drop back down to the same p level when the theme is repeated at 182, so that you can crescendo all over again. If you decide to play this way, get everyone to mark in p at all the appropriate places in their parts, otherwise somebody is absolutely bound to forget on the night, because of confusing parts and the "tradition" of playing it all pretty loud.

Use the same dynamics when the theme returns at 228. The audience is expecting the passage to be exactly the same before, but Beethoven puts in a surprise at bar 236. Instead of the first horn going on up to the top C as previously, all three horns hold the chord for a 2-bar diminuendo. The sf here doesn't need to be a particularly sharp one, just a bit of extra oomph to the front end of the note so you have plenty of space in which to diminuendo. When you repeat the chord 244, give it the same dynamic, and possibly a slightly softer stress as you slur onto the held note at 252.

The other thing that you have to decide on and work out is how you are going to set the balance between the three horns. Is this a solo for first horn with the others accompanying, or is it a joint solo for all three, or something a little bit in between?

My view is that this really is a trio solo for three horns, and 2nd and 3rd need to match the volume of the first. In some ways, the 2nd horn has the most interesting part, with the rapid downward arpeggio at the end of the first two passages. We want to hear that! But as it is low, the 2nd horn will need to push it out and the others not press too hard so that a balance is achieved. The first horn going up to the top C will be heard more or less whatever happens. third horn should slot in so that he is heard but so that the two higher parts don't drown the second. You have to listen to each other carefully in order to work out how to get the effect right.

For the variation on the theme and the held chord at 236, first horn can sing out a little bit more for that held note and the descending passage immediately after.

But the main thing is to enjoy it! If you play it even half-decently, the conductor will give the horns a bow at the end of the performance. Enjoy that as well!

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