Monday, 1 June 2009

Interpreting the Eroica Symphony

Playing Beethoven is a bit strange. Traditionally, we don’t think of Beethoven as requiring the delicacy of touch demanded by Mozart, and Beethoven’s music is often treated by horn players as if he were Tchaikovsky. It is all those sudden forte chords and accents. But in fact Beethoven is far closer to Mozart than to the classics of the late Romantic repertoire, and our playing of Beethoven horn parts needs to be conceived accordingly.

We now realise that the Eroica symphony was a revolutionary work, that launched Beethoven as a truly unique and different talent and provided a decisive break from the classicism of Mozart and Haydn. But Beethoven’s first two symphonies stuck very close to the general layout of the late Mozart symphonies, both in instrumentation and structure, the main innovation being the inclusion of a Scherzo in place of the conventional Minuet & Trio for the third movement of the Second Symphony. That isn’t to suggest that the first two symphonies are in any way unworthy, but they are clearly Beethoven growing into the distinctive sound that would come later. The Eroica is Beethoven’s first serious attempt at moving to something beyond Mozartian classicism in his orchestral writing.

But Beethoven has been so popular for so long that a great deal of tradition has accumulated as to how he should be played, and much of this tradition is quite frankly both historically dubious and musically awful.

So you have to approach this in context. This piece is late Classical, not late Romantic. The orchestra lacks the heavy brass and additional woodwind of later composers. The instrumentation is double woodwind, two trumpets, three horns, timpani and strings, i.e. your standard classical symphony orchestra with one extra horn. The role of the horns is still much the same as it is in other classical symphonies - mainly blending into the middle of the harmonies, and the occasional solo passage sailing out over the top.

The choice of three horns rather than the normal two is interesting. Of course, it is by far from being the first orchestral work to employ more than a single pair of horns, Haydn’s Symphony No. 31 (Hornsignal) and Mozart’s Divertimento No. 2 (K. 131) both use 4 horns, and both in fact have passages for the horns operating as a solo section that bear a significant resemblance to the famous passage in the Trio of the Scherzo of the Eroica. (I strongly recommend you get hold of a recording of both works and have a listen. It will be both enjoyable and instructive.) Adding the extra horn enabled Beethoven to overcome some of the limitations of the hand horn by occasionally crooking the third horn in a different key from the other two. The Marcia Funebre has first and second horns in C while the third remains in Eb.

One other thing needs to be noticed about Beethoven’s habits of notation. Beethoven almost never writes mf as a dynamic. I don't think I have ever seen an mf in any Beethoven orchestral work, in any part except where it was inserted by an ignorant editor. Therefore you should (broadly speaking) treat f as mf and ff as f, and treat repeated f markings on individual notes within the piece as accents within the current dynamic. Therefore ff dynamics do not need to be blasted out as if you were announcing The Last Trump. Generally, they should be played at what in romantic works you would think of as a good solid single forte, without any brassy edge to the tone.

This all sets the context as to how you should approach the work. You need to think about this sort of thing for any work you play - the composer’s intentions, the musical style in which he was working at the time, and the musical forces he used and the capabilities of the instruments of the day. If you leave all this sort of thing to the conductor and just play the notes, something significant will be lost from the performance. The conductor produces no sound in the concert (at least, one devoutly hopes he doesn’t) and so you have responsibility of producing a sound that the audience will enjoy. It isn’t reasonable to expect the conductor to spoonfeed you as to how to produce it.

So with this, let’s look over the detail of the parts, and how you play them. I’ll look just at the first movement in this post and tackle the other movements later. If you want to understand fully what I am on about you need to have a copy of the full score (and not just the horn parts) handy.

The entry for horns 1 & 2 at bar 13 is part of the tutti texture, but the continuation for first horn at bar 15 is exposed (though not solo, you are doubled by the flute and clarinet). But it is still p, we are looking for a nice clear but not overwhelming tone that blends with the instruments you are doubling with. Listen out for them and make sure that you match with them in tuning and style.

The sf notes in the passage from bars 22 to 45 are within the context of a passage that is piano. The horns are not the most significant thing happening here. So the notes should be fairly sharp accents within a piano context, and immediately brought back to piano. There is a sharp 2 bar crescendo at 35 to an ff passage. Again, you aren’t solo here, you are doubled by the trumpets. They provide the edge, you don’t need to blast this.

From bar 57 to 80, the horns should be blending, you are part of the texture and have nothing that the audience should particularly notice.

At 92, the horns have a crescendo passage (horn three joins a bar later). This is part of an overall orchestral crescendo that Beethoven achieves by progressively adding new instruments over a few bars. The sf at the climax of the phrase is a light one, within a piano context. Just an extra bit of weight of the front end of the note, and then pull back immediately before continuing the decrescendo to the end of the bar.

The entry at 107 is part of another classic Beethoven crescendo, this time reaching a more substantial sort of sound. But even though you have a forte general dynamic with sf on individual notes, you don’t blast. Remember, in Beethoven, f means mf, so you play the sf notes as accents within an mf context, immediately dropping back to the background dynamic. The horns are still just part of the texture, even when the dymanic advances to ff at 143.

The entry of horns 1 & 2 at 170 is very much in the background - you are providing harmonic continuity and with the repeated crotchets, just a bit of background rhythm. Watch the conductor carefully and make sure you don’t succumb to the temptation to get ahead of the beat. To add a bit of definition to the crotchets without getting louder, separate them ever so slightly.

The ff entry at 190 is still not solo, you are part of the harmony and so don’t try to overwhelm the tune. The same applies to the entry at 218 (1st horn entering a bar later).

In the passage starting at G (bar 224) the third horn has the first of his independent moments. While 1 & 2 are doing the same held-note and crotchet combination as at 170, the third horn enters two bars later with a countermelody in the form of an ascending arpeggio. Notice that I said countermelody, not solo. Though it does need to be heard, it isn’t the tune, and should be perceived by the audience as an interesting additional thing going on within the music.

At bar 236, the first horn has its first truly solo moment with the ascending quaver passage for one bar. Almost all the orchestra stops to listen to it, so you don’t need to be loud, just clear, since there is almost nothing else going on that you have to compete with. The staccato doesn’t need to be too pronounced, just enough to ensure that the individual notes have definition. How much you need to separate them will depend on the acoustic you are playing in and will have to be judged on the night. You should aim to match the style of the first flute in the previous two bars. The sf at the top of the passage should still be played within a piano context.

The next 80 bars or so contain essentially similar material. The next new thing starts with the bassoon entry at 342. Horns 1 & 2 join in with a similar passage at 347, but you must listen very carefully not just to the bassoons but to all the woodwind, Variations of the tune are weaving in and out in canon, and the horns are in fact one bar behind the main tune, initially still held by the bassoons but later passed on to other instruments as the volume rises. You are part of the texture and still not playing the tune.

At 378 2nd & 3rd horns have held chords in a decrescendo to pianissimo. While this is pp, this needs to be clear as there is little else happening. You have to make sure that you get balance and articulation matched. If anything 2nd horn, being lower, needs to put very slightly more weight on the note in order to make it sound equal with 3rd.

Then we have a true solo moment - for second horn! At 398 you have two bars where there is nothing else moving at all. It is in a register where the horn doesn’t carry all that well, so as it is both solo and relatively low, I suggest that you put it out at a fairly solid mf, even though there is very little else happening that you need to carry over.

At 412, the first horn has its first substantial solo. This is trickier than it looks. It is in F rather than Eb, and that extra tone higher catches people. Also difficult is the slurred Ab at the end after the held G. I’ve heard that Ab cracked many times! So you have to plan how you are going to cope with it. The first decision is whether you are going to breathe at the start of 416, after the first held G. If you can take a big breath at the start of the solo and manage without a breath in the middle, it will sound better musically, but if you can’t, better to take some more air on board to make sure you can manage the crescendo to the Ab. The instruction is dolce, and there isn’t much else happening, so we need projection rather than simple volume. (I’ll write about how to produce a projected sound on another occasion.) As for fingerings, there are a variety of possible approaches. Most players use the Bb side in this sort of range, but the problem is the second-space G in bar 413. If played 1 on the Bb side, this is usually noticeably flat, but if you play just this note on the F side, there is likely to be a noticeable “blip” in the transition between the G and the Cs above before and after.

However, if you incorporate arpeggios in your warmup, cleanly slurring between a G and a C without hitting the intervening Bb harmonic is one of the things you do more often than almost anything else. Therefore you can play the first part of the solo on the F side. I suggest that you play the first 2 bars wholly open on the F side, and then switch to the Bb side. Alternatively, you can play the whole passage on the F side if there is too much difference in tone colour between the two sides of your horn. Do whatever works for you to get the slurs nice and clean. To ensure that you get the slurred Ab cleanly, make sure that you either breathe at 413 or have taken on ample supplies of air at the start of the passage. The crescendo doesn’t need to be huge, and the Ab should be achieved not by tightening the lips but mainly by providing a bit more support to the air column from your diaphragm. Don’t snatch at it, and don’t cut it off too quickly. It is a full crotchet with no staccato and is therefore a moderately long note. Let it sound.

At 520, the horns are playing the tune - not solo, half the orchestra is playing the same notes, but you can enjoy yourselves for four bars. The horns have a bar solo at 539 and again at 541, play piano but projected.

At 593, the 6-bar phrase in 3rd horn is part of the texture. It is doubled by first bassoon and has the same rhythm as all the other woodwind playing in harmony.

At 619, the horns play alternating bars. This is fairly exposed, and you should work to try and match tone volume and articulation between the different players as you each take your own bar. I suggest that the notes are very slightly detached for better definition.

The last exposed passage starts at bar 634. The first horn is solo for 8 bars with 2nd horn joining in with a countermelody. A projected piano is called for here. After 8 bars, other instruments join in, and the horns (with 3rd now joining in) are again part of the texture a bar behind the tune, just as at 347.

The remainder of the movement is contributing to tutti passages.

For the great majority of the movement, the horns are in the background. But this doesn’t mean that you don’t have to take care over what you play. You should take care over the tuning, style, articulation and dynamic of every note, so that the blend is as near perfect as possible. This means that you don’t just follow the conductor and play your part, you have to listen to what is going on around you so that you match what you play to what else is happening. (Of course, all the other players should be doing the same, but you have no control over that. Just do it right yourself.)

The audience will enjoy the performance better as a result, even though most of them will have little or no idea what has gone into achieving it.

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