Tuesday, 2 June 2009

THAT solo in the first movement of the Eroica

I've had some discussions with people on the Yahoo Horn mailing list concerning the solo at bar 412 of the first movement, and researching the matter I've discovered a few new things.

First of all there is a discrepancy between different editions. Some editions mark the final Ab piano, and others do not. Some editions include a crescendo marking 2 bars before the end of the passage, and some do not.

The first edition, which is available online at the digital archives of the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn, has the Ab piano and no crescendo before it. But Beethoven was a notoriously poor proofreader, the original manuscript is no longer in existence, and Beethoven's first editions are not known for being particularly accurate. So I wouldn't want to take the first edition as being necessarily authoritative.

Therefore, you are probably going to have to work out for yourself and in co-operation with the conductor how you will approach the end of the solo. Personally, I would not drop the dynamic for the final note. The Ab is the same note as the starting note of the flute's version of the phrase, and so holding the note for a crotchet and then stopping allows for a change in tone colour of the note as the reverberation of the horn note dies and the flute takes over (with the violins doubling an octave lower for the first couple of bars). The flute is also marked dolce at the start of its solo, just as the horn was at the start of its solo 8 bars earlier.

Also, as a purely practical issue, you significantly increase the risk of of cracking the Ab if you suddenly drop the volume when slurring to it.

In discussing this passage with others, it has been suggested (by Kerry Thomson and Richard Chenoweth) that to get a piano Ab the note could be played handstopped, as it would have been in Beethoven's day. I can see where they are coming from, but I disagree for two reasons.

First, I doubt very much whether a subito piano is actually intended, though if it is requested by the conductor, you do it whatever Beethoven's intention was. Second, (as John Dutton has pointed out) hand-horn technique and hand-horn design in Beethoven's day would have allowed the handstopped note to be played with a tone that is quite close to that of an open note. It is far harder on modern wide-bore valve horns to bend the pitch using hand-horn technique without affecting the tone to a much greater extent than Beethoven would have expected to hear. But you don't need to do that, because you have valves! Therefore, when using modern instruments, I think you should use modern techniques and play the note using the valves.

The debate should of course remind you that there no single authoritatively right way to play the piece. What I've provided is how I play it and the reasons behind my choices. But you may disagree and have an alternative approach that works just as well or even better for you. If so, go for it!

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