Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Beethoven Rondino

I've been asked to play with Ealing Symphony Orchestra this weekend (their regular first horn is busy elsewhere), for a special concert to honour Spencer Perceval, who became Prime Minister 200 years ago this year, and was assassinated in office 3 years later, the only British Prime Minister to have been killed in office. He came from Ealing, and a plaque dedicated to him is being unveiled on Saturday October 3rd at 7pm in All Saints Church, Elm Grove Road, followed by a concert in his honour, during which the local MP Stephen Pound will give a short talk about him. If you are in the area, do come along - tickets are just £4.

I'm playing in 2 pieces, the Dvorak Serenade for Wind, and the Beethoven Rondino for wind octet. I've played the Dvorak many times, it's a staple of the wind ensemble repertoire, but I've never got round to playing the Beethoven before, though I've heard recordings of it. I haven't been given the part yet, so I decided to print off the score from IMSLP. (IMSLP is an absolutely wonderful resource if you need to study any out-of-copyright music. I can't recommend it highly enough.)

And it is a delightful little piece with some very prominent horn parts - a fact made very clear because Beethoven puts the horn parts on the first 2 staves of the score, followed by the oboes, clarinets and bassoons.

Keeping with my recent theme of musicality, I thought I'd write a bit about how I approach this piece when practicing. Technically the piece is not overly challenging, but it will need to be played musically if the audience is going to enjoy it.

So, first things first. The piece is Andante, obviously intended to be a steady 4 quavers to a bar. It is in Eb major, and the horn parts are written transposed in Eb. It's a nice gentle speed for a horn tune - very characteristic of the instrument. It's the sort of speed in which many great horn solos have been written. Unless the group uses a conductor, the horn will lead off and so has to set the initial speed. It mustn't go too fast, otherwise the 2nd horn will murder me when he has to play demisemiquavers later in the piece, but it mustn't be allowed to drag. A nice steady walking pace, perhaps quaver=80 or thereabouts.

The first horn has the tune for the first 8 bars. It's a nice simple tune, 2 four-bar phrases, in each phrase the first and 3rd bars are repeated and the 2nd & 4th bars have a little variation. From all the slurs everywhere, it is clear that everything has to be very legato. This is a singing solo, the sound has to be projected but smooth and with the appearance of not being overly loud. The 2nd bassoon has a countermelody in the bass, and the 2nd horn and the clarinets are providing harmonic filling.

So, there are various choices I have to make with the opening solo.

Breathing: From the fact that there are tenuto instructions on the crotchets in bars 1 & 2, it is clear that there should be no break for breath after either crotchet. That means that I must take the whole of the first 4 bars in a single breath to give continuity to the phrase. Beethoven reinforces the point by putting in a nice quaver rest at the end of bar 4. That quaver is in fact tacet for the whole group. There's no mistaking how you are expected to breathe.

Grace note: Should the grace notes at the start of bars 2 & 4 be on the beat or before? Just before the beat seems to me to sound much better, it allows the 4 semiquavers to be nice and even, and trying to co-ordinate an on-beat grace note with the staccato bassoon quaver seems unnecessarily awkward. So ahead of the beat is what I'll do, unless the conductor or the group overrule me in rehearsal. Music making is a group activity - you work out together what is best and will achieve a good performance.

Dynamic changes: There aren't any marked dynamics apart from the initial p, but should anything be done beyond a steady piano throughout? Looking at it, I'm inclined to put a bit of a crescendo into bar 5 to make the first half of the 2nd phrase a bit stronger, then then drop down a notch for bars 7 & 8 to make a bit of an echo. It just provides that bit of variation to keep the audience interested.

2nd clarinet and 1st bassoon take the tune for the next 2 bars, and 1st oboe and 2nd clarinet take it for the following 2 bars, after which there is a tutti forte recapitulation of the opening phrase. Although the 1st horn is marked forte in bars 13-16, and only piano when it has the tune in bars 1-8, you shouldn't play much louder, since you don't have the tune and are providing harmonic filling. The extra sound will come from all the other instruments taking a step up in dynamic and this being the first point at which all 8 players and playing at once.

The next 8 bars for me just contain some repeated semi-staccato semiquavers, pianissimo. 1st clarinet has the tune, everyone else is accompanying. I'll need to listen out carefully to make sure that the dynamics match (so the clarinet can come through without forcing) and also to match the length of the staccato notes - we will want all 5 instruments with those semiquavers to be doing them in the same style. Although the semi-staccato marking is only written in full for the first bar, it is clearly intended to be played the same to the end of the passage.

After the repeat, the oboe takes the tune, and 1st horn has an arpeggio passage. This isn't tune, it is a combination of supporting harmony and rhythm. I think I'll play the semiquavers a bit detached (we will be in a church, the acoustic will probably be a bit muddy) and then the quavers more legato.

The horns are mostly doing supporting stuff for a while, so all the principles I wrote about in the articles on the Eroica apply here, until we come to the double bar and the second subject.

At this point it all gets a bit darker as the piece modulates from a carefree Eb major into a much darker Bb minor. (The key signature isn't changed to reflect this, but you can work it out from the extra accidentals written in.) 1st horn has the tune again, but the accompaniment is even more pared-down than at the start - just 1st bassoon & 2nd horn playing quavers. There's no supporting rhythm, just a bit of harmony below. The tone and phrasing has to reflect this darker mood.

The first 8 bars are 2 repeated 4-bar phrases. In other circumstances I might consider echoing the 2nd set, playing it quieter for a contrast, but it doesn't seem appropriate here, the tension is intended to build through the next 8 bars which have a similar rhythm but are a tone higher. So I might do the the very slightest crescendo through the whole 16 bars to maintain this slight sense of menace, and drop back to pianissimo for the semi-staccato detached quavers in the 17th bar after the key change.

Although it's not written in to the horn part, the pianissimo is clearly intended to last only 3 notes, and the solo piano to return on the high G crotchet. The sf markings on the Ab notes are not major accents, it is just leaning into the note a bit, everyone does it the second & third times.

And with a pair of hairpins on two crotchets, we return with relief to the sunlit uplands of Eb major and a recapitulation of the original tune, with some small variation in the notes of the tune and a much busier accompaniment including 1st bassoon playing an Alberti bass below you. It's very important to make the recapitulation sound like a homecoming. The audience have been on a difficult journey, but they are back home safe now and can rest & relax.

The horns are now mostly supporting for a while, though 2nd horn has a busy demisemiquaver arpeggio passage for a few bars, which will probably be easier played all with 1st valve on the F side.

And we finally come to the coda, where the whole group shuts up and it is just the two horns with the tune and a bit of harmony. It's the same tune as at in the first 4 bars of the piece, but there is now a nasty twist - the 2nd & 4th bars of the original phrase are now repeated, marked con sordino. Definitely an echo effect intended here, but it is going to be tricky to get mutes in and out so quickly.

This is perhaps the earliest use of the con sord instruction for horns in Beethoven's work - about the only other example that comes to mind is the closing solo in the slow movement of the Pastoral Symphony.

But enough of history, there is still the need to work out how to play the con sord passages. For the 1st horn part, the answer to me is fairly straightforward. Even with the mute on a cord round my wrist, there's not time to swap between mute and hand. I don't want to play the open bars with the mute half-inserted, I don't like the effect on my tone. So I'm not going to attempt to use the mute, I'm going to play those bars handstopped. I can get a nice echo effect that way. But the second horn is also con sord, and playing in a much lower register, going down to a pedal C (actually Bb once you take into account the transposition). Handstopping doesn't work so well down there. Quite how we will address that is something we'll have to work out in rehearsal. There are various options available, and we'll have to see which works best for the player concerned. If I were playing it, I would be inclined to handstop the first con sord bar, and then handstop the first note of the next one, and just play the remaining two quavers (the low G and the pedal C) as quietly as possible, but not stopped.

So there you are. It's a small piece. It doesn't have the grandeur or drama of the Eroica symphony, but it has its musical and technical challenges, and I hope the audience will go home thinking "I hadn't heard that Beethoven piece before. It was rather beautiful, I'd like to hear it again sometime."


  1. Performing a new piece with a new group, on a few days notice, with what sounds like just one rehearsal - sure wish I could magically attain that skill level. Thanks for the link to the projecting sound post, I'd somehow missed it. Checked with the highest level player I know (formerly 1st chair trombone at Pittsburgh under Previn) about the ESP thing and he's totally in your camp. Thanks for the Goleman tip and the quote it led me to that I posted about. Hope the concert goes well and you get a good crowd. May the flow be with you.

  2. Well, the concert went fine, and Stephen Pound gave a very entertaining speech about Spencer Perceval.

    The 2nd horn and I did do a bit of "cheating" to sort out the con sord passages in the Rondino. Take a look at the link to the PDF of the score I included in the post, on the last page. The con sord bars in the first stanza were played handstopped by both of us, and the pedal Cs in the 2nd horn (actually a Bb once it is transposed) for both the open and stopped repetitions were moved up an octave for security and consistency.

    Then, as we had a few bars rest before the final entry, we put mutes in for the final passage. We figured that the security of pitch made that a better idea than trying to match tone exactly through handstopping the final passage, especially with those nasty octave leaps in the the 2nd horn part.

    On that final page, although 1st horn has the tune, 2nd has in fact much the harder part to play. And Mary, the 2nd horn managed it all extremely well, especially given that we really only had about 30 minutes rehearsal for the piece.

  3. Thanks for the report. Glad things went well. Sort of in awe of your doing it with 30 minutes of rehearsal and acting like that's no big deal. Being that proficient on the horn is nearly beyond my comprehension. Thanks for the tip on the horn literature on CDs

  4. Nice analysis. BTW, the minor section in Eb minor, not Bb minor.