Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Lots of Brahms

This weekend, I'm in a scratch orchestra going down to Uckfield in Sussex to accompany a choir singing the Brahms Requiem, and also to play the Brahms "Variations on a theme by Haydn".

I haven't been given the part yet, and in fact I don't yet know which of the 4 parts I will play. With this group it apparently gets sorted out on the day.

But I can still take a look at the music. I already have a copy as a result of having bought several volumes of the Orchestra Musician's CD ROM Library. For any music student, professional player or even keen amateur, this is an absolutely invaluable resource. The CD contains scanned copies in Acrobat PDF format of the complete horn parts of just about all the major orchestral works that are out of copyright. All of Brahms orchestral works are in Volume 3, and so I can print out parts for all 4 symphonies, both piano concertos, the violin concerto and double concerto, the Requiem, all the Hungarian Dances in orchestrations by various composers, the Alto Rhapsody, both Serenades, both concert overtures, the Haydn Variations and a couple of other works. And on the same CD ROM are the major orchestral works by Chabrier, Chausson, Chopin, Franck, Lalo, Liszt, Offenbach, Sarasate, Schumann and Suppe. All for about £15 for that volume. There are 11 volumes so far published covering everything from Auber to Wagner, via Bach, Beethoven, Bruckner, Dvorak, Haydn, Mahler, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Tchaikovsky and many many more.

If you are likely to get called up to play unfamiliar works with unfamiliar orchestras, then at least if the piece is out of copyright you can print out the part and take a look beforehand.

I've played both these pieces before, but it never hurts to take a look and re-familiarise yourself with the part. Even though I only play for fun, as far as I'm concerned this is part of taking a professional attitude to music and performance. Even though I'm not getting paid, the audience will be paying to hear us, and they deserve the best performance I can manage.

So, a quick look at the horn parts for the Requiem reveals initially that there is the usual range of transpositions. The 1st part starts in F, then is in "tief Bb" for the 2nd movement. If you aren't sure what "tief" means in English, look it up, there are plenty of German-English dictionaries online. And in doing so, you learn that "tief" means "low". So the transposition is Bb basso, down a perfect 5th. It becomes obvious in the passage at letter I which goes up to a written top C, which would be a super-high F if the part were Bb alto. Brahms never wrote so high for the horn. The 3rd movement is in D, the 4th in Eb, the 5th in D, the 6th in C, and the 7th back in F.

Interestingly, the 3rd & 4th horns have different transpositions from the 1st & 2nd. 3 & 4 are tacet for the 1st movement but are in "tief C" (C basso) for the 2nd movement and tief Bb for the 3rd. Brahms was never all that keen on valved horns, so wrote transposing parts for hand horn as far as possible, though he wasn't above including notes in the parts that are not on the harmonic sequence! And that in fact is the major challenge of this piece - the horn parts have all sorts of odd notes and accidentals. Your transposition really has to be secure to play this confidently.

I've been transposing since I was 10 years old. In my first year of high school, I was put into the school brass band playing 4th horn, and in the first term they were playing the "Liberty Bell" march. But British brass bands don't normally use the french horn (though military bands, a completely different kind of ensemble, do). Instead, brass bands use the Eb tenor horn, which looks like an young tuba. So the part in front of me was for 4th horn in Eb. I took the part home, slightly flummoxed and showed it to my parents. My father (an accomplished amateur clarinettist) said "This one time, I'll write the part out for you in F, but after that, you're on your own and you will have to learn transposition." And that is what happened, and I have been transposing ever since when required. And it can be quite a useful skill, because it means that in any kind of group, if they are short on some instrument within my range, I can just pick up the part and transpose as needed. Bassoon, tuba, euphonium, saxophone or even trumpet parts get played from time to time.

But being good at transposing requires that you keep practicing - keeping the knowledge well-oiled. So I'll take a look over the parts and check out any awkward notes. For instance, the 1st horn part in the 3rd movement (horn in D) has Cb and Fb and Ab, which are certainly not notes you would commonly see in a transposed part. A quick fingering check of the offending passage will be needed - the last thing you want is to see such odd notes for the first time in the final rehearsal, and panic as you work out what the note transposes to!

If you don't know which part you are going to play, it is always a good idea to look through the lower parts as well as 1st. Of course, you need to be prepared if it turns out that you are on 1st chair, but you also don't want to look silly if you are on a lower part and there is a tricky passage which trips you up. And I notice that the 2nd part does have one or two such passages. For instance the 4th movement (in Eb) has a 2-octave descending arpeggio passage down to a pedal C that looks as if it might be quite exposed (Brahms does a similar trick several times in the 1st Serenade). So that will need a bit of a look.

Then there are the Haydn variations. This is the famous "St Anthony Chorale". Brahms provides a simple orchestration to the initial theme, and then goes off into a total of eight variations and a finale. With some of the variations, you do need to listen very hard to work out what relation they have to the original theme! But you don't really need to know in order to enjoy listening to the piece. More transposition - horns 1 & 2 are in tief Bb, and horns 3 & 4 are in a mixture of F and Eb.

1st horn has occasional solo fragments, and has the tune for much of variation 4 . The horns are all prominent in variation 6. Horn 3 has what looks like some prominent moments in variation 3, and variation 7. If you don't know the work already, a dead giveaway for an exposed passage, even if not marked solo (they often aren't) is the instruction espressivo, (often abbreviated to espr). And sure enough, that instruction is in variation 7 in the 3rd horn part. Horn in F at that point, so no difficulty with transposition, but it will need to be projected. I'll have a look at that as well.

The main thing with Brahms though is the overall style. Brahms' music for the most part is extremely gentle. He doesn't often go in for the loud climaxes of Tchaikovsky. But he really understands the horn and how to write for it. He writes gorgeous horn parts, which demand a particular playing style, including the following characteristics.
  • Smooth projected tone in the exposed passages, usually very legato. Avoid any kind of brassy edge to the tone.
  • Clearly articulated (but not aggressive) staccatos where required.
  • Accents don't need to be too aggressive. Ping them and fall back, you don't need to exaggerate and you need to play them within the context of your smooth tone colour.
  • Careful blending into the background when the horns are not solo.
  • Forte sustained notes should generally be given a bit of an accent to start with and then drop back to mf or even mp. Sustained whole-bar notes are not the most interesting things to listen to, so you must give the tune (whoever is playing it) a chance to come through.
  • "Hairpin" markings need to be scrupulously observed and if anything a little exaggerated, but make sure that having increased in dynamic you drop down again properly during the decrescendo. Often a pair of hairpins is intended to bring out just 2 or 3 notes to the foreground before you return to being an anonymous part of the texture. Do that without the conductor having to tell you (both the crescendo and decrescendo), and you can save a good deal of rehearsal time which can be spent on trickier stuff. The conductor will be grateful.
The overall message is that you coax the sound out of the instrument, you don't force it. This is musicality for playing Brahms. Other composers have different requirements, but this is what Brahms asks for.

And how do I know this? I've played most of Brahms' orchestral works, and partly from what the conductor says, and partly from listening to the music itself, this is what I've discovered about it. As you become familiar with a composer's style, you think yourself more or less automatically into that style when you get a piece of his to play. Players of the other instruments will express in slightly different terms what is needed of them to make their own particular contribution to the overall sound. But I suspect that all will think generally in terms of the smoothness of the tone required and the blending that is needed.

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