Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Raising the tone 3 - Fitting your tone to the music

The most immaculate control over your tone quality is no use to you unless you have an idea as to what sorts of tone should be used and when. This takes us back to musicality, which I've discussed in previous posts. You can't discuss musicality much in abstract, it is best considered with particular examples in mind.

As it happens, I played Brahms 2nd Symphony last weekend with Hillingdon Philharmonic Orchestra, and it includes one of the great orchestral solos for horn, towards the end of the first movement, and a solo which happens to be perfect when considering how to use tone as part of your expression.

Here is the solo in full. (The part is for Horn in D.)

It starts off piano and dolce, growing out of a very calm mood that the music has reached at this point. The horn is accompanied only by held string chords played piano, so the horn provides the only movement here. The mood is calm bordering on serene. So the tone colour needs to match this.

So it needs the lightest of attack on the first note, barely tongued at all - the note should emerge rather than specifically start, and the tone should be as smooth as you can make it, not the slightest hint of any brassy edge. The tone doesn't need to be dark, there is no foreboding here. Everything should sound perfectly relaxed over the top of a A7 chord in the strings held for the first 2 bars.

Then things start to get a bit darker. The accompaniment goes into an E minor chord and then progresses though a number of keys, all minor, and the horn starts a crescendo. The solo is gradually rising in pitch, in dynamic and in speed with the stringendo. There is a sense of urgency about it, even perhaps of menace or danger. The tone colour needs to reflect this. More volume gradually of course, but also a bit more of a brassy edge to it. Not too much, just enough to help contribute to the urgent mood.

The sense of danger increases through the stringendo, especially in the bars which start with a crotchet rest for the horn. The attack on the crotchet following needs to be much firmer to put a stress on the 2nd beat of each bar - each 2nd beat is starting at a new and higher pitch and so adding to the urgency, so stress it, give it a harder tone to go with the attack, and come off a bit for the slurred note following. At the same time, the accompaniment is getting louder and moving faster to add to the effect.

And then you come to the held written Ab, marked forte. This is the climax of the phrase, and it has to sing. The instant you hit the note, you are still in urgent mood, but at this point that accompaniment suddenly ceases to move. It isn't quite a happy chord it stops on - it is a diminished 7th underneath the horn, but the sense of running from some great danger suddenly passes. The horn has triumphed over its enemies! So the Ab should have a firm attack and an edge to the tone just for the instant of the attack, and then immediately the tone should turn into a big mellow sonorous sound, and everybody in the audience can go "Ahhhh!". The volume needs to be held throughout the note. The strings reduce to piano over the next 2 bars, leaving the horn in heroic possession of the battlefield.

And then we can start to relax. There is a diminuendo over the next three bars, followed by a final flourish ending on a concert D with a perfect cadence underneath in the strings. Everything is now perfectly happy and relaxed and the mood restored to the serene state it had at the start of the solo. The instruction to the whole orchestra as the solo ends is in tempo, ma piu tranquillo, "in time but calmer". You match this with your next entry (still quite prominent) after 4 bars rest. The music retains this serene mood as the movement gradually winds down to its ending a minute or so later.

The solo isn't the greatest technical challenge - it isn't particularly high or loud or fast. But it is a great musical challenge. By means of tone colour and expression you have to communicate serenity, danger, heroism, relaxation and tranquility in quick succession to the audience. Few solos call for such an expressive range in such a short time.

Let's consider a couple of other items. Here is the opening to Tchaikovsky's 1st Piano Concerto.

It is fortissimo for all four horns in unison. In the 2nd, 3rd and 4th bars, there is nothing else playing except for a brief but huge orchestral chord on the 2nd beat of each bar. This is clearly an heroic call to arms for the contest between piano and orchestra that is about to begin. (It is such a great tune that it is amazing that Tchaikovsky never bothers to repeat it in this form again.) You need a big bold brash sound with a firm decisive attack on each note, and each quaver needs to be held for its full length. Quite a bit of brassiness is perfectly appropriate here.

And now for something completely different. This is the opening of Bruckner's 4th Symphony.

The piece starts with the strings ppp holding a tremolo chord in Eb, and the horn comes in on the dominant of this chord. "Immer deutlich hervortretend" literally translated is "always clearly protruding" (The score actually has the instruction "ausdrucksvoll" or "expressively" on the entry). So, your sound has to be clearly heard, but that isn't going require a great volume over strings playing as quietly as they know how. So there's always going to be a risk with this solo. The mood is calm and serene, and your entry has to be the same. So you can't tongue it heavily, even though a light entry greatly increases the risk of a clam on the opening note. You have to minimise this by having the note visualised before you start. It's a semitone higher than the oboe's tuning A, an octave higher than the note initially held by the first violins, and the dominant of the opening chord. Whatever technique you use for obtaining a pitch reference for the entry, make sure that you concentrate really hard for it!

The tone has to be as clear as spring water and with hardly a care in the world. This entry is not easy but you must make it seem the easiest and most natural thing in the world to play on the horn. With Bruckner even the loud passages don't require a brassy edge to them, they require a big fat sonorous sound to them, but this passage is not loud. The Bb semiquaver must be deliberately and accurately placed, and the slur back to the F has to be perfectly smooth - you must practice this until you can completely eliminate any risk of hitting any intermediate harmonic on the way up.

The Gb of the second entry has a slightly darker harmony under it, but you don't need to take much notice of that. Just concentrate on giving the Gb the same tone as the opening F. Everything resolves back into Eb major when you return to the F.

The last entry is lower in pitch and lower in volume, and the strings at last start moving around and becoming more prominent, even though nominally still ppp. Let the last note fade to nothing. After that, the passage is repeated with 1st flute, 1st oboe and both clarinets sharing the tune you have just played.

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