THE VANHAL CONCERTO
Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven. The three composers that seem to define what we now call the Viennese Classical period. And yet, as is often the case with the all too human attempts to categorize any-and everything that surrounds us, we end up with a picture that is far from complete.
First of all, neither of these three great composers were actually "Viennese". Second, although even during their lifetimes they were considered - at least by the cognoscenti - to be great composers, they were by no means the only great names at the time.
It is important to remember that what we call "history" is in great part an interpretation or at the least a biased selection of facts and figures that later generations find more relevant than others.
Although there is no denying that Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven were great composers, we tend to give them so much attention that others (for whom we invented the not very flattering moniker of "lesser" composers) become almost totally eclipsed by comparison. Composers that might now be considered "great", had they had the fortune to live and work in diffent times and with less competition.
Johann Baptist Vanhal is such a composer. Only recently have we begun to really research his life and work, and it is becoming clear that he was one of the most interesting musicians of his time.
When we talk about "classical" style, we often forget that this was a period of great changes. Especially in the Austrian territory and in Vienna, baroque traditions remained in use for a long time. This is a fact that is sometimes overlooked, and that does have its importance when we try to find out how to play certain pieces. During the 18th century we see an evolution from baroque to pre-romanticism, and many works contain remainders of an older style as well as newer elements. From our present-day point of view, we often focus on what was new and exciting at the time and we neglect the older, more conservative elements that were also part of the classical style.
My interest in the solo- and chambermusic for double bass from the Austrian classical period has led me to look into these and other important elements that can shed light on better ways to interpret the music.
The double bass concerto by Vanhal is part of a fascinating legacy of around 30 known concertos from that period, and countless chamber music works with solo double bass. It is one of the most popular bass concertos in the repertoire. And yet i feel there is still very much to be discovered about how to play it.
So, instead of producing yet another run-of-the-mill version, and instead of following the usual, overly romanticized interpretations we so often hear, i have taken a closer look at the piece. Several points merit some explanation. When playing "ancient music", be it medieval, baroque or classical, or indeed romantic, many musicians just "play it by ear". And that ear is a modern one, conditioned by modern music education, modern instruments, modern ways of playing and interpretation, modern ways of making sound and of using the bow, of phrasing and feeling, and not to forget, of music notation and reading.
When i say "modern", i mean a tradition that stems from the romantic period. Present-day musicians have been formed within a system that has little or no connection with how music was performed before the 19th century. Sadly, we are taught that music practice naturally evolves, over time, from primitive to sophisticated. Or in the words of the Beatles, that "it's getting better all the time". Instruments get better, we play better, we know better. This is a modern way of thinking that is in fact a fallacy, and that stops many musicians from really trying to find out what historical playing is all about. After all, why should they? If things are getting better and better, then "historical practice" must mean a step back, no?
Well, no. As has been pointed out by distinguished scholars and artists: every gain is a loss at the same time.
One of these artists is Nicolaus Harnoncourt. And although it seems to have become "bon ton" in certain ancient music circles to belittle Harnoncourt's enormous contributions to the field, both in writing and in practice, i still have to come across a musician and researcher who attains the same level of integrity, eloquence, conviction, insight, common sense, musicality... and i could go on for a while.
In the meantime - on the 23rd of january 2014, to be precise - i have acquired and read Barthold Kuijken's book "The Notation is not the Music" (Indiana University Press). Another "unputdownable" book by a remarkable artist, which i feel should be compulsory reading at any conservatory worthy of that name, and for every serious musician or student. Not only for those in the Ancient Music department.
Instruments have become "better", read: louder, more balanced, smoother, easier to play in tune. We play on modern steel strings that stay in tune and that sound the same over the entire range of the instrument. How could that be a loss? Well, it is a loss in the sense that the element of "differenciation" has gone. Composers always wrote for the instruments they knew, and they were very good at using all the possibilities (and the "weaknesses") of those instruments. They used the "unequal" qualities of instruments, strings and tunings for purposes of colouring and of creating tension within the music. Articulations could be rendered more colourful and incisive than with our so perfectly equal and smooth modern instruments. Modulations could be made into really dramatic changes, because the tuning temperaments were not based on equal semi-tones throughout the scale. In this way, modulations away from a tonal centre could create great tension, and this tension was then resolved as the music moved back to its tonal "home base".
In modern playing, we have ironed out all these differences to the point that we now prefer the comfortable, smoothed-over versions of a once colourful music full of contrasts and surprises.
Another problem is notation. In music education, we learn the symbols that make up musical notation, we learn the meaning of the notes and the dots, the signs and the slurs, we learn a set of clear and simple rules that will help us understand the written music language. Or so we think. Unfortunately, the same signs can (and do) mean very different things in different times. This means that in order to get closer to some form of "authenticity" we have to find out what the signs meant, back then. And sometimes their meaning is very different from the one we have learned in school.
Many ancient pieces of music are now available in modern editions. In these, somebody (the editor) has often "arranged" the notation so as to make it easier to read, or because he has a different opinion from the composer about articulation, or because he just misinterprets the original signs, and "translates" them into modern ones. And sometimes, he has to guess at what the composer or his copyist wrote, because manuscripts can be hard to read or to interpret, especially if you're not used to it.
So, with all this background information, let us go back to Vanhal's bass concerto. Whenever i have to play a historical piece i try to go to the source: the manuscript. In this particular case of Vanhal's double bass concerto, there is only one known source. It is a manuscript copy. (Most professional musicians in those days also worked as copyists. They copied works for themselves, but also for other composers). Johann Matthias Sperger was a great bass virtuoso at the time. He left us a great number of manuscripts of his own compositions, but also of other composers' bass pieces. And the Vanhal concerto is one of them. Researchers presume that Vanhal wrote the concerto for Sperger, but we're not really sure about that. There was another bass soloist at the time (actually the were quite a number of them), name of Kämpfer, and some scholars say (without much conviction) it might just be possible that it was written for him.
There are a number of very interesting things about this manuscript. First of all it seems to contain two different handwritings. The first copyist wrote the notes of the concerto and all that is needed to play it: dynamics, articulations. The second one added a great number of 8va-signs over extended passages, and also some suggestions for small changes in the notes. It is generally believed these indications are by Sperger (it is also possible that both sets of indications stem from the same author. The seemingly less careful later additions could have been added - somewhat in haste - by the same person who copied the whole bass part. Graphological research might show who did what, but as far as i know such research has not been done for this concerto).
From what we know about Sperger, he must have been a bit of a show-off, who liked to demonstrate what he could do on the bass. When we look at the 8va-signs, we can't help being reminded of that. Actually, most of these 8va's are, dare i say, in somewhat poor taste. They are, in my opinion, not there to improve the musical qualities of the piece, but just to make the soloist look flashy.
(Nothing has really changed, has it? Bass players still do this occasionally: taking passages up one octave. Sometimes this is done to improve audibility over the accompaniment of the orchestra or the piano, but often there is an element of "showing-off" involved as well. In many of these cases there seems to be a lack of musical understanding. I remember an edition of a Bach gamba-sonata in which the editor chose to transpose certain passages one octave up, not realising that the solo part and the accompaniment form one musical entity, one whole that can not be tampered with, without upsetting the musical logic of the composition).
This is an important point, because Vanhal was known to be quite the classy composer, with impeccable taste and a very developed feel for construction and balance in his music. Also, we know that one of the important differences between the Austrian classical violin concerto and its Italian counterpart was precisely that, whereas Italian concertos tended to go up into the highest register much of the time, the Austrian composers chose their few passages in the high positions with the utmost care and taste. Sperger however, being a performer and a showman, might not always have cared about taste so much (at least in his role as a player - many of his other works are very tasteful. There is a cantata, for instance, "Jesus in Banden" which is absolutely delicious. A recording of this work exists and is available to members of the Sperger-Gesellschaft in Germany).
Second interesting point about the manuscript: the articulations. Being a handwritten copy, the articulations seem a bit awkward when you first look at them. The slurs seem to be in strange places over the notes. In groups of four eight-notes, a slur will sometimes start on the 2nd note and end on the 4th. Or it will start on the 1st and end on the 3rd. Or the two middle notes will be slurred. And in some cases there seems to be a slur over just one note. This seems puzzling for a minute, until you realise that this is not printed music. It's handwritten. And a copyist didn't always have the time to be really precise.
So how do we know what is the right slur? It's easy: when a note doesn't belong under the slur, the copyist puts a dot or a slash over (or under) that note. If there is no dot, all the notes belong under the slur. This writing system can be found in many of Sperger's scores, and it's the easiest to see in the orchestral ones: when all string instruments play the same rhythms and articulations (as in unisono passages) you often find that the slurs are placed a bit haphazardly in the different string parts. The unifying detail is the dot. The dot over a note says: i don't belong under the slur. No dot means: all notes slurred, even if the slur sign itself is written too short to include all the notes. There are some modern editions where the editor has made the rather painful mistake of interpreting the handwritten, "sloppy" slurs very literally, which makes for the most awkward articulations, that really go against the music. This is one of the reasons why i prefer to use manuscript copies rather than printed editions (another reason is that manuscripts are so much more inspiring to read and to play from. You're actually looking at the same image as the composer and the player of a few hundred years ago).
While we're on the subject of articulations: in Sperger's music the articulations are usually quite precise. Sperger indicates a great many different types of articulations that are very interesting because here we see a virtuoso player writing down his own, personal way of playing! (On the other hand we also know that in fact we don't always have to take the given articulations too seriously, and that there was quite some freedom for the solo player to articulate differently, within the limitations of the style. However, i have found that most of the times the written articulations are truly inspiring, and they give a lot of life to the music, but...)
But... you have to know how to articulate the articulations. In modern playing, influenced by the "singing" quality we so obsessively try to achieve in everything we play (the so-called "legato-vibrato syndrome" as described by Julie Lyonn Lieberman, an American jazz violinist) we tend to "polish" and smoothe over the original articulations. Viennese articulations are more angular, less singing, more pronounced, shorter. Note values are shortened, even in passages that look like they need to be "sung". The trick is to play short but with a long "feel". Meaning: with resonance, like a bell sound. The bow leaves the string, but the left hand stays on the string. The concept of the "Tonkopf" (literally tone-head, i.e. the beginning of the note, the attack) was well known by musicians. With the way a note is started one can suggest its duration. A sharp, incisive attack will suggest a shorter note than a round, warm one. For long notes there is no need to "squeeze" the sound out of the instrument with the bow, romantic fashion: the attack itself can suggest a long note without the player having to really sustain its full written length.
Playing literally what is written is a modern concept that very often leads to mistakes in ancient music. Viennese tuning, with the resonant qualities of its open strings and harmonics of course helps a lot to achieve this kind of esthetic. And the use of gut strings makes a huge difference, because gut bass strings almost automatically give you that sought-after bellsound. Tied pairs of notes need a more baroque articulation (remember when i spoke of baroque influences in Viennese classical music?) whereby the second note almost disappears, creating a kind of "sighing" effect. In series of such short articulations the result is very beautiful, but we're not used to playing that way. Instead, we try to "sing" and to create a unifying bow stroke, thereby destroying all the articulated charm of this music.
In fact, according to some researchers, the type of articulation that is used in music is often connected to the language or dialect that was spoken in a certain region at a certain time. If this is so (and it seems plausible to me) then we really don't need to go for that international "singing" quality in everything we play.
(On this subject, may i say that in my opinion music education has got it wrong in teaching students they should always "sing" through their instruments, and that every instrument should aspire to imitate the singing voice. I don't agree with that dogma. Instead, i think music would benefit from a different concept. Singing is not the one and only thing we should do. Speaking is just as important. We should try to speak through our instruments. Tell a story, talk to the audience through music, convince musically the way you convince, seduce, or communicate in normal life. We seem to have lost a speaking quality in playing music. Sing, by all means, when the music needs to sing, but speak when it has to speak).
The articulations in Vanhal's concerto are usually "corrected" by modern players. There are several reasons for this: many players seem to think that differing articulations must be mistakes in the score, so they make them the same. Second, the original articulations are often technically quite demanding, not only in Viennese tuning but even more so on a modern bass tuned in fourths. Third, steel strings and modern bows don't really help to bring out the subtle differences, so why bother?
The result is often a smooth and rather uninteresting rendition of the piece. In the original we find different articulations in exposition and recapitulation. Sadly, most modern performers play the same articulation twice, which robs the piece of one of its charms. In the second movement, the beautiful melody is written with a short, sighing articulation the first time. When it comes back, near the end, the slurs are longer. This makes for a subtle but wonderful effect and it illustrates the sheer class of Vanhal as a composer. Whereas the first theme has a feeling of sadness and sighing, the second time it surrenders to a feeling of tender resignation. The same effects can be found in both outer movements, where different articulations for otherwise similar figures make for a feeling of great excitement. It is only by highlighting these different articulations that the music really starts to speak.
|Adagio, first time with short, sighing articulations...|
|...and the second time, more legato. And an appoggiatura added.|
|Again: shorter, sighing articulations...|
|...and longer ones, slurred per four notes. A different character.|
This very competently organised concerto, without any structural weaknesses, from the bold opening of the first movement to the adrenalin of the finale, and with one of the most beautiful Andantes in all of the Viennese concerto repertoire, firmly establishes Vanhal as a first-rate composer. In my opinion it deserves an interpretation that respects the exceptional richness of its articulations and of the emotions that go with them.
LECTURE : ARTICULATIONS IN VIENNESE CLASSICAL SOLO DOUBLE BASS MUSIC
(Brussels Conservatory / School of Arts, 2012)
The title of this lecture, apart from the preposition, contains six words or concepts which in themselves would each deserve their own lecture, article or book.
Whether we consider musicology or musical research to be a real science or not, we still have to try and use some form of method in our work, so that we can at least have the illusion that we’re talking the same "language". The first thing to do would be to define our terms as precisely as possible. All too often, we talk and write about things without realizing that each of us may have very different ideas or definitions of the subjects we’re talking about.
In the case of this lecture’s title, we would have to define the terms “Articulation”, “Viennese”, “Classical”, “Viennese Classical”, “Solo”, “Double Bass”, and “Music”. Granted, some of these concepts are probably clear enough to us musicians, so we can perhaps skip them. (Notice in this phrase the word “probably”, as in “probably the best beer in the world”. The frequent use of biasing words such as “probably” in musicological writings can give an overall impression of authority, even in cases where “maybe” or “possibly” would be a more honest or neutral word choice. But going into this would make for a different, if not less fascinating lecture, and we have no time today to take too many detours. Even though “When you’re in a hurry, take a detour” is one of my favorite Chinese proverbs).
So, back to our definitions. In order to save some time, let’s assume for the moment that we all agree on what “articulations” are, musically speaking. The next word is "Viennese". The description “Viennese” is a bit misleading, because we’re not talking about music that is geographically limited to the city of Vienna. Rather, we can see Vienna as a pars pro toto, as a nucleus or a centre of gravity around which different regions and cities, sometimes quite far away from Vienna itself, received its influences. The fact that we perceive “Vienna” as a separate cultural entity as opposed to France, Italy or Germany is closely connected to political history, which again might be the subject of another lecture (the countries we now call Italy or Germany didn’t exist as such, back then).
“Viennese Classical Double Bass Music”: the word “Classical” is another concept that can have different interpretations. Here, it means the period roughly between 1760 and 1820, give or take a few years.
2. The Instrument
“Double Bass” refers to an instrument that is basically a 16ft string bass, although in its solo function as discussed today, it rarely descends very low. As a matter of fact, its lowest string in its 4-string version was tuned to low A, just a minor third below the cello’s low C, and most of its music sits comfortably within the cello range. (The word “comfortably” is not without importance here, because the Viennese bass, through its tuning and set‐up, offers the player great comfort and enables him or her to play in a virtuosic way without sounding artificial or forced, the way the modern bass as a solo instrument sometimes does).
The Double Bass as used in Vienna and in its surrounding regions was a rather special instrument. It was quite unique compared to basses elsewhere in Europe. Its shape, construction, tuning and the way it was played were specifically “Viennese”. Viennese basses of the classical period are instantly recognizable as such. Though there were small individual differences, it almost seems as if there was an agreement among violin makers on how the basses were made and what they should look like. The Viennese Bass, originally a five‐string instrument with gut frets, was tuned, from top to bottom : A-‐F#-‐D-‐A, with a variable 5th string, theoretically tuned to F natural but only rarely used in solo music. In later years Johann Matthias Sperger, one of the greatest Viennese bass virtuosi, might have used a four‐string bass that was intended for use as a solo instrument only.
It may seem strange to have both an F and an F# string in one instrument. Actually an older version of this tuning didn’t have the F# but an F natural, and was thus tuned to a d-minor chord instead of the later D-major. It’s also important to realize that many historical double bass tunings had an F for their lowest string. In fact, instrument tunings often followed vocal practice. The double bass simply mimicked the prescribed limits of the human voice. There was no musical-technical reason for the lowest string to be tuned to F, only a kind of theoretical one.
Later on, we see that in real life the 5th string could be tuned anywhere between D and F. Joseph Focht ("Der Wiener Kontrabass") points out how one can establish the real tuning of the 5th string by looking at the "chordal" left hand grips in certain concertos. Still, bearing in mind that the lowest and thickest bass strings were the most problematic ones as far as sound volume and response was concerned, it did make some sense to give them more tension by tuning them up.
Even as the chordal bass tunings were given up in favour of a uniform tuning in fourths, the lowest string was sometimes tuned to F rather than to the more logical E.
In this context, it may seem contradictory that we often find notes as low as C for string bass instruments in ancient music, even if they couldn’t be realized, but these notes never have any motivic or melodic importance, and are mainly used in cadences (as in IV – V – I). Bass players were used to playing these notes an octave higher whenever needed. It would be a mistake to jump to conclusions as to the real ambitus of bass instruments, based on these theoretical cadential formulas.
Anyway, in solo double bass music the 5th string was rarely if ever used, and in a very few instances it was only needed in chordal passages (where the left hand is just clamped down on the fingerboard in a sort of guitar-chord or gamba style while the bow makes the articulations).
The Viennese Bass comes under different names, from Violone over Terz‐Quart Violon to Contrab(b)asso. Even Schubert still used the term “Violone”. (By the Way, Schubert's “Trout” Quintet seems to have been written for the Viennese Bass, at least according to Joseph Focht. If that is so, it's a fact which is always overlooked in so‐called “authentic” performances).
In Sperger’s manuscripts we see an evolution from “Violone” to “Contrabasso”, which is the name he used most often. In the lingo of musicologists, a “TerzQuart” or “Third-Fourth” instrument would be one in which there were more thirds than fourths (such as the Viennese Bass) as opposed to a “Fourth-Third” instrument, where there would be more fourths than thirds (such as the viola da gamba, which has only one third between the middle strings). It would lead us too far to go into instrument nomenclature here. This is a subject on which much has been written, and much more will be written in years to come.
Authors argue quite polemically about this sensitive issue, because especially in the case of the term “Violone”, both cellists and bassists often pathetically try to prove that the instrument belongs to their “camp”. The funny thing is that, when one reads an article about the Violone, one can often tell whether it was written by a cellist or by a bass player. The views are biased, information is interpreted in opposite ways or simply left out if it doesn’t fit the author’s convictions, and the emotions are almost tangible. This is one of the reasons why, in my introduction, I expressed some doubt as to whether musicology is really a science.
As I said, the Viennese Classical Bass is instantly recognizable. It has an elongated gamba shape, flat back, a very typical ornamented pegbox, five strings and seven frets. Its string length is typically around 110 cm, which is very long by today’s standards. Gut bass strings back then needed to be really long because otherwise they would sound quite weak in the bass register. The use of frets went a long way towards making such a long string playable, and even enabled the use of extension fingerings. When the frets disappeared, towards the end of the 18th century, string lengths on the bass generally diminished somewhat– but there were some other reasons for that as well : the strings got better, and the tuning in fourths (with its different playing style, imposed by the general stylistic changes in music) that replaced the third‐fourth tuning of the Viennese bass needed more position shifting. A shorter string length made shifting easier.
As a matter of fact, the specific Viennese tuning minimizes shifting to a great extent. Left hand position technique was quite different from modern bass technique, in the sense that “vertical” playing (across the strings in one position) was at least as common as “horizontal” playing (up and down on one string). This way of playing was used even in the highest positions (thumb position) where players like Sperger or Kämpfer utilized this technique on the top three strings all the way up to the end of the fingerboard.
The sound of the Viennese bass is less “bassy” than what we hear or expect from modern basses. It has more of a baritone to tenor‐like quality instead of a basso profundo. This has to do with various factors : the frets, the gut strings, and the tuning. One could say that the Viennese bass has two top strings instead of just one : whereas on the modern bass we have the G “chanterelle” (or the A in solo tuning), on the Viennese bass it is as if the G string has been split into an A and an F# string, giving you two chanterelles instead of one. Moreover, the 3rd string (D), being plain gut and sounding only a fourth below the 1st string’s A, also retains some of the sound colour of a top string. This makes for a brilliant gamba-or bassoon-like sound. For the modern player and listener this takes some getting used to: the size of the instrument belies its actual sound. We expect a big, boomy sound from such a big instrument, but we get something more reedy, a tad nasal, with a silvery quality and lots of resonance.
Resonance is one of the main qualities of the Viennese bass. The fact that the instrument is tuned to the chord of D Major gives a lot of resonance to the open strings and harmonics, and the light gut strings allow the instrument to “breathe” freely and to maximize vibration of the soundboard. The open D and A strings resonate sympathically, adding to the “3D”‐sound of the instrument. (Added resonance is the main reason why I usually tune the bottom string to low D instead of the theoretical F).
With its D‐tuning it is no wonder that most of the solo pieces written for the Viennese Violone are in the key of D Major. The instrument sounds at its best, and is played the most easily, in D and in a few of the neighbouring tonalities. From very early on, a scordatura in Eb, E or even F (Sperger) could add some variety to this constant D major diet. In that case the whole instrument was tuned a half‐step up, or more. This was not such a crazy idea: bass players were often required to tune up or down in order to play in Chorton or Kammerton, which were somewhere between a half and a whole step apart. With the rather thin string gauge they used, this was perfectly feasible. Constantly changing back and forth between two different tuning standards also gave the bass players a very good insight into the different sound colours and technical consequences that resulted from tuning up or down.
The half‐step scordatura had two advantages: some variation from the ubiquitous D‐major, but especially the fact that the bass in Eb continued to have the same advantages of easy fingering and resonant sound, whereas the accompanying string instruments were now obliged to play in the more difficult key of Eb, which meant less open strings for them and thus a more muffled sound, and more fork fingerings in the woodwinds. The result was always that the solo bass could sound brilliant (even more so than in D major because of the heightened string tension), while the accompaniment became more subdued. Mozart used the same trick in his Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola, where the viola is tuned a half step higher than the other instruments. Still, not everybody approved of such methods:
“Dem Verfasser ist aus seinen Jugendjahren her ein lächerlicher Vorgang der Art geblieben. Ein geübter Violoncellist seiner Vaterstadt spielte im Wochen-Concert ein Solo aus Es‐dur, hatte sich aber aus übelangewandtem Virtuosen‐Pfiff seine Solo‐Stimme ins D‐dur gesetzt, und sein Instrument in’s Es hinaufgestimmt, weil aus diesem Töne viel handsamer zu spielen ist. Während er also die leichtere D- Applikatur griff, klang sein Violoncell in Es. Aber wie widerwärtig war dies! Das Orchester spielte im bedeckten Es‐Charakter, er im offenen D mit überdiess erhöhter Saitenspannung”.
(Friedrich Ludwig Bührlein, 1825 as quoted in Joseph Focht’s “Der Wiener Kontrabass”) (p.47)
(Here Bührlein recalls a concert he attended as a youth. A cellist played a solo in Eb, but having tuned the cello up a semi-tone, he actually played in the technically easier, more open-sounding tonality of D, with higher string tension, whereas the orchestra played in the more subdued Eb. Bührlein didn't appreciate the resulting sound...)
Let me explain, first of all, how i got interested in the specific subject of articulation in Viennese bass music. An interest or a fascination, a curiosity for a certain subject usually has its origin in personal experience. Something moves you, or strikes you as odd, or rings a bell, and then you try to more know about it, find out what it is that set off your interest.
(In the field of neuroscience, neurologists like Daniel J. Levitin have made very interesting discoveries about what goes on in the brain when one engages in musical activity, both as a player and as a listener, and have pointed out the physiologically measurable mechanisms that are at work when we are attracted to or repulsed by certain types of music. He also sees a rather recent evolution towards a greater importance of timbre in our appreciation of music. This might partially explain why some of us are especially fond of “ancient music” and the sound colours it produces – other writers and philosophers see other reasons, from the desire to stand out or to be special, to a form of snobbery, or to a dislike of “mainstream” classical music and of the values it represents).
(For Levitin, see “Your Brain on Music – the Science of a Human Obsession”, Daniel J. Levitin, Plume/Penguin Books 2007. Despite its “popular-science” title it is a thoroughly documented and fascinating book.
For the “other writers”, see “Playing with History – The Historical Approach to Musical performance” by John Butt, Cambridge University Press 2002, a very interesting overview of what music philosophers think about HIP in relation to general history and to society as a whole).
In this particular case, it was a modern edition of the Concerto for Double Bass by Johan Baptist Vanhal that set off my “alarm”. The opening bars of the solo bass, after the orchestral introduction, presented some very awkward, "clumsy" articulations. For instance, the group of four 16th-notes in the second bar was divided in one detached note followed by three slurred notes, which produced a jerky, limping effect (blue circle):
It just didn’t seem right. Of course, the main reasons for this feeling might have been:
1/the many times i had heard the piece on record, and
2/ having played the concerto from another edition, which had different slurs. Indeed, one of my first double bass recordings had been of precisely this concerto, played by the late great Ludwig Streicher. Unconsciously i must have compared this edition to the aural memory that lingered in my head. One often has a "favorite" interpretation of a piece, but that doesn't mean it's "right" or that other interpretations must be "wrong".
Still, my curiosity had been aroused and i took a look at the facsimile of the manuscript which i had found in yet another edition, by Klaus Trumpf, the eminent Sperger‐scholar. But when you look at the handwritten part, this is exactly what you see: the figure appears to be written precisely like i had found in the edition, a 1+3 division of the 16th-note figure.
However, it seemed to me a very unlikely, awkwardly asymmetrical, almost “anti‐musical” articulation within the context of the concerto’s opening. As i continued reading the score i couldn’t help noticing some more awkward slurs. For instance, in the Adagio there seems to be a slur over a single note (orange circle):
|Adagio: a slur over a single note?|
Then i remembered a couple of Sperger Concert Arias for soprano and solo double bass that i had “premiered” at the Mittenwald Double Bass Convention back in 1991, and for which i had made piano reductions and solo parts from the manuscript photos. Everything became clear as i looked again at the original orchestra scores of Sperger's "Non t'Avvilir":
|Sperger's Aria "Non t'Avvilir". Clearly the slurs are all meant to include four 16th-notes, even if some are written too short.|
As i could see, in the orchestral tuttis the orchestra’s articulations for the same musical material were all the same, or at least they were supposed to be the same. But quite clearly the composer (or the copyist) hadn't been very careful in writing all the slurs the same in all the parts, so there were groups of notes that looked as if only 3 out of 4 were slurred together.
Actually they’re all slurred in groups of 4. The handwriting is just a bit sloppy.
In fact, Sperger didn’t have to be all that careful with the slurring indications, because throughout the score, every time that a note doesn’t belong under the slur, it is set apart by a dot or a dash. When you look carefully, Sperger uses this system consistently throughout his scores.
(It always helps, when in doubt, to try and get a wider picture of things. Staring at one bar in one score isn’t going to be of much use when trying to solve a mystery. It’s always a good idea to see beyond the problem at hand and to look up other scores by the same composer, from the same period, from the same copyist etc. The same goes for practicing and interpretation. I remember a piano student asking Jos van Immerseel - one of the great authorities on period performance - about a problem with a particular passage in one of Beethoven’s sonatas. His answer was: play all of the sonatas, and your problem will solve itself).
Once we understand how Sperger notes his articulations, reading and understanding his music is a piece of cake: when there are no dots or slashes over or under the notes, they belong under the slur (however badly it may be written). On the other hand, if a note within a group has a dot or a dash, it doesn’t belong together with the slurred notes but is set apart with its own articulation.
When we go back to the Vanhal concerto, we see the exact same principle. This should come as no surprise when we know that Vanhal wrote this concerto for Sperger, and that the manuscript was found in Sperger’s music collection (in spite of that, some scholars have expressed doubt as to Vanhal’s dedication of the work to Sperger, and say it might have been written for Kämpfer, another virtuoso bass player of the same period).
In Sperger's manuscripts, there are quite a few places where articulations can easily be misconstrued. That's where the funny articulations in modern editions come from, which we often accept without questioning the editor's work. But whenever Sperger wants a “special” articulation, he indicates the separated notes with a dash. No dash means: all notes belong to the slur. (In my opinion, the dashes in these cases don’t necessarily have any other function than to set the one single note apart from the slurred ones. I’m not sure the “dashed” notes need to be specifically accented or shortened. However, not being really sure of such things can be a blessing in disguise, because it gives us a greater freedom of interpretation. We often tend to be paralyzed by the “knowledge” of how things should be interpreted).
5. Articulation and Bowing/Singing vs speaking
When one starts looking for period writings about wind and string articulations, there is a wealth of information to be found. Many authors have written about these things. Contradictions abound, and it’s difficult to find clear and unequivocal indications that lead us toward some kind of generally accepted system for any one period. Old treatises are a bit like the old Desert Books: one can always find confirmation of one’s own beliefs, ideas, and convictions. But he truth is that there is no absolute “Truth” to be found. Still, it’s fascinating and entertaining to read and discover these ancient writings, and to try and distill some form of instruction that can inspire us in shaping the way we play – even if only temporarily, and without taking these things more seriously than need be.
It would lead us quite far to discuss the documented differences between schools of bowing, such as the French and Italian schools, and we are not sure how much these influenced Viennese articulation. When we try to find specifics about the way of playing in classical Vienna, we come across descriptions such as this one:
"Ich hörte in Wien Haydns und Vanhalls Symphonien beynahe eben so, wie ich sie in Berlin gehört hatte. Im Bogen war der Unterschied am merklichsten, aber nicht so merklich als ich mir vorgestellt hatte. Bey den Stellen wo die Stärke des Bogens kurz gebraucht und abgesetzt wird, welches besonders Haydns Werke auf eine besondere Art erfodern (sic), desgleichen, wo verschiedene tokkirte Noten mit kurzem Bogen nacheinander gespielt werden müssen, merkt man den Unterschied am deutlichsten. Die letztere Art von Noten spielen die Wienerischen Orchester mit einer Gleichheit und Präzision, wozu bis jetzt in Berlin noch kein grosses Orchester geübt worden ist; denn einzelne Virtuosen daselbst kennen diesen Vortrag auch sehr wohl. Hingegen lang gezogene Töne pflegen selten von ganzen Orchestern in Wien so völlig egal gemacht zu werden, als in Berlin, wie ich diess in der Komödie und auch bey den besten Kirchenmusiken in Wien bemerkt habe. Der gewöhnliche leichte Bogenstrich verursacht dieses”.
(Nicolai, Friedrich: Beschreibung einer Reise durch Deutschland und die Schweiz im Jahre 1781, Bd. IV, 1784, p. 542)
Interesting how we find several elements here that give us at least some idea of a specific “Viennese” style. First of all, as we find in many texts, there is the distinction between solo playing and the ripieno habits, so one should be cautious not to jump to conclusions. But we seem to find in Vienna a certain tendency towards precision and lightness in the shorter articulations, and less concern for a sustained quality in the long notes. We find confirmation of this a bit further on:
“Ein feiner aber doch merklicher Unterschied zwischen dem Wiener und Berliner Vortrage ist beym Andante zu hören. Wenn ein Stück dieser Art an beiden Orten sonst gleich gut, und auch im gleichen Zeitmaasse gespielt wird, so gehet es doch in Wien einen leichter Gang....
In Wien ist der Gang aber noch leichter als in Dresden. Hüpfend würde zuviel gesagt sein......Die punktierten Noten eines grave werden in Berlin mehr gehalten, und mehr mit gedehntem Bogen gespielt, als in Wien, und empfangen wirklich dadurch auch einen ziemlich veränderten......Ausdruck”.
(Nicolai 1784, IV, p. 543)
This seems to coincide with what Josef Focht writes in his book “Der Wiener Kontrabass” (Focht, Josef: Der Wiener Kontrabass: Spieltechnik und Aufführungspraxis, Musik und Instrumente / Josef Focht. – Tutzing: Schneider, 1999) where he sees a connection between musical articulation and the spoken language:
“Charakteristisch für den süddeutsch‐österreichischen Dialekt ist die kurze Aussprache, der Reichtum an vokalen Farben und der kurzatmige Sprachduktus mit einem grossen dynamischen Spektrum. In der Wiener vorklassischen Musik sprudelt dieses idiom überall heraus, wo der an der lateinischen Sprache orientierte strenge Fugen‐Satz abwesend ist...”(p 51)
And writing about a specific example of Viennese articulation, in a concerto by Zimmermann:
“Die kurzatmigen Zweierbindungen schaffen einen hierarchischen Unterschied zwischen den ersten breiten, gewichtigen, dissonanten und den zweiten kurzen, unwichtigen konsonanten Tönen in jeder Zweitongruppe” (p 52)
See how Focht speaks about “asthmatic” (kurzatmig) articulations and about hierarchy in passages where the notes are slurred in pairs. This goes against the idea of a generalized “singing” quality and makes the music “speak”. In connection with this, Focht makes a very interesting observation that I want to include here, when he writes:
“In der Frage einer historisch authentischen Aufführung ist...bei traditionellen philharmonischen Klangkörpern derselbe Mangel zu beklagen wie bei den meisten Ensembles der historischen Aufführungspraxis. Beide Parteien missachten die Unverzichtbarkeit des nicht notierten Wiener Idioms für die Aufführung der Wiener Musik. Während die Klangsprache der philharmonischen Klangkörper überwiegend an der deutschen romantischen Musik ausgeprägt und geschult wurde, richtet die Artikulation der meisten in den Niederländen, England und Norddeutschland beheimateten Ensembles der Alten Musik die sich oft nur zu Konzerten oder Schallplattenaufnahmen zusammenfinden, nach einer internationalen Standard-‐Artikulation, die in den letzten Jahrzehnten massgeblich an den Werken Johann Sebastian Bachs ausgebildet wurde, die jedoch für die Wiener Musik des 18. Jahrhunderts nicht angemessen ist” (p 51, footnote).
(This is an interesting remark. Viennese classical music, with its unwritten idioms, isn't well served by either the traditional symphony orchestras with their German-romantic sound colour and tradition, nor by most of the Ancient Music Ensembles from the Netherlands, England or northern Germany, which use a kind of international standard-articulation oriented on Bach's music, that is not appropriate for the 18th century Viennese music).
Focht was not the first or only author to stress the importance of the connection between a culture’s spoken language and its music. Scientists and researchers have often hinted at possible influences of the spoken language on its musical counterpart. Neuroscientist Oliver Sacks, in his book “Musicophilia”, has this to say about the subject:
“Iversen, Patel, and Ohgushi have found strong cultural differences in such rhythmic groupings. In one experiment, they exposed native American English speakers and native Japanese speakers to tone sequences of alternating short and long duration. They found that while Japanese speakers preferred to group the tones in a long‐short parsing, the English speakers preferred a short‐long parsing. Iversen et al. propose that “experience with the native language creates rhythmic templates which influence the processing of non‐linguistic sound patterns”. This raises the question as to whether there might be correspondences between the speech patterns and the instrumental music of particular cultures. There has long been an impression among musicologists that such correspondences exist, and this has now been formally, quantitatively studied by Patel, Iversen, and their colleagues at the Neurosciences Institute. “What makes the music of sir Edward Elgar sound so distinctively English?” they ask. “What makes the music of Debussy sound so French?” Patel et al. compared rhythm and melody in British English speech and music to that of French speech and music, using the music of a dozen different composers. They found, by plotting rhythm and melody together, that “a striking pattern emerges, suggesting that a nation’s language exerts a ‘gravitational pull’ on the structure of its music.” The Czech composer Leos Janacek, too, was greatly exercised by the resemblances between speech and music, and he spent more than thirty years sitting in cafes and other public places, notating the melodies and rhythms of people’s speech, convinced that these unconsciously mirrored their emotional intent and states of mind. He attempted to incorporate these speech rhythms into his own music – or, rather, to find “equivalents” for them in the classical music grid of pitches and intervals. Many people, whether or not they speak Czech, have felt that there is an uncanny correspondence between Janacek’s music and the sound patterns of Czech speech.”
(Oliver Sacks, “Musicophilia, Tales of Music and the Brain, First Vintage Books Edition, 2008, pp. 264-‐265, footnote).
(At this point, allow me to digress for a moment. When, as musicians, we want to study and research something, it is of the utmost importance to learn languages, and to learn them as thoroughly as possible. Many books and articles are only published in one language, especially texts about subjects that don’t sell by the thousands. Lots of books exist only in German, Italian or English. Older texts such as treatises of more general interest, such as those by Quantz and Leopold Mozart are available in translation. But even so, being able to read and understand them in the original language adds a whole dimension to the experience. Then again, one must be aware of shifts in meaning from the past to nowadays. Some words have different meanings now than they used to have 200 years ago, and some of the old vocabulary has gone out of use. Occasionally one comes across musicological writings in which the author has translated texts himself, e.g. from German into English, but due to the idiosyncrasies of the original language the “translation” says the exact opposite of the original German text... In such cases it is an invaluable advantage for the reader to have a real understanding of both languages so that he or she can spot the discrepancies).
It’s interesting how Josef Focht sees a connection between the spoken language and the way the music should be articulated. In fact, i like this idea very much because it resonates with some of my own convictions. We musicians learn from the start that we have to imitate the singing voice. Whichever instrument we play, we are encouraged to “sing” on our instruments, because the human voice is “the greatest instrument of them all”.
I’m sure there is a lot of truth in this idea and that developing a singing tone is important for an instrument player. But I have always felt that we exaggerate this “singing” at the expense of a “speaking” quality in our playing. To me, playing an instrument is very often more like speaking than singing. Sometimes I prefer to “tell” a story rather than to sing a pretty, wordless melody. At the very least, I find both elements equally important. I feel that students should be encouraged just as much to be able to talk through their instruments, to phrase the same way they would speak or tell a story, as they are encouraged to develop a singing quality in their playing.
Be that as it may, Focht’s ideas have strongly influenced my playing in general, and my interpretation of Viennese bass music in particular. Of course, once your mind is set to something, you find indications and proof for your ideas everywhere you look. So of course, over the years I found plenty of indications for a speaking kind of playing in the written articulations of Viennese bass music.
According to the knowledge and insight we have (or think we have) today, we shouldn’t attach too much importance to what is written in older scores and what is not. In fact, to play everything in ancient music (or indeed, in any music) exactly as it is written, no more and no less, is about the worst thing one can do. It would be like taking a jazz score from the “Real Book”. Nobody would say you’re playing jazz if you just played exactly what’s written there. There would be no “swing” feeling, for starters, because the swing rhythm is not written down. It’s just straight eighth notes on paper. You need to know the conventions, the rules.
The same goes for ancient music. Most of the time, there isn’t much (or even nothing at all) in the way of dynamics, articulations, ornaments etc. These are what we call “thin scores”. The now ill‐reputed “Bach‐style” from not so very long ago was precisely the dry, boring, mechanical robotic sound you get when you play exactly what’s written.
So we have to try and know the rules of the time, even though these are often open to interpretation, or contradictory. And of course, times continually change and so do the rules. Learning all the rules and conventions (as far as we think we can know them) for all style periods, regions, individual composers, etc. is a life’s work, and anyway it’s statistically sure we'll get it wrong more often than not. And even if we accidentally got it right from time to time, we wouldn’t have a clue because there is no way to tell what is “right” or “wrong”.
There are two things we can do :
1/ read and learn as much as we can, try to put into practice what we find in sources and treatises, learn from people who know more than we do, try to get as close to what actual knowledge tells us, while at the same time keeping a sense of the relativity of our “knowledge”.
2/ even more important (in my opinion): make the music our own. Play as if it is our own music, not something we are reproducing, trying so hard to get it right that there is no soul left in what we’re playing.
According to some music philosophers, the only real “authenticity” we can obtain, is the authenticity of the self: being true to oneself. Historical accuracy is an illusion and it always will be. After all the studying and the reading, we have to play out, and touch an audience. Unfortunately this aspect of our life as musicians: the communication with the listener, is often forgotten or considered less important than the endeavors to get it “right”. Where are the instrument methods that talk about the public you will be playing for, and how playing for others must necessarily influence your way of playing ? When was the last time your teacher used the word “listener” or “audience” in his lessons ?
Now let’s get back to those articulations, and to what they tell us. In a lot of the Viennese solo bass music, especially of the later years, we find quite detailed articulations. This can be explained in different ways.
First of all, articulations in solo music and in “ripieno” parts are two different things. One of the reasons we often see so few indications in old manuscript orchestra parts is to be found in the way ensembles were organized, with an orchestra leader who decided on bowings and articulations (often in collaboration with the composer). The ripieno players were used to following the leader and their fellow musicians and didn’t need much in the form of written indications. There was also a general understanding of the “art of bowing”, so that most of the time not much explaining was needed. String players just knew the rules and conventions that applied to the music they played.
But there may have been a very practical reason as well: often the ink wasn’t even dry on the day of the first performance, so to speak. There simply was no time to write down much.
Unfortunately nowadays musicians often make the mistake of playing these scores as they present themselves to us: with almost no articulations, just as they are written.
Soloists had more freedom to organize their bowings, dynamics, fingerings and articulations themselves, and it’s very interesting to discover some details about their playing styles from the indications in their solo scores.
Second, let us not forget that a huge proportion of the Viennese solo bass music that we have, comes from only one player/composer: Johann Matthias Sperger. Not only did he leave us his own works (18 concertos and lots of other music), but thanks to his widow, who carefully kept Sperger's musical heritage together, we also have his copies of the solo works by Vanhal, Dittersdorf, Hoffmeister. Sperger was quite meticulous in his works, and once you understand his writing style, his scores don’t present a lot of difficulties.
The detailed articulations we find in Sperger’s works give us a wonderful insight in the ways of playing that were used back then (at least by Sperger himself – again, let’s not jump to conclusions about the other players).
Manuscripts are like time capsules from the past, or if we let our fantasy run wild, we can even compare them to time travel machines that catapult us back to ancient times. (Only recently I was in Paris, at the Bibliothèque Richelieu, looking for manuscripts of Henri Casadesus. Anybody who has had the experience of holding an original manuscript in his or her hands can tell you what a transcendent experience this can be. Present time ceases to exist, and one is transported to another period, engulfed in something like a “time warp”).
|Edouard Nanny and Henri Casadesus|
When we see all those indications, all the details that are contained in Sperger’s manuscripts, we can begin to imagine his way of playing and his creativity and his pioneering virtuosity.
“There are a few eyewitness accounts of Sperger’s playing ...none that is exact in its technical descriptions...”
(Information from Darija Andjelic-Andzakovic, University of Auckland, 2011)
In other words, we haven’t got any precise information on how Sperger played, or on any of the other bass virtuosi of the Viennese Classical period for that matter.
For the present‐day bass player it’s not all that hard to be a virtuoso. It takes a lot of dedicated work, but it’s no brain surgery. A musician like Sperger invented his own technique, his own challenges, he created new ways to push the limits of his instrument in a way nobody had done before him. All we have to do is follow in his footsteps. We just have to read the manual: the music itself.
Until the late 20th century there has never been a Method for the Viennese Bass. The first method was written by Dr. Igor Pecevski
By the time instrument methods started to appear, the Viennese bass was on its way out. It had become obsolete. Its strength had become its weakness: eminently virtuosic in a few limited keys, the instrument wasn’t adapted to the demands of a changing music style. Modulations to remote tonalities, a change from a highly articulated playing style to a more romantic, singing tone quality were too much of a challenge for the Viennese Violone.
The first double bass methods, for an instrument tuned in 4ths (since the Viennese Bass had gone out of fashion) were written at the beginning of the 19th century. Johann Hindle, who may have been the last Viennese bass virtuoso, did write a bass method...for the “modern” bass tuning F-A-D-G (notice here too, the F as the lowest note in an otherwise regular fourths-tuning). But in a way we don’t really need a Method. It’s all in the music itself. Now that we have access to most of the works written for the instrument, we can find almost everything we’re looking for.
(A lot of information on bowing can be found in the old treatises and texts by Quantz, Mozart, Muffat and many others, but quite often the information from treatises is contradictory or applies to very specific regions, styles, or ensembles. Besides, it’s not a bad idea to reflect on the raison d’être of these treatises. Are they descriptive or prescriptive? In other words, do they describe a reality (and in what ways is this reality limited, chronologically, geographically or otherwise), or do they just represent opinions of how it should be? In which case one could almost turn the argument around. Say that a writer looks at the way his contemporaries are playing, and he doesn’t like what he sees or hears. He may then write a treatise on what he thinks is the “right” way. In that case he’s being normative, but actually the historical reality would be more or less the opposite of what he’s writing. In this case, if we want to be “authentic”, should we then play as the treatise says, or should we filter out all the examples of “bad” playing he sums up and use these as our guidelines for a historically “correct” performance that would come closer to a historical reality?
When we know that most musicians back then were multi‐instrumentalists, and that in the case of certain bass players some proficiency on, or knowledge of the viola da gamba can be imagined (i personally don't know of a bass soloist who was also a gambist), we might expect a flexible use of bowings that was more practically oriented than obedient to theoretical rules. Josef Focht gives an example from Dittersdorf’s 2nd Double Bass Concerto, and suggests a bowing that leans somewhat towards a gamba bowing technique.
In Sperger’s articulations, whether in his own works or in his copies of pieces by Hoffmeister or Vanhal, we often find passages that seem puzzling at first sight, as far as bowing is concerned, because they feel a bit awkward when played in the “normal” way with first beats downbow. Turning the bowing around almost invariably solves the problem... Often it’s a real delight to play with the bowing possibilities, and to play repeated musical material, such as in exposition and re‐exposition, with different strokes.
In the opening theme of the first movement of Vanhal’s Concerto, the articulation in the solo bass is different from the orchestral opening: instead of slurring the falling fourth, as do the violins, the bass has all notes in the first bar detached (modern editions with the last two notes slurred sound really strange because they turn the one‐note upbeat to the second bar into a 2‐note upbeat. This is far more drastic than slurring or not slurring the first two notes of the first bar).
|The theme in the bass: three detached notes. |
The violins, however, have the first two notes slurred.
One would expect the solo instrument to execute the same melodic material with the same articulations as the violins. This is indeed a possibility that is open to the soloist, but having played the concerto many times, both with keyboard and with orchestra accompaniment (and now even in duet form with Viola d'Amore - a revelation), i can fully understand Sperger’s choice for three separate notes, because despite the size of the instrument, the bass is not very powerful. Slurring the two very first notes makes them weaker: there isn’t enough bow length to produce the sound volume one needs in a concert situation, especially in an opening bar (but a nice twist is to play it like that in the re-exposition, for a change of character). The bowing of the first bar inevitably influences bar 2. If we start bar 1 down‐bow, bar 2 will have an up‐bow, unless we slur two of the three notes. This is what i'm doing in the duet version (for Viola d'Amore and Bass) of the concerto: the exposition has three separate bows, but in the repeat i do slur the first two notes. Much will always depend on the mass of sound the accompaniment produces. Of course Vanhal was clever enough to let the solo bass play the first bar unhindered by the tutti, but still you don't want to come in with a weak sound after the full tutti introduction. In cases like this it's always interesting to think about the probable size of the accompanying orchestra in Sperger's time. As Dr. Pecevski points out, the ensembles were rarely very big. Playing these concertos with present-day chamber orchestras on modern instruments creates a very different soundscape than what was normal in the 18th century.
Be that as it may, this is a simple example of how bowing direction influences phrasing and shaping, and ultimately, interpretation. Depending on how we want to phrase the first two bars, we have to adapt the bowings or we have to compensate the weight we want each note to have within the phrase. Do we stress the very first note and make the second bar “weaker”, or do we see the whole first bar as an upbeat to the second bar? How are we going to “speak” this two‐bar phrase? These are problems that no amount of dry, theoretical work can solve. The only inspiration will come from trying all the legitimate (and maybe some illegitimate) possibilities, not only while studying, but also during rehearsals and concerts. (This is an important element, because we all know that both situations can be extremely different. Practicing at home, alone, and being on stage as a soloist with an orchestra are like "two worlds colliding", to speak with George Costanza (of “Seinfeld” fame). Many of the things we practice diligently at home suddenly just don’t seem to work in a real‐life concert situation. Especially in the case of the solo double bass, the power needed in concert is in a totally different ball‐park and will influence just about every element of your technique: from the choice of fingerings or of the string on which you play a melody, to the choice of bowing and the difference between the sound you think you’re making and what the audience is really hearing - or rather, is not hearing...and any decision we arrive at will have to be questioned again when we play the concerto in different acoustics, on a different bass, with a different bow etc.)
In many instances, in spite of the existence of sources, there is no rule, historical or other, that can tell you exactly how to play. I call this the “overruled” principle. Whatever our theoretical knowledge and no matter how well we know the treatises, in a real concert everything is overruled by the actual situation: the moment of NOW. We’re not playing a treatise. We’re playing a concert for an audience and we have to be convincing.
6. Other composers
Sperger makes things easy for us with his precise indications. Some other works from the Viennese Classical period are less precise. Dittersdorf’s concertos contain less articulations, especially when compared to modern editions. When we look at the manuscript of Dittersdorf’s 2nd Bass concerto and at the edition by Tischer‐Zeitz, published by Schott, we find a lot of differences in articulations (not to mention the puzzling absence of whole passages from the modern edition).
In my opinion the apparent lack of articulations in the manuscript doesn’t mean we have to limit ourselves to the few indications that we do find. On the contrary, we can make informed choices, we have the freedom to “fill in” articulations that were common back then.
(In fact the concerto wasn’t the first choice among Viennese composer’s favorite genres: as far as we know, around 2.000 symphonies were composed against, for instance, approximately 50 violin concertos between 1750 and 1780 and a total of around 30 bass concertos. Furthermore, Viennese composers generally preferred a simpler, less virtuosic style in their concertos than the Italians. Dittersdorf’s 2nd concerto is certainly a perfect example of this. However, when we play this concerto “as written”, we run the risk of overdoing the simplicity).
As mentioned before, it’s always a good idea to look further than the one piece we’re studying. Dittersdorf was a prolific composer, and it might be interesting to look beyond this one bass concerto. He also wrote an autobiography that contains a wealth of information. Usually, bass players are only aware of the one sentence about “der brave Pichlberger”, the bass player for whom the concerto was written (and the musician who played the première of Mozart’s “Per Questa Bella Mano”, some thirty years later), but the book is a fascinating document that gives us valuable insight into performance practice and into Dittersdorf’s own playing style as a violin virtuoso. Besides, in spite of Dittersdorf’s tendency to be quite pleased with himself, the book is a good read. It’s lively, humorous and well‐written and it’s even a bit of a page‐turner. It doesn’t come as a surprise then, that it’s been in print for something like 200 years (what does come as a surprise though, is the fact that so few musicians seem to have actually read it).
Taking into account what we can learn from these (and other) sources and from the important treatises, i can only come to the conclusion that the Schott edition, far from being old‐fashioned and historically incorrect, gives the player some really useful suggestions and ideas on how to add articulations to the rather skeletal manuscript. I think that, paradoxically, the modern edition might be closer to the Viennese style than the “un‐articulated” manuscript itself. This is another example of how sticking to the source without knowledge of the conventions and habits of the time, and without imagination, can render the music over‐simplistic and boring.
The so-called “Sperger-bow”, found by Klaus Trumpf in a broom cabinet at Schwerin, or so the story goes, is a bit of a mystery. It seems to be beautifully made. I haven’t been able yet to see or play the original, but at the 2012 Bass Convention in Kopenhagen I tried a copy made by Dölling.
Its playing qualities may be very different from the original, but its physical characteristics, especially the dimensions, must be very similar. The copy seemed to me rather difficult to handle. The frog is quite big, and the distance between hair and stick is almost uniformly large for the whole length of the bow. At first sight I can’t honestly imagine playing any refined articulations with this bow, such as we find in Sperger’s music. If the original has the same or similar playing characteristics as its clone, i would seriously doubt that Sperger could have used such a bow for solo playing. Could it have been his (or somebody else’s) orchestra bow? Even so, with the articulations and the technical demands placed upon bass players in much of the classical repertoire one would expect the bows to be of a high standard – if not in construction, at least in playing qualities.
The original "Sperger-bow"...
...and a copy.
As a general rule, the bows used back then were made out of indigenous woods, and were quite light compared to later bows made from exotic woods such as snakewood or pernambuco. Instrument players often made their own bows. Maybe because of the soft woods used for bow making, almost none seem to have survived which we can date precisely. Nowadays musicians who are active in the “ancient music” world often use bows made out of denser exotic wood for most of their playing, but it’s interesting to go back to the softer european woods, not only for the Viennese bass repertoire. A number of bow makers experiment with different wood types and bow shapes. On this subject, it's interesting to know that most of the newly made so-called "baroque" bows have a screw mechanism to tighten the hair. Admittedly this is very convenient, but it would seem this is not really historically correct. Bow makers specialising in ancient bows are now going back to clip-in frogs on their period bows.
It’s worth noting that at this moment we don’t really know for sure whether all Viennese bass players used the underhand bow grip. We just kind of assume they did. My own experiences have shown that a gamba bow hold, with an appropriately sturdier bow, works well on the Viennese bass. The intricate bowings necessitated by the more frequent string crossings in Viennese tuning, as compared to the modern tuning in fourths, also seem to fit the overhand hold really well. Alas, due to the fragile nature of the rather soft bows used back then, there are none left that can give us any indications as to how they were used.
On the upside, not knowing things gives us a chance to discover possibilities and probabilities, to take stances, to feel free and to dream, to change opinions and to discuss with others: what if....?
korneel le compte 2012