Klarinet Archive - Posting 000226.txt from 2003/10
From: Tony@-----.uk (Tony Pay)
Subj: [kl] My CASS article
Date: Wed, 8 Oct 2003 12:13:26 -0400
Dan mentioned this. Here's the text, if anyone's interested. I really
wanted to write something longer, and talk about the 'threes' more, but
they said there were space restrictions. List members will have seen
most of it before.
Playing the Mozart Clarinet Concerto
The most startling and suggestive realisation that 'period performance'
ever gave me about the Mozart Concerto was that it allowed me to see
that the second bar can be thought of as a decoration of the first.
This realisation didn't happen directly. It was rather a byproduct of my
trying in other circumstances to do what we know performers of the time
did. If you want to decorate the descending third that constitutes the
first bar of K622, one of the first things you try is to add an
appoggiatura to the first note. Then, filling in the gap with passing
notes gives you the second bar.
How important is that? Well, as far as I was concerned it resolved a
fundamental dissatisfaction with all the ways I'd ever tried to play
those two bars previously, not to mention a dissatisfaction with the
dynamics that various editors have added at that point. I got a bonus,
too, about quite how pervasive the interval of a third (and the number 3
itself) is, in the Clarinet Concerto. I'll go back to that at the end.
This is my personal story, about one or two ways I've come to think our
best piece 'wants to live'. Nevertheless, the idea of the article is
that Mozart and his Clarinet Concerto occupy the centre of the stage,
even if, by the nature of things, it has to be my stage.
What should I change?
When in 1984 Christopher Hogwood invited me to play and record the
Mozart Concerto with his period instrument ensemble, the Academy of
Ancient Music, the invitation came at an appropriate time. I'd played
the piece at the Proms a few years before on my standard modern
instrument, and a composer friend of mine had suggested afterwards that
it was time I took another look at how I was approaching playing it. He
didn't only mean that I should get hold of an extended instrument. "For
example, read Charles Rosen's 'The Classical Style'," he said.
It seemed to me at the time that I would be interested in three things:
first, how playing on a period-style basset clarinet might change my
approach; second, how playing with a period orchestra accompaniment
might change my approach; and finally, what assumptions I'd been making
about the piece might be worth challenging to begin with.
Nowadays, I'd put those three things the other way around.
I probably don't have to go into too much detail with CASS readers about
the struggle to make the damn thing do what I wanted it to do. Slow
practice; minor (and major) adjustments to reeds, mouthpiece and
instrument; lots of cups of coffee, and so on ˜ everyone knows what it's
like. And in this case I seemed to be driving around a lot too, taking
the instrument back for adjustment to Daniel Bangham and Ted Planas, who
were collaborating in its manufacture, basing it on a Viennese
instrument by Kaspar Tauber in Nick Shackleton's collection.
There was a moment when I felt encouraged because what I was doing
started to sound at least acceptable; to be followed a few days later by
depression, because it started to sound quite like what I could do on my
modern instrument ˜ only much worse.
The whole experience did bring home to me particularly clearly that
what's required above all in practising on any kind of instrument, is to
be able to tolerate it being bad for long enough. And I mean that as an
active process, in the sense that you have to work at getting it better,
whilst nevertheless insisting on listening very carefully all the time
to exactly how bad it is, and why. If you give up on either bit of that,
you don't progress.
The other thing I noticed ˜ and it bears on something I plan to say
later, about being interested in the music ˜ is that it's best to
monitor your enthusiasm for practising. Rather stop, and go on after a
break, than force yourself to go through the motions. You don't get good
ideas if you're fed up. But if you're doing something else, then some
new approach to a clarinet problem, either musical or technical, often
does occur to you unexpectedly.
How did playing with a period orchestra change things? Well, there is of
course a great increase in clarity of texture, just because of the
sounds of the instruments. And the basset clarinet is quite potent. I
remember that in the studio, they were initially worried that I'd chosen
to play seated, and so put me up on a podium. Then, after a runthrough
of the first movement, Peter Wadland, the producer, said over the
intercom, "We have a balance problem, Tony. Could you get off the podium
and move three or four feet further away from the microphone?"
But the most useful thing to talk about, I think, is the third problem:
how was I to go about entering more fully into the world of Mozart and
Stadler, as my composer friend had suggested I should? What was it about
'the classical style' that I might have been missing?
The 'cocktail party' theory of classical music
Before I go into how I came to make sense that of that for myself, I do
want to say something about how 'being interested in the music' has a
value of its own that communicates to an audience. Quite why it
communicates is difficult to explain. It's well known that the attempt
to be interesting in ordinary social life can actually be quite boring,
as though whoever is doing it is somehow 'trying too hard'. You do
better by being interested in something. So perhaps that carries over
into music. From that point of view, as long as we are asking what the
music requires in order to be alive, we're on the right lines.
Someone wrote an article called 'How to sell slow movements'. I haven't
read the article, but I have to say that the title makes me shudder. (I
hope the author called it that with tongue in cheek.) Of course, in a
lot of music, a degree of showmanship is called for ˜ think of the
clarinet/protagonist in parts of the Weber concertos, for example ˜ but
most slow movements require more the attitude of the butterfly-collector
than the attitude of the matador. We are interested in, and gather
round, someone who is recreating and appreciating something beautiful
for themselves no less than we are fascinated by the much more outgoing
tricks of a brilliant magician. And it's just as mistaken to bring the
attitude of the latter to something requiring the former as it is to do
it wrong the other way around.
What does the cocktail party have to do with the question of what might
constitute good classical style, though?
I would put it like this. When we are at such a party, we unthinkingly
make use of a rather remarkable human ability. This is the ability to
listen to one particular conversation even though other conversations
are going on around us. And we can do more: sometimes, if we happen to
hear something interesting in another conversation, we even succeed in
following the essence of two conversations simultaneously.
After having had the good fortune to participate in excellent classical
performances with inspired directors, and listening to their other
performances, I came to the conclusion that the best and most stylish
performances, in addition to their other qualities, allow us above all
to hear the individual lines in just such a manner. The individual lines
of a really good classical piece like the Mozart concerto contain
motivic references to each other, and so reflect the underlying unity of
the composer's conception.
So, I found that I could learn a great deal about good classical
style starting from the very simple example of what occurs in
conversations at a cocktail party.
The point is that conversations consist of speech. Speech has evolved
under the twin constraints of the need to be audible and the need to be
recognisable, even in a noisy environment, so as to maximise the
probability that our ears and auditory processing systems identify its
message and pass it on to our other systems for possible action. The
survival value of clear communication can hardly be doubted. You could
almost say that the whole point of speech is that it be both audible and
recognisable. (Not to be able to hear, and understand, "Look out behind
you!" is to be at a considerable evolutionary disadvantage.) So
following the physical characteristics of speech is what allows us to
make musical textures audible, because our ears work that way. I don't
have space to go into the rather subtle details here. But anyone
interested can read an article called 'Phrasing in Contention' that I
wrote about one aspect of this. It appears in Early Music, May 1996, and
is reproduced on the web at:
Music and language have often been compared, with varying degrees of
success. But the comparison I'm making here is much more straightforward
and basic than most such comparisons. Here the analogy is between the
surface structure of speech and the surface structure of classical
phrases. The analogy is apt because the property of being both audible
and recognisable in a busy environment is what is required in both
For this purpose, the most important aspect of speech is that its
syllables, in all languages, are what we might call,
'beginning-oriented'. In some sense, they begin more clearly, and fall
away to be less clear. And this is not time-symmetric. Speech played
backwards doesn't sound like speech.
Speech-like modulation contributes significantly to audibility. If we
wish to make what we say more heard or understood against the odds, we
automatically increase the degree to which what we say is
beginning-oriented. Musical gestures can similarly be subject to an
infinite variety of nuance, the quality of being 'spoken' shading into
the quality of being 'sung'. This sort of variety of nuance also gives
us a variety of expression, in both speech and music.
And there is a further simple, yet overwhelmingly important bonus for
classical musical performance that we obtain by following the structure
of speech. This bonus is perhaps the most important part of the
'cocktail party' theory. It is that what allows us to be heard against
the background noise created by the speech of the other guests is
precisely what allows their speech to be better heard against us. So, we
see that by adopting the analogous musical structure, the whole texture
is clarified by 'speaking' the music, and expressive nuance is thrown
clearly into relief.
The 'threes' in the Concerto
Finally, I promised to say something about the number 3. This idea was
first mentioned to me by Thea King, and I then found lots more evidence
for it by myself. It isn't very widely appreciated. But it's something
that is interesting; and so noticing it in performance, as I said above,
makes a contribution of its own.
The fact is that the first six bars of the violin melody in the
orchestral introduction are all concerned with a variously decorated
falling third, as is much of the subsequent material. The second
clarinet theme too is concerned with rising and falling thirds. Short
orchestral interjections often consist of three notes, the top line
rising and then falling by a third, and many clarinet phrases begin with
a three-note anacrusis. To pick just one wonderful example among many,
there is a dialogue between clarinet and chalumeau registers in bars
115-123 of the first movement in which the clarinet version of the third
is legato and filled in, whereas the chalumeau version of the third is
gruffly separated (the difference is often ruined by editorial
Shall I go on? (I can't mention them all, and I don't want to spoil your
enjoyment in finding them!) OK. The original basset clarinet has three
main octave registers, used sequentially several times, of which the
last example in the first movement occurs at bar 333 (and we know from
the Winterthur manuscript that Mozart wrote in the bar-numbers as he
went along). The tonality is A major, three sharps ˜ did Mozart chuckle
as he (and Stadler?) decided to abandon G major as the key of the work?
The last movement has a very prominent three-note repetition, and the
triumphant horn call of the orchestral ritornello (with which the work
also ends) contains both three-note repetition and descending third.
Of course, skeptics might say that it's no surprise to encounter thirds
and threes in a classical piece, and I agree. But the proportion of them
is very high, Mozart and Stadler were both Masons, and the number three
is important in Masonic ritual.
It's a wonderful piece, anyway, isn't it?
© Antony Pay, Jan 2002
_________ Tony Pay
|ony:-) 79 Southmoor Rd Tony@-----.uk
| |ay Oxford OX2 6RE http://classicalplus.gmn.com/artists
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