musings of a professional bassoonist

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Carmina Burana

Carl Orff's best-known work Carmina Burana is one of the most enduring masterpieces of the 20th century.  Its driving rhythms and simple (for 20th century) harmonies appeal to just about everyone - even those who think they don't like classical music!  A couple of weeks ago, the Columbus Symphony Orchestra and Chorus performed Carmina Burana under the direction of our Music Director Jean-Marie Zeitouni.

For bassoonists, Carmina Burana provides great challenge in #12 Cignus Ustus Cantat (The Roast Swan).  The following video of the Berlin Philharmonic with tenor Lawrence Brownlee conducted by Simon Rattle starts with the famous swan song bassoon solo:


12. Cignus ustus cantat (The Roast Swan)

Olim lacus colueram,Once I lived on lakes,
olim pulcher extiteram,once I looked beautiful
dum cignus ego fueram.when I was a swan.
   (Male chorus)
Miser, miser!Misery me!
modo nigerNow black
et ustus fortiter!and roasting fiercely!
   (Tenor)
Girat, regirat garcifer;The servant is turning me on the spit;
me rogus urit fortiter;I am burning fiercely on the pyre:
propinat me nunc dapifer,the steward now serves me up.
   (Male Chorus)
Miser, miser!Misery me!
modo nigerNow black
et ustus fortiter!and roasting fiercely!
   (Tenor)
Nunc in scutella iaceo,Now I lie on a plate,
et volitare nequeoand cannot fly anymore,
dentes frendentes video:I see bared teeth:
   (Male Chorus)
Miser, miser!Misery me!
modo nigerNow black
et ustus fortiter!and roasting fiercely!

The bassoon solo begins on high D and ends on a loud low C.  As bassoonists know, it is easier to slur than to articulate in the extreme high range, and this solo requires articulation of high D, high C# and high C.  That, along with the low C, is challenging.  This is the only solo in the orchestral literature for which I would consider using a high bocal.  (For every other solo, I just use my everyday Heckel CC1 bocal.)  The reason I'd consider using a special bocal for Carmina Burana is because high note bocals assist with articulation in the high range.  The problem is, high bocals do not assist with the low C!!

As usual, I began preparing the solo several weeks in advance.  I always approach as a beginner would, as if I had never played the piece before.  That's the only way to ensure the best possible performance, since many factors undoubtedly will have changed since the last performance.  The other musicians, the hall, the conductor, the interpretation, the soloists - so many things will be or could be different.  In my case, even the bassoon is different since I am now playing on a new 15,000 series Heckel.

The first factor I tested was the bocal.  In the past I used my high bocal, but I did not want to assume that it would be the best option this time.  The decision was not obvious, since my regular Heckel CC1 played the solo fairly reliably.  The one thing that bothered me was that the articulation was not as clear in the extreme high range, so I ended up choosing my Allgood brand high bocal.

The next factor to consider was fingerings.  I often consult with my Cooper/Toplansky The Essentials of Bassoon Technique when preparing orchestral parts.  I think it's beneficial to keep an open mind about fingerings.  High note fingerings especially have to be flexible, in my opinion.  I had to decide which left thumb keys to use for high C and C# in the solo for the best possible sound and pitch.  There were also several high D fingerings to test.  I go through such fingering analysis every time I prepare a solo.  That's one reason why I start early - it takes time to incorporate the chosen fingerings.

The reed is also critical.  The bocal and fingerings are useless without the right reed.  For this particular piece, precious few reeds can do the job.  I went through a significant number of reeds in the search for the ideal Carmina Burana reed.  How many?   Well, I thought a photo of the rejected reeds might be effective:


No, I am not exaggerating.  This is the number of reeds I "auditioned" for the swan solo of Carmina Burana.  There were 7 finalists and thankfully, one winner.  The finalists were the ones which had the best sound and intonation in the extreme high range AND which could also belt out a low C.  My search for this reed began 3 weeks before the first rehearsal, after I had already been practicing the solo for a while on practice reeds.  I wanted to groom several reeds for the swan roast.  The reed which originally came out on top ended up being demoted and replaced by another winner, but all 7 of the original finalists remained the 7 best reeds throughout the 3 week period.  Since they had been stable for 3 weeks, I didn't have to worry about them suddenly becoming capricious.

Some of those reeds were brand new and some had been made previously (over the past year or so) and had been set aside as potential high note reeds.  As I've stated before on this blog, I am not one of those reed makers who claims to be able to construct reeds for specific purposes (low, high, easy to control, etc.).  I have always found that it's better to assess each reed for its inherent characteristics, and possibly seek to enhance those characteristics through reed-finishing techniques.  Why?  Well, the bottom line is that a reed is a vegetable, and its true character is determined by nature, not by my reed knife. 

The only problem with my approach is that it requires A LOT of reeds so that there is always a large supply of reeds with various characteristics to choose from.  Since brand new reeds play better and sound better than old ones anyway, obsessive reed-making does pay off.

During the performance, I switched to my high bocal and high reed two movements before the solo in order to be sure that the reed was totally functional.  In that regard, the rehearsals were more difficult because the order of movements was unknown and there was no chance to play on the high reed and bocal prior to the solo.  That's OK - I didn't mind dealing with a handicap during rehearsals.  It made the performance seem easy.  Sort of.
my Carmina Burana high reed





8 comments:

Tina B. said...

Now THAT's a reed collection!!

Cygnus roasting on an open fire....

Bryan Cavitt said...

if this was Facebook, I would say "like"!

B.S. said...

@Tina: I was noticing that the bindings looked rather colorful. I wish they sounded as impressive as they look!

@Bryan: Hey, thanks! Maybe I should post this on facebook, but it's a little nerdy......

Betsy

Tina B. said...

Only nerdy if you're not a bassoonist. The rest of us are impressed at your diligence in pursuing the perfect reed for the gig! ;)

Gabrielle said...

"Well, the bottom line is that a reed is a vegetable, and its true character is determined by nature, not by my reed knife." So true.

B.S. said...

Gabrielle, that statement seemed radical while I was typing it, but it really is true, as you noted.....

Betsy

Dean said...

Can I borrow that reed for a couple of weeks?

B.S. said...

Dean, I don't know what happened to that reed! I did not save it. If I had, I would have given it to you.

Betsy