Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique

Berlioz's epic masterpiece Symphonie Fantastique, written in 1830, radically expanded the realm of symphonic music.  Beethoven had just died three years earlier (in 1827) after dramatically pushing the boundaries himself.  While Beethoven's influence is evident in  Symphonie Fantastique, there is no question that Berlioz also veered off the path, marching to a very different drummer.

It's all about Harriet Smithson, the Irish actress with whom Berlioz was obsessed.  Inspired by the programmatic nature of Beethoven's Pastorale Symphony (no. 6), the actual title of Berlioz's work is An Episode in the Life of an Artist (Symphonie Fantastique was a subtitle).  Of course, the artist was Berlioz, and the episode portrayed his self-destructive love for Harriet.

Apparently Berlioz was highly emotional, to the point some might consider unstable.  He used opium in the attempt to calm his nerves, which was a fairly common approach at the time.  I'll never forget the reaction of my music history class at Eastman when we found out that Berlioz had composed this work while on opium.....it wasn't just a story about someone who turned to opium due to romantic frustrations....Berlioz actually wrote the piece (or at least parts of the piece) while on opium!  It left such an impression that every time I think of Symphonie Fantastique I immediately think of opium.

Berlioz described his love for Harriet as "that rage, that fury, that delirium which takes possession of all one’s faculties, which renders one capable of anything".  He fell in love with her while watching her act onstage, and subsequently he wrote impassioned letters which she summarily ignored.  Symphonie Fantastique was the perfect outlet for his wild emotions.  And it was successful....once she realized the piece was about her, she agreed to receive him, whereupon he threatened to overdose on opium if she wouldn't marry him.  He proceeded to ingest the opium in front of her, at which point she became hysterical and agreed to the marriage.  He then pulled an antidote out of his pocket and ingested that, ensuring his survival from the overdose.  They married once he recovered.  (Why has no one in Hollywood made a movie out of this story?  The film score has already been written!)

Bassoon players generally think of Symphonie Fantastique as a huge bassoon piece.  It stands out in the bassoon orchestral repertoire in that it features all four bassoonists in unison soli passages.  Why did Berlioz score this piece for 4 bassoons, while only 2 flutes (2nd doubling on piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd doubling on English horn) and 2 clarinets (second doubling on Eb clarinet) made it into the score?  The explanation may be found in the typical structure of a Parisian orchestra during the 1800s.  Due to the nature of the French basson, 4 bassoons were used in Parisian orchestras while there were only 2 of each of the other woodwind instruments (2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets).  The French basson had a narrower bore than the German bassoon and its sound was decidedly lighter, drier and sweeter than the German bassoon.  Its delicate sound was probably easily overpowered by other instruments.  One can only imagine what Berlioz would think of today's more muscular bassoons.  Might he be tempted to re-orchestrate for only 2 bassoons?

There are only a couple of exposed passages for the first bassoon alone, one at the very opening:


The first bassoonist will know exactly where to place the triplet notes after observing the score (below).  Also it should be noted that the second measure (ppp) is softer than the first measure (p).  And Berlioz, the inveterate extremist, asks for a diminuendo once the ppp dynamic is attained!


A little further into the movement, all four bassoons are called upon to slur a succession of G octave triplets:
from mvt. 1 of Symphonie Fantastique
Earlier in the movement (measure 10 to be exact) the cellos slur similar triplets (from D down to G) and it might be a good idea for the bassoonists to listen carefully and later attempt to match that sound, which is quite calm and even.  To accomplish this, I think it's best not to attempt to slur the downward G octaves.  Some of the low Gs might speak on time, but what about the ones which don't?  And what about the fact that 4 bassoonists, all of whom struggle with that slur, are doing this at once, thereby quadrupling the potential for awkward squawks and late arrivals of the lower G?  Although the cellos and basses are also playing along on the above passage, they're so quiet that the bassoonists usually can't hear them while playing.  I advise lightly tonguing the low Gs so that it sounds as legato as possible, while eliminating the risk of balking low Gs.  Don't be a hero!  In other words, don't sacrifice the musical outcome for the sake of "heroically" playing exactly what's printed in your part.  (This advice also applies to missed attacks.....rather than jump in at random with your missed note, it's preferable to either leave the note out or re-attempt to enter at a musically sensible moment.)  This passage is a good example of a situation where it may be more beneficial to the ensemble if the bassoonists lightly tongue the problematic slurred notes.  If the tonguing is discreet enough, no one will know the difference.  In the words of the great French bassoonist Maurice Allard, when it comes to this type of downward slur, the bassoonist should "Cheat, but cheat sweetly, like when you lie to your wife!".


There is another "solo" later in the first movement in which the 1st bassoon plays the recurring idée fixe theme (which represents Harriet) with the flute and clarinet:


It's important to add to the drama by honoring Berlioz's markings assiduously.  Of course, it's also the bassoonist's responsibility to provide a solid pitch foundation in the lower octave to support the flute and clarinet throughout the passage.  The idée fixe ends at bar 12 above.  At that point, the first and third bassoon in unison join the low strings in a somewhat exposed passage.  Intonation may be an issue here, especially for the lower notes.  Accurate intonation may require dramatic manipulation of the embouchure and position of the reed in the mouth - we bassoonists learn to do whatever it takes to keep the pitch down.

This is the only passage in the entire piece which might be considered a true bassoon solo, albeit a brief one:


It occurs near the end of the first movement.  Again, the crescendos must be brought out as requested by Berlioz, although the solo is generally calm in character.  

The first movement ends with a serene chorale: 


This is a prime example of why we practice long tones.  The bassoons are in octaves here, with the two lower parts being clearly more difficult considering the challenges of control and intonation on low Fs and low Cs.

For the second movement Berlioz trades the 4 bassoons for 2 harps.....the 4 bassoons are tacet while the 2 harps come to life for this movement only.  That means that the bassoon section gets to kick back and enjoy listening to the exciting whirlwind of a waltz while conserving energy for the heaving lifting of the remaining 3 movements.

Berlioz calls upon all 4 bassoons for many of the semi-exposed tutti passages of the 3rd movement. 


The 4 bassoons are in unison with the low strings.  As always, attention must be paid to Berlioz's details of dynamics and articulation.  Only some of the notes are to be played staccato, and the rest should be noticeably more legato.  Be alert for tempo changes such as the poco animato beginning 3 before 42.  Playing softly enough to be able to hear the cellos is advised, if acoustics allow. 

The truly heavy-duty bassoon soli passages begin in movement 4, the March to the Scaffold.  In this movement Berlioz, convinced that his love will be forever unrequited, poisons himself with opium.  The desperation of the situation is expressed by the 4 bassoons in unison:


The review of the Columbus Symphony's recent performance of Symphonie Fantastique mentioned the "shrieking bassoons".  I believe the reviewer was referring to the above passage, which benefits from being played with the strength which was surely lacking in the French basson of Berlioz's day.  After the first mf phrase, there is a crescendo to the high A and the next phrase.  Of course it's important for the 4 bassoons to play these notes with matching intonation.  The pickups at the beginning of each phrase (the sixteenth followed by dotted eighth followed by sixteenth) should be very incisive, almost forceful.  I suggest adding a crescendo in the first phrase up to the high G, and using vibrato on the quarter notes to add emphasis and intensity.  The final quarter note of each phrase (except the third phrase, which dies down at the end) should be held for full value or even longer for extended resonance.  This is a very exciting passage, especially when the conductor gives the bassoons free rein to shriek.

Soon after that, the 4 bassoons engage in a progression (a march, as it were) of eighth notes.  This is one of the two most famous bassoon excerpts in the piece, and is sometimes featured on auditions.

Notice that the dynamic is piano.   It's common to hear this passage played rather aggressively, almost angrily.  Would Berlioz have requested the soft dynamic, especially from the French basson, if he wanted this passage to sound aggressive?  Probably not.  I asked the Columbus Symphony bassoon section to adhere to the p dynamic, and I was pleased with the result.  One benefit of playing at that dynamic level is that each bassoonist can hear the other bassoonists better, and the ensemble benefits.  Rushing is perhaps less likely to occur.  Also, there's no doubt that the softer sound imitates the French basson sound to which which Berlioz was accustomed.   I will admit that during the concerts I did add crescendos as the line ascended and vice versa, as my teacher K. David Van Hoesen recommended, to add a bit of spice.

The division of the bassoon parts varies from one edition to another.  In some editions, the first and second bassoon parts are coupled and in other editions, the first and third parts are coupled.  The two pairs of bassoons play basically two parts, which join together in unison for the important bassoon ensemble soli.  At the moment in history when Berlioz composed this work,  the orchestra's 4 bassoonists doubled two parts.  Berlioz was breaking the mold when he decided to make harmonic use of the fact that he had 4 bassoon players at his disposal, for example near the beginning of the 5th movements of Symphonie Fantastique where he took the bold and historic step of writing 4 individual bassoon parts:


A little later in the fifth movement lies the second of the two major bassoon audition excerpts:

Here the bassoons accompany the Eb clarinet solo.  The tempo varies, and so does the type of tonguing used.  It's possible to single tongue if the tempo is on the moderate side.  Often, however, double tonguing is necessary.  Some musicians believe that it's important to think of the sixteenths as 3 sets of duplets per beat rather than as 2 sets of triplets per beat.  The rhythm is identical, but the emphasis is different.  In the duplet version, emphasis is on the first and third sixteenth note of each set.  In the triplet version, emphasis is on the first and fourth sixteenth of each group of sixteenths.  Most bassoonists think in triplets, as far as I know, even though it appears that Berlioz preferred the duplet approach, since he did not write a "3" above the first 3 sixteenths of each group to indicate a triplet approach.  This is a minor detail, perhaps, but one never knows when it might be significant to an audition committee or a conductor.

I recommend practicing this excerpt with a metronome.  It's particularly challenging to keep the tempo steady from one before 64 to the end of the excerpt.  There is sometimes a tendency to slow down at 64 when the rhythm changes. 

Soon after the above sixteenths is a long-winded exposed passage for all 4 bassoons:

This passage is doubled in the cellos and basses.  Once again, intonation is critical, and a good way to practice this is with a sound drone producing a C.  Many of the notes in this passage are troublesome pitch-wise for bassoonists, but that's no excuse.  With a good reed and flexible embouchure, it's very possible to play all notes on the bassoon well in tune.  The passage diminuendos to ppp.  That means using less air and a loose, open embouchure (while taking less of the reed into your mouth) to bring the pitch down where it belongs.  If you check the score you'll see that the cellos hold the low C one measure longer than the bassoons and basses.  That sometimes causes bassoonists to hang on to the C too long.  It's better to allow the cellos to finish the passage, as Berlioz requested.

The Dies Irae theme comes next, played by all 4 bassoons and 2 tubas:

Each note has an accent, and that's the most important aspect of these Dies Irae passages other than intonation.  As I've said before in this blog, I do not like to change reeds in the middle of a piece.  However, this is one of those passages which really might call for a special reed, one that plays loudly and in tune in the extreme low range.  I did not change reeds during our recent performances, but I used this passage to test new reeds for the piece, and the reed I chose was strong in the low range so that switching reeds was unnecessary.

Although the tubas may easily outblast the bassoons, the bassoons do have the physical advantage of being located closer to the front of the stage, so we probably can be heard somewhat.  Is it OK to allow a bit of buzz to creep into one's sound for this passage for extra "edge" and projection?  Maybe.

The bassoons participate enthusiastically in the Witches' Round Dance:


This excerpt was my sight-reading for my Performer's jury (the junior year jury which determines candidacy for the Performer's Certificate) at Eastman, interestingly.  It's easy to become entangled in the eighth notes after 72, so some wood-shedding helps (if it's not sight-reading, that is).

Shortly thereafter the bassoon section engages in a round with the cellos.  The cellos begin two measures before the bassoons enter at 3 after 76:


Clarity and incisiveness, even as the passage diminuendos to an eventual ppp, seem appropriate here as the whirlwind winds down.  

The following trill passage which begins in the fourth bar of 83 has been known to make an appearance on an audition or two:
One very common mistake that woodwind players make on this passage is to make the eighth note trills (which begin on the fifth full bar of the passage, or 9 bars after 83) sound as though the trills are actually grace notes before the beat.  Yes, it's easier to play it that way, but that's not what Berlioz wrote.  He wanted the trills on the beat.  I think it's helpful to think of those eighth note trills as triplets so that the "trill" (which really is just a triplet at this fast tempo) falls on the beat.  Also keep in mind that the seven bars before 84 are marked p leggiero.  Those eighth notes often sound a little too frantic for p leggiero.

With Symphonie Fantastique Berlioz managed to revolutionize not just orchestral music, but also orchestral bassoon playing.  It's so hard to believe that it was written 188 years ago, on the cusp of the Romantic era!


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2 comments:

Tina B said...

Thank you for this post! I enjoyed the flash back to my days in college orchestras. Seriously the most fun I ever had as a second bassoonist. You haven't lived until you've gotten pulled over for doing 85 in a 55 (the 70/71 split, doh) because you just left a rehearsal of SF, and it just happens to be playing on WOSU-FM as you're driving (flying) home... the cop let loose a string of verbal abuse and let me go! Harriet had quite an effect on Berlioz... yikes

B.S. said...

Hah! I can easily imagine how you were inspired to do 85 in a 55 after a Symphonie Fantastique rehearsal! And apparently the cop got it also....

Thanks for sharing that vignette, Tina!