Thursday, January 9, 2020

Tchaikowsky: Manfred Symphony

Tchaikowsky's epic Manfred Symphony (1885) stands out in numerous ways.  It is a multi-movement romantic symphonic poem rather than a numbered symphony, it's Tchaikowsky's longest symphonic work, it's an example of Tchaikowsky using the idée fixe made famous by Berlioz, AND its score includes 3 bassoons often playing in unison in exposed passages.  There are so many exposed bassoon passages is the work that I'd definitely label it bassoon-heavy.

The Manfred Symphony is based upon the dramatic poem Manfred by Lord Byron.  The Russian journalist Vladimir Stassov came up with a sketch of a program for a 4-movement musical composition and asked composer Mili Balakirev to write the music.  Balakirev didn't want to get in over his head so he sent the sketch to Hector Berlioz (an obvious choice considering the success of Berlioz's Harold in Italy which was based on Byron's Childe Harold).  Berlioz, feeling old and sickly at the time, declined, and next Balakirev tried to pass off the project to Tchaikowsky.  Tchaikowsky also balked, not giving in to Balakirev's nagging until years later.  And once he did take on the task, Tchaikowsky quipped that it was "a thousand times pleasanter to compose without a program"!

Tchaikowsky provided the following description of his setting of Manfred in the score:
I. Lento lugubre (B minor, 338 bars)
Manfred wanders in the Alps. Wearied by the fatal questions of existence, tormented by hopeless longings and the memory of past crimes, he suffers terrible spiritual yearnings. He has delved into the occult sciences and commands the mighty powers of darkness, but neither they nor anything in this world can give him the forgetfulness to which alone he vainly aspires. The memory of the lost Astarte, once passionately loved by him, gnaws at his heart, and there is neither limit nor end to Manfred's despair.
II. Vivace con spirito (B minor, 555 bars)
The Alpine Fairy appears to Manfred beneath the rainbow of a waterfall.
III. Andante con moto (G major, 282 bars)
Pastorale. A picture of the simple, free and peaceful life of the mountain folk.
IV. Allegro con fuoco (B minor–B major, 491 bars).
The subterranean palace of Arimanes. An infernal orgy. Appearance of Manfred in the midst of a bacchanal. Evocation and appearance of the spirit of Astarte, who pardons him. Death of Manfred.
In the Manfred Symphony the idée fixe melody, representing Byron's romantic protagonist Manfred, is presented in the opening by 3 bassoons and bass clarinet in unison. (An idée fixe is theme occurring in each movement of a work, lending unity and sometimes a sense of obsession.)

The Manfred Symphony opens with the idée fixe played by 3 bassoons and bass clarinet in unison.
There is usually an unspoken hierarchy for unison passages.  For example, if I'm playing in unison with a horn, I'm going to defer to the horn because it's a louder instrument.  In fact, in unison situations I almost always defer to the other instrument (unless, for example, it's a situation where blending is more important than playing underneath the other instrument).  The main reason for this is that the bassoon is the quietest of all orchestral instruments.  Also, the bassoon is like a chameleon, easily adapting to and blending with whatever musical environment it finds itself thrust into.  Generally, especially in unison situations, we bassoonists make better followers than leaders, let's face it.

Incidentally, when we play with other instruments in octaves or harmony (instead of unison) the priorities may be different.  Achieving the best balance sometimes means that the bassoon, perhaps playing in the lower octave, plays out more than the others.

In the opening of the Manfred, even though it's a unison soli I think it's appropriate for the principal bassoonist to play out like a leader.  There's only one bass clarinet, and the 2nd and 3rd bassoons are likely to follow the 1st bassoon. This passage (along with the later passages featuring the same instrumentation) is traditionally played without vibrato.  The bass clarinet doesn't use vibrato, and I think it might be nightmarish for 3 bassoonists to somehow try to sync their vibrato.  Also, there's no question that playing without vibrato makes it easier to tune with the other players.

This unison soli is played by bassoons 1,2 and 3 and bass clarinet.

The opening statement sets the tone for the entire work, so it's particularly important to aim for a strong but pleasant sound.  I "auditioned" my reeds by turning on a sound drone on low A and playing the opening on each reed.  I sought a reed which easily played in tune AND also had an appealing sound which projected well.  (And it also had to be a new reed, since that's what works best on my 15k Heckel.)

The Manfred Symphony is full of various types of unison soli passages involving the first bassoon, affording ample opportunity to practice being a chameleon.  In measure 38 of the first movement, the opening  idée fixe is stated a fifth higher, using the first and second clarinets instead of bass clarinet.  Here it seems wise for the bassoons to defer to the clarinets who are playing fortissimo.  (Bassoonists must be careful in ff passages to not ruin the sound.....we rarely truly play ff because of the undesirable sound which may result.  Clarinetists don't seem to share that problem with us.)

     Here the idée fixe is stated a fifth higher and the 3 bassoons are joined in unison by the 1st and 2nd clarinets.
Later in the first movement the first bassoon joins the low strings in a unison melodic passage.  Here the bassoonist is free to use vibrato to match the vibrating strings. Also, since this passage involves a large number of players, it's advisable for the bassoonist to play out in a soloistic manner.
Here, the 1st bassoon plays with the lower strings and vibrato is called for.
The second movement, a scurrying scherzo (which is one of my favorite scherzos ever) features some wildly whirling woodwind parts as well as plenty of staccato sixteenths.  When I listened to recordings of this movement without looking at the music, I imagined that the sixteenth note triplets, the staccato sixteenths and also the groups of 2 or 3 eighth notes were beginning ON the beat instead of where they really start (on the offbeat).  I had to re-program my brain with the corrected beat.
When listening to this movement without the music or score, it's easy (for me at least) to be fooled into thinking that each of the above passages are beginning ON the beat!
The 3rd movement offers yet another unison soli combination.  The English horn, 1st clarinet and 1st bassoon share this fff soli:
This fff soli is for English horn, 1st clarinet and 1st bassoon.

Another 3 bassoon/bass clarinet unison soli  appears fairly close to the end of the 4th movement:
Near the end of the 4th movement there is a return to the 3 bassoon plus bass clarinet combo.
The work ends quietly with important bassoon parts.  The 3rd bassoon has a very exposed passage in the last few measures:
The final measures, featuring the bassoons playing quietly
Clearly this monumental work requires much flexibility from the bassoons and presumably for the other instruments as well.  As far as I know, this is the only work for which Tchaikowsky wrote 3 bassoon parts. Sometimes those 3 bassoons play important parts in unison, and other times the 3rd bassoon is assigned challenging passages not included in the other parts.  His orchestration seems quite revolutionary and experimental.  (There are also 2 harps in this work, reminiscent of Berlioz.)

If you'd like to enjoy a rare opportunity to hear this work performed live, the Columbus Symphony is performing it this Friday, Saturday and Sunday in the Ohio Theatre under the direction of Music Director Rossen Milanov.  Also on the program is the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 1 with soloist Natasha Paremski.



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