The Beethoven Symphonies

How they may have been performed in Beethoven’s day.

When playing the Beethoven symphonies I have often been asked, and I’m sure many of my colleagues out there have also been asked by conductors for much more sound. But not all the great conductors were like that.  I remember some elegant performances by Furtwangler, de Sabata and Bruno Walter.

I have often performed them with a small orchestra consisting of instruments of a type that were used in Beethoven’s day and the sound was completely different as was to be expected.  There was not the blaring brass and screechy string sound that some orchestras make today. But there were drawbacks. For instance in the trio of the “Eroica” Symphony very often the old style horns fluffed it.

It is interesting to note that when Sir George Smart met Beethoven in Vienna in 1825 that four celli and two basses only played the recitatives in the Ninth Symphony, which, said Sir George, is certainly better than if one takes all the basses.

However, Schindler states that Beethoven required all the basses to play the recitatives in a singing style, not stiffly, but in strict time, not dragged.

According to my research there were mostly only four basses in Beethoven’s orchestra (in which the basses were sometimes led by Domenico Dragonetti) playing on gut strings and some with only 3-stringed instruments, so it must have been a completely different sound than we hear today when up to ten basses are used, all with metal strings

Memories of an old Koussevitsky ’78 recording

I’ve only heard one of  Koussevitsky’s recordings and that was in the year 1939/1940.  There was an apology of sorts on the record sleeve that read, if I remember correctly,that Mr. Koussevitsky had been retired from bass playing for some time but had come out of retirement and practiced for about two weeks before making the recording.  Remember there were no cuts, splicing or major enhancement in those days and the longest take could only occupy 13 minutes or so, but, nothing daunted, our friend Koussy made a creditable job of it, considering.  Apart from the record being a bit scratchy, and although the recording of those days was primitive, I was really fascinated with it and have never forgotten it.
There was one little thing that I noticed, and that was his style of slightly swooping to a note.  Many of the old string players of those days adopted it.  I can remember Madame Suggia, the cellist, using it.  If it is done in small doses I can’t complain.

It would be interesting to find out whether there are any existing copies of this disc around.  Perhaps it has been digitally enhanced?

Retiring From Playing the Double Bass #2

In my last blog I wrote at the end of it that there must be a moral somewhere in it.  Well I think there is.

Soon after I came to Canada in 1965 I heard from my friend, Gerry Drucker, who was Principal bass of the Philharmonia Orchestra of London that Frank Fuller, a member of his section had passed away.

They were playing at the Dome, Brighton Sussex one Saturday night, and Frank was so excited.  This was to be his last concert and he was going to retire.  However Fate stepped in, and the next day he suffered a heart attack and died.

I have thought about the moral and maybe it is this.  When you are fed up with playing  Beethoven’s Fifth for the thousandth time think of Dan Burton and Frank Fuller and be happy that you are still around to play it.

Published in: on September 26, 2008 at 2:07 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Professor Robert Meyer’s Guide to Auditions. Some Unusual Difficult Pieces #6

You will always find some difficult passages in Leos Janácek’s works. Two examples are a) in the opera “The Cunning Little Vixen”. Commencing at the Allegro after Fig. 4 Act 1 there are 31 bars of harmonics for one bass solo and following that 2 bars 4/4 before fig. 29 there is a long difficult passage.

b) In the opera Katya Kabanova there are a couple of bars bass solo that are a trifle difficult. I forget exactly where they are but you can find them easily by perusing the score You would do well to find both of these excerpts and put them in your scrap book as they have come up occasionally in bass auditions for principal bass positions in opera orchestras. Some conductors like to catch you off guard so be prepared!

Published in: on June 15, 2008 at 12:41 pm  Comments (1)  
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Professor Robert Meyer’s Guide to Auditions. Some Unusual Difficult Excerpts. #4

You can find many difficult bass parts in Darius Milhaud’s works, some of which come up occasionally at auditions. He was born in 1892 and died in 1974.  He was a rather whimsical sort of man and devoted much of his life to composing what some might call odd pieces.  He was a member of “Les Six”.  Around the ’70’s he was commissioned to write a piece by one of the leading Universities but when he delivered it they found it to be ridiculously short and wouldn’t accept it.

If you know there is one of his  pieces coming up on the programme it would be as well to take a good look at it, for he wrote some very difficult bass passages.

I have chosen two examples of his writing:  The first is”Le Boeuf sur le toit”  ( The bull on the roof) a humorous ballet for Jean Cocteau which was given in England as the “Nothing- doing bar”.  The second is his Suite Provençale starting at the animé after 20.  It has many accidentals, doesn’t go very high, but it’s one of those little tongue twisters that if you’ve never seen it before can give you a lot of trouble. Put it in your scrap book!

Professor Meyer’s Guide to Auditions. Some Difficult Solos #3

Opera, L’Enfant et les Sortilèges by Ravel

You can always count on Ravel to put a few harmonics in the bass part; one piece I can think of is his “Mother Goose” Suite. At one time there were heated debates over suggested changes to some of the harmonics but now there is a general concensus of opinion that the printed part is correct.

I was fortunate enough to play a concert performance of “L’Enfant et les Sortilèges” in the late 1940’s with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Victor de Sabata the brilliant principal conductor and Director of la Scala Milan who had conducted the first performance. He got a wonderful performance and at rehearsal even corrected the pronunciation of a French choir that was brought over specially.
There is a big bass solo consisting of all harmonics combined with two flutes that starts near the beginning of the opera at Fig. 1 which goes on for 21 bars or so. It is very exposed. There are other difficult bits around Fig. 95 Adagio and 96. Victor Watson played the solo bass part which he found very difficult both technically and rhythmically.
Some years later I played the solo part. I got through it O.K. but I was glad when it was over!

Professor Meyer’s Guide to Auditions. Some Difficult Solos #2

Theme and variations for Orchestra by Schönberg, Variation IV.  Tempo di Valse  Beginning Bar108

After a few bars there is a bracket. and from hereon there is a solo part for two basses in octaves.  The first bass part employs bass, treble and tenor clefs and is very transparent with lots of accidentals.

If you can obtain a part it’s well worth putting in your scrap book, and if you don’t have a scrap book it’s time you started one!

Published in: on June 8, 2008 at 3:36 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Professor Meyer’s Guide to Auditions. Unusual Difficult Solos

Josef Holbrooke, born in England in 1878 was a prolific composer.  He was fond of  Edgar Allan Poe’s writings and one of his pieces “The Raven” contains a lengthy solo for the double bass.  The bass comes in, dead cold, and the solo goes on and on and on.  It is slow, marked Largo molto sostenuto and then has an Agitato section which leads in to an Allegro Sostenuto.

Technically it is not very difficult, but it needs to be played in a very prima donna fashion, maybe taking a little license in parts of it.

Holbrooke’s music isn’t performed very much nowadays, but if ever it comes up on one of your programmes be prepared!

Published in: on June 8, 2008 at 3:34 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Professor Meyer’s Guide to Double Bass Auditions. Unusual Difficult Solos.

Further to my other articles on auditions I thought I would mention some unusual pieces that I have been asked to play at auditions during the course of my career.

The English composer Sir Granville Bantock’s compositions are not played very much nowadays.  He was a prolific composer, having written operas, ballets, choral works, orchestral works, chamber music, music for harp, cello, violin and viola and many songs.

He lived from 1868 until 1946 and was Principal of the Birmingham and Midland Institute School of Music where I first studied the double bass with Arthur Cockerill, the principal bass of the City of Birmingham Orchestra as it was then known, and the BBC Midland Orchestra.

His pieces were often performed by the BBC orchestras.  Sir Adrian Boult was a champion of his compositions.

You can always count on a little bit of solo bass in his works.  There is his Comedy Overture  “The Pierrot of the Minute” which contains a difficult, exposed solo that I was once asked to play at a BBC audition.  Another one to look out for is his Tone Poem #3, “Fifine at the Fair”.

If you care to spend time browsing through his works you will find many other bass solos.

There are many  books of extracts of  difficult bits for the bass but in future I shall try to give some relatively unknown ones which to the best of my knowledge aren’t in any collections.

How Musicians of a Previous Era Managed to Survive and Comments on the Present Day Situation. #2

It was WWII that put classical music on the map in England.  During the war an organization was formed, The Council For Encouragement of Music and the Arts, (C.E.M.A.), which sponsored concerts for the entertainment of the Troops and munitions workers. Later on it was taken over by a department of the British Council. The London Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra were funded together with many smaller classical ensembles.  The concerts were well attended and so began the big post war classical music revival which lasted for over twenty years.  Then the economy changed, and also peoples tastes, plus there was a huge development in recording technique and television.

Walter Legge founded the. Philharmonia Orchestra in the mid ‘forties and a little later Sir Thomas Beecham founded the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.  This meant five Symphony orchestras in London (if the BBC symphony Orchestra is included) fighting for a part of an ever diminishing pie.

Perhaps there was a surfeit of classical music or maybe the rise of rock bands contributed to the diminishing audience also the shortage of discretionary cash plus the proliferation of ipods has affected matters.

For the past few years much of the recording that was done in London has now given way to recording in some of the Eastern European countries where the fees are much less and as I mentioned in Blog #1 of this series technology  has developed so rapidly that virtual orchestras replace live musicians in the pit. Despite the doom and gloom that prevails I notice that many concerts still attract full audiences, the reason being, I think, is that these are superbly played and designed to give the classical music lovers not just a concert but a great experience. The old days of giving a Tchaikovsky Symphony, the Grieg piano concerto and the 1812 overture with military band and fireworks may be going out of the window.
The last surviving radio orchestra in North America, the CBC Vancouver Radio Orchestra was recently axed.  I read some comments in the newspapers where it was hinted that the idea behind it all was to recognize the huge ethnic community in Canada and play more ethnic music.  We may even see such instruments as pan-pipes, nakers, samisens etc. incorporated into our Western orchestras, who knows what the future will bring. There is certainly an increase in the number of Oriental, Middle Eastern and South Asian artists playing at concerts and on TV in Vancouver, B.C. and very good they are too.

I was in China recently, and interestingly enough I noticed that Western music was burgeoning there.  They had several symphony orchestras.

Perhaps in my next life I shall be known as Bob the samisen not Bob the bass!