Hidden clarinet melody?

A “hidden” melody in the middle of the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony is uncovered and performed by the Fauxharmonic Orchestra. The melody is actually only “hidden” in plain sight, for it is clearly written in the score, though rarely heard in most recordings and concerts.

5 replies
  1. Paul Henry Smith
    Paul Henry Smith says:

    Jay, I know what you mean about the “mathematical” nature of my performance. It’s due to the fact that the music is not really performed in real time. No natural tempo fluctuations allowing for the music to breathe. The next version will actually be performed and not merely fashioned in the studio. Thanks for you comment!

    Reply
  2. Jay Alan Miller
    Jay Alan Miller says:

    Hi,

    I listened to your podcast and think that you are looking at performance in a perhaps “mathematical” way. One could find lots of “hidden elements” in scores, and lots art in great performances IMO. I think that Bernstein shaped every phrase in that piece, as a performer, in “Berstein’s way”. And I find it to be sheer extasy, that he brings out the poetry that the notes merely “spell out”. I thought that your version (apart that competing with the NY phil is tough) maybe got the notes, but missed the essential art in it.

    Reply
  3. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Wow! Thanks Thomas and thanks Paul!
    This is a great conversation! I enjoyed reading it.

    I can see the points of each interpretation and would not dare to add my own now as i am still new to this field of music – at least in that depth. But i would like to mention that i am glad about the oportunity to learn about the details that way. And this is surely a field which is opened up to people like me by the digital orchestra. Wouldn´t it be interesting to discover the music and its hidden treasures by experimenting with it (if it just was a little easier accessable 😉 )? Does it count if one finds the truth or just one´s personal version of it? Isn´t this discussion already a celebration of the music? Ups – am i getting philosophical??

    Well, thanks again…. and keep up the good work 😉 !

    Michae

    Reply
  4. Paul Henry Smith
    Paul Henry Smith says:

    Thomas,

    Thanks for your intelligent comments. It’s about time someone who actually listens joined the discussion! As to your comments …

    Why would you bias the question by calling the clarinet (and bassoon!) lines a ‘melody’ and the other instruments a ’sustained note’ (actually three notes, two of them doubled at the octave, with a crescendo marked) or ‘wash of sound’?

    It’s not a bias (itself a loaded word). The clarinet and bassoon are playing the melody. And, yes, it is a fact, not an opinion. BTW, Did you notice that the first violins are also playing the melody with the clarinet and bassoon?

    My comments on this passage tried to simplify the matter for casual, but attentive listeners. So, I said “clarinet” melody instead of “clarinet, bassoon and first violin melody.” If that shortcut obscures nuances, that’s the price of trying to be succinct, I suppose! But, in fact, functionally there is only one melody here, orchestrated and played among different instruments at the same time.

    Aren’t the other woodwinds also, in the end, melodic? They don’t sit on the chord indefinitely: in fact they soon join the clarinet and bassoon, moving in from above whereas the clarinet and bassoon come from below.

    Yes, you’re right. They do, in the end, join the clarinet and bassoon and violins. That’s what’s so cool about this orchestration. The way they first come in as a coloring, harmonic entity aligned functionally with the trumpet, 2nd violin and viola (i.e., as “not the melody”), and then morph into timbral extensions of the main part, or “melody.”

    In other words, the flutes and oboes start as if they were independent contrapuntal strands, then near the end of the phrase come together with the first strand.

    Exactly right. Think about the function of these independent contrapuntal strands. One is second-species (i.e., moving) and one is first-species. And, the first-species contrapuntal lines (oboe, flute) eventually become second species, when they join with the clarinet, bassoon and 1st violin.

    Is there anything in the score that says the first clarinet _should be dominant here_ as if playing a solo? Difference in dynamic? Special reinforcement? Why would you say so confidently that one instrument must be dominant all the way through and the ‘colouring’ so very much in the background?

    1. Clar (bssn, vln1) are playing a consequent phrase immediately following an un-adorned antecedent phrase. That is, the first half of this melody does not have the sustained winds supporting it. (BTW, this often-covered-up melody not only flows from the immediately preceding phrase, it also evokes the opening of the entire symphony).

    2. “special reinforcement” … yes: bssn, 1st violin. Also, it is moving while the other winds sustain (at first, before they join the motion). Motion tends to stand out, naturally.

    3. I would not say that the other winds should remain in the background all the way through the end of this phrase. Only that at the beginning of the phrase, the oboe, flute and trumpet should be in the background … just like the viola and second violin.

    And, yes, it could also work to have the flute come to predominate the texture (or the oboe). Imagine a seamless morphing from clarinet/bassoon sound to oboe/flute/clar/bssn sound. Wow! It would be almost like Debussy!

    But, instead, most conductors just allow (and probably uncritically) the sustained winds to dominate the texture making it nearly impossible for something like this to unfold.

    The result of that treatment is in my opinion dull and conventional.

    It’s not conventional to approach Beethoven’s orchestration as if it were Debussy. Moreover, just try to find a recording that does not have the flute/oboe/trumpet playing louder than the clarinet/bssn/vln1 melody here. I couldn’t find a single one among Toscanini, Szell, Reiner (who came pretty close), Bernstein or Norrington.

    It looks to me like Beethoven went to a great deal of effort in contriving a subtle contrast in texture and instrumentation between the two halves of the period – but if you unbalance the whole of the woodwind section so much, he might as well not have bothered.

    Yes, maybe Beethoven did go to a great deal of effort … or, if it was easy for him, we should certainly assume that he knew precisely what he was doing. The subtlety here is quite impressive. And if the supporting winds are too much in the background at the end of the phrase, or don’t really join the clar/bssn/1st violin, then it would be out of whack. You would not have this kind of Klangfarbenmelodie emerge.

    Why would Beethoven score the other strands at higher pitch than the clarinet, and use both two flutes and two oboes, and not reinforce the clarinet by any extra instruments at the crucial point if he wanted the alleged mere accompaniment or colouring to be so much behind?

    The cool thing is that at the higher pitch those instruments can emerge as if from the overtones of the clarinet melody. If they were lower than the clarinet, that would not be possible. If you’re going to orchestrate so that the timbre of one instrument is cast as a “coloring” of another, one of the very best ways to do that is exactly how Beethoven did it here.

    And, remember, it’s just not true that Beethoven did not reinforce the clarinet. As you pointed out, the bassoon is there, too, and so are the first violins. So, it’s not as though the orchestration suggests in any way that the melody in the clarinet actually should be covered up.

    You say with regard to the Bernstein ‘You can’t really hear what’s going on’ and ‘the fact that it gets subsumed’ – Who says? I think I *can* hear what’s going on!

    Let me make it clearer, then. Anyone can hear the clarinet melody. Just try hard and you can make it out in even the most tin-eared performance. So what? You could also really hear what the basses and cellos are doing and focus your attention there. You can hear everything. What I should have said is that you cannot hear the clarinet melody as prominent. Subsumed means something else has covered it. Has it eliminated it? No. But the whole of music involves balance of parts … balance means that some parts are more prominent than others, according to their musical function. It does not mean everything’s the same loudness. My god, if that were all it would take to get a good performance, we could just turn on a machine and let it homogenize everything to the same loudness.

    And why would you designate your perception of the Bernstein as a ‘fact’??
    If you listen closely without the prejudice that one instrument must always be THE melody and everything else the accompaniment, you can hear a remarkably subtle evolution of texture and timbre. If there is one flaw in the Bernstein it is the insufficiently *transparent* flute and oboe timbres – but this is often not a problem in other ‘traditional’ or ‘period instrument’ recordings, depending on the instruments and players. Yes, it is possible to hear two different melodic strands played by two different groups of woodwind at once: the listeners’ ears and brain can take it!

    Yes, the brain can take it. Sure. But this is not a Bach Brandenburg concerto or a fugue (well, later it is). It’s not a prejudice that the melody should be more prominent than the accompaniment. It’s common sense. It’s not that there is “THE” instrument with the melody. I used “clarinet” as shorthand for “clarinet, violin, bassoon” who ALL play the melody. But that only makes it even more obvious that we have a melody here.

    Look, would you be just as happy to have the two trumpets play just as loud or louder than any other instruments here? Why do you never hear that? I think it’s because that would so clearly be wrong that the likelihood of it ever even happening approaches zero.

    But, actually, it’s instructive to consider the trumpets here. What I think we’re discussing is a very unusal situation. I’m saying that a melody that starts out with one timbre is progressively changed into another.

    The reason we aren’t even talking about the trumpets is because we both know they are in the background and that treating them as anything other than that would simply be willfully ignoring the facts as Beethoven left them to us.

    When a composer is going to do something subtle and strange (to early 19th century ears) like morph the timbre within the statement of the melody, you want to keep other elements simple (q.v, the bass/cello or the trumpets). But also, you may want to keep the melodic structure very familiar.

    In this case, using a familiar periodic structure (antecedent/consequent phrase) provides a stable canvas on which the interesting timbral shift can be painted. That’s one way to have clarity.

    Basically your message here is ‘I understand the score better than Bernstein and all those other guys and I know Beethoven must have intended the first clarinet to be much louder than the other woodwinds even though he didn’t mark it’. Sorry, I don’t think you’ve proved it – rather the opposite.

    No, not really. My message is that if you study the score carefully, there are still aspects of this music that can be explored, played, and even debated. It’s not dead music. And, don’t be silly about “not marking” it. So much of what is absolutely essential to the music is left out of the notation, you could fill a book!

    As you can see above, it’s not about arbitrarily deciding to make the clarinet louder. It’s simply an assertion that the melody (clarinet, bassoon, violin) ought to be prominent. It’s perplexing to me that anyone would really find that controversial. I think it’s actually more controversial that orchestra after orchestra allows the melody to be covered. Perhaps “allows” is a loaded word. But I strongly suspect that no rehearsal ever heard these words uttered, “flutes and oboes, could you please come in louder there? We can hear the melody too clearly.”

    In other words, I think it’s simply the default outcome when playing this piece that those sustained winds do actually cover up the melody. Some of that result may be due to orchestration, but also some of it, sadly, is due to the attitude that, no, we certainly could not understand Beethoven better than Bernstein. Where would we be now if Bernstein himself thought that way? Listening to Toscanini imitations forever? Great musicians were not perfect and if the way they played something doesn’t make sense, a musician with integrity is obliged not to do it that way.

    Reply
  5. Thomas D
    Thomas D says:

    Why would you bias the question by calling the clarinet (and bassoon!) lines a ‘melody’ and the other instruments a ‘sustained note’ (actually three notes, two of them doubled at the octave, with a crescendo marked) or ‘wash of sound’? Aren’t the other woodwinds also, in the end, melodic? They don’t sit on the chord indefinitely: in fact they soon join the clarinet and bassoon, moving in from above whereas the clarinet and bassoon come from below.

    In other words, the flutes and oboes start as if they were independent contrapuntal strands, then near the end of the phrase come together with the first strand.

    Is there anything in the score that says the first clarinet _should be dominant here_ as if playing a solo? Difference in dynamic? Special reinforcement? Why would you say so confidently that one instrument must be dominant all the way through and the ‘colouring’ so very much in the background? The result of that treatment is in my opinion dull and conventional. It looks to me like Beethoven went to a great deal of effort in contriving a subtle contrast in texture and instrumentation between the two halves of the period – but if you unbalance the whole of the woodwind section so much, he might as well not have bothered.

    (And as a sometime bassoonist I am rather disappointed you didn’t mention those instruments at all. More supporting players behind the first clarinet, I suppose.)

    Why would Beethoven score the other strands at higher pitch than the clarinet, and use both two flutes and two oboes, and not reinforce the clarinet by any extra instruments at the crucial point if he wanted the alleged mere accompaniment or colouring to be so much behind?

    You say with regard to the Bernstein ‘You can’t really hear what’s going on’ and ‘the fact that it gets subsumed’ – Who says? I think I *can* hear what’s going on! And why would you designate your perception of the Bernstein as a ‘fact’??
    If you listen closely without the prejudice that one instrument must always be THE melody and everything else the accompaniment, you can hear a remarkably subtle evolution of texture and timbre. If there is one flaw in the Bernstein it is the insufficiently *transparent* flute and oboe timbres – but this is often not a problem in other ‘traditional’ or ‘period instrument’ recordings, depending on the instruments and players. Yes, it is possible to hear two different melodic strands played by two different groups of woodwind at once: the listeners’ ears and brain can take it!

    Basically your message here is ‘I understand the score better than Bernstein and all those other guys and I know Beethoven must have intended the first clarinet to be much louder than the other woodwinds even though he didn’t mark it’. Sorry, I don’t think you’ve proved it – rather the opposite.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *