Classical Culture: Notes from a musicophile

#bringbackthegliss and other performance disputes

First of many to come in a series on the culture of classical music. Sorry if musicophile isn’t a real word.

The first piece of classical music I obsessed over was the scherzo of Beethovens ninth symphony. I spent many hours dancing around the kitchen to its beat while ostensibly helping my parents clean up from dinner. It was a performance by Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic, ripped from a friend’s parents’ box set. The music was exciting, and I loved it. I didn’t know at the time that Karajan was notorious for taking Beethoven’s tempi radically fast, so when I heard Furtwängler’s interpretation, which begins at three-fourths the speed of Karajan’s, I just laughed and turned it off, picturing a decrepit man too weak to take the music at the correct tempo. (On album covers that I’ve seen, Furtwängler is inevitably pictured as balding, with thin, white, unkempt hair, while Karajan is unfailingly handsome and suave, with a proper mane.)

Find the lion

Having just listened again to Furtwängler, I will say two things. First, I prefer it. Second, within thirty seconds (at the first fortissimo arrival, where the timpani enters again), the two tempi nearly converge, Furtwängler propelled by the music, Karajan perhaps limited by the orchestra or stretching the tempo for expression. Moments and discrepancies like this one, and many far subtler than this one, are one reason I love classical music. I’ve been collecting these moments, and I’d like to share part of the collection. This particular example from Beethoven is a matter of interpretation, but a good portion of the collection does not involve interpretation at all. Some of the moments are matters of revision, where a post-premier revision of a piece leaves the world with two legitimate works. Others are instances of unfinished works, still others are real mistakes, but mistakes that have endured and become embedded in the performance tradition of the work. Please enjoy the collection, and please share with me parts of your own! More to come soon.

The Old Castle, Pictures at an Exhibition, arr. Ravel: “the gliss”

This movement is a masterpiece that needs no expounding, so I will be brief. A close inspection of Ravel’s arrangement reveals a glissando in the saxophone at the end of this subtle Andante. Marked forte, and with absolutely no cover except a sustained, low, pianissimo note in the bass clarinet, Ravel seems to dare the saxophonist to go for it: to show that the castle has life yet. But to hear the gliss in concert is rare, if not totally unheard of. Online forums briefly touch on it as a curiosity. Apparently the gliss is infeasible on alto sax, and hence isn’t taken seriously.

In a happy turn of fate, as I was investigating another Pictures oddity — a recording one entire whole step flat by Rene Leibowitz with RPO, which is a treasure for its own reasons — I came across this review, which also mentioned the gliss! They had done my leg work for me, and identified the sole recording where the gliss can be heard: Ricardo Chailly and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra come through with the goods. The saxophonist manages something closer to a chromatic scale than a gliss, but it’s in the right spirit. I say, #bringbackthegliss.

Recordings to compare: Ricardo Chailly and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, available on YouTube, with any other recording you can find. The gliss is at the very end.

Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle, ibid: “the F double-sharp”

This is a well-known error that has become so engrained in the classical trumpet tradition that the correct version has become the unorthodox one. In this movement, Mussorgsky takes inspiration from two paintings of Jews, one rich, one poor. He contrasts two supposedly Jewish themes, an opulent tune in the left hand, and a pleading, staccato motif in the right. The movement ends with the two themes overlaid, in a rather pitiful argument — the two men don’t discuss so much as shout at each other, neither listening to the other. The musical intention in the argument is quite clear: the two themes are in different keys and different modes, have different rhythmic patterns and are set in entirely different registers. The idea is contrast.

The error was introduced by Ravel. In his orchestral arrangement of the piece, the trumpet gets the pleading motif of the poorer man. When the two men begin to argue, and the themes overlap, Ravel changed the motif ever so slightly. A single note is raised by a half step each time it appears, F double-sharp instead of F (single) sharp. The change is catchy, and I suspect it caught on because it sounds good. It heightens the overall tension in the music. But it also conflates the modes of the motifs. The rich man’s motif is written in the Lydian mode, with a raised fourth; the poor man’s is in the simple, natural minor mode. But the F double-sharp is the raised fourth in the key of the poor man’s motif, and thus Ravel accidentally unifies the two motifs in the exact moment when they are supposed to contrast. I like to imagine the F-sharp as an earnest hand gesture from the poorer, gentler man; an F double-sharp feels like an uncharacteristic snarl. Despite this, most performances nowadays (and for the past sixty years, at least) feature the double-sharp.

Comparing recordings and manuscripts leads to a few more interesting tidbits about this single note. In Ravel’s manuscript for these bars, a high-quality scan of which is conveniently printed in the front of the Boosey & Hawkes edition of the score, the F double-sharp is clearly visible in his pen. Then, around the double-sharp mark, in a lighter pencil, are parentheses, and above the staff in the same pencil, a single sharp. This, I believe, is Serge Koussevitsky’s writing. He commissioned Ravel’s arrangement for the BSO, and would have reviewed the score in rehearsals before the premiere. Indeed, in the surviving recording of Pictures with Koussevitsky and the BSO, the trumpets are faithful to Mussorgsky’s F-sharp. So how did the double-sharp sneak back in, assuming it was corrected for the premiere of the piece? I wish I knew. But Koussevitsky seems to have had at least some influence in the matter: Lorin Maazel, who apparently grew up watching Koussevitsky conduct, is also faithful to Mussorgsky, despite conducting in a wholly F-double-sharp era.

Recordings to compare: the entire trumpet part for this movement is frequently requested in orchestral auditions, so this trumpet blog has compiled recordings of the movement to help students study various interpretations. Listen through the recordings on that page and you’ll only find one with the correct F-sharp: Lorin Maazel, with the Cleveland Orchestra.

Musician, writer, neuroscientist.

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