The Detroit Symphony Orchestra is doing four performances of Beethoven's First Symphony, an involved and challenging work for timpani, on our Neighborhood Chamber Orchestra Series this weekend.
Normally when we have these off-site weekends, I use plastic heads on the orchestra's instruments, but after two days of rehearsals, I opted to switch to calfskin. I plan on doing a longer calf-versus-plastic post at some point, but for now I'll leave it at this: there's something about Beethoven's music especially that simply works better with natural heads. There's more fullness to the sound and more articulation, the sforzandi make more sense, and the tone quality just feels right. Once you get that sound in your ears, it's hard to go any other way. After a few days of experimenting with mutes and sticks on plastic heads, I wasn't finding a sound close enough to what I wanted to justify avoiding the extra effort calf demands.
Beethoven's First has a few tricky spots for timpani, notably in the third movement. While technically challenging due to the logistical demands of quickly shifting between drums while keeping a light, lean, classical sound that's appropriate for early Beethoven, I want to focus on some of the musical aspects of this spot, specifically from measure 44 (one bar before letter A) to measure 58.
The first important consideration: just because this is an audition excerpt does not mean that the timpani part is the most important thing happening. This may seem obvious, but it's important to keep track of the bigger picture and make judgements about your volume and tone quality accordingly.
Secondly, we need to make a decision on how the excerpt should be phrased. If we look at the timpani part in isolation, the options are endless. We could, for instance, divide the first 8 bars into two 4-bar phrases, each leading to the downbeat of its respective third bar. Or we could make a longer phrase that leads to the downbeat of measure 51, followed by a second phrase that peaks on the downbeat of 56. These ideas would likely work well and could be musically convincing if played alone.
But we don't play alone. Even in an audition, you're playing with the orchestra that each committee member is imagining in their mind. Keeping that in mind, we need to do a little more exploration to determine which musical decision is best in the context of the entire orchestra.
Luckily, there's help – and clarity – in the score. Take a look at the first violin part starting at the pickup to letter A: it's one unbroken melodic line that ascends to the G on the downbeat of measure 52. Beethoven makes sure we understand that this is an arrival point by indicating sforzandi for all of the strings and winds. After a second sforzando in bar 54, the melody descends and the orchestration is thinned out after the timpani, trumpets, and horns finish their lines in bar 58.
Based on that information, I'd argue that the line that makes the most sense is to grow in intensity to a high point on the downbeat of 52, stay at almost the same level into bar 54, and then use 55-58 to phrase back down into the next musical idea. The image below provides a rough sketch of the way I approach phrasing this excerpt.
How much phrasing is too much, and what about that ff marking?
It can be difficult to judge exactly where phrasing turns into simply changing dynamics, but I think it's worth making an effort to keep that distinction clear. Since performers use a lot of the same techniques to effect a dynamic change as to show a phrase - namely altering the volume at which we're playing - it may be more helpful to focus on how we want our playing to be perceived by the listener.
I look at it like this: A dynamic change should be experienced as a noticeable increase or decrease in volume, while phrasing should be perceived as a sense of line, direction, or an increase or decrease in intensity. While we may use changes in volume to create a sense of phrasing, the audience shouldn't be hearing that as much as they're experiencing flow or motion within the music. In the case of our Beethoven excerpt, there should be one long line of building intensity from measure 44 through the downbeat of 52, and there should also be a noticeable increase in volume to fortissimo starting with the pickup to 49
The Transcription Test
It may be helpful to imagine a hypothetical listener who, while familiar with the piece you're working on, doesn't know the exact dynamic markings in your part. Imagine giving them your sheet music minus the dynamic markings, and asking them to write in the dynamics based on what you play.
In the case of this Beethoven excerpt, the difference between forte and fortissimo should be clear enough for your listener to pencil it in. If, however, they'd write in a crescendo or diminuendo where not indicated in your part, your phrasing may have crossed that invisible line where it begins to sound as if you're playing the part in a way the composer likely didn't intend.
Sometimes you won't need to do very much at all to create the desired effect. Other times you may need to exaggerate your changes in volume to make an effective, understandable phrase. It's not about what you're doing as much as it's about how what you're doing comes across to your audience. Recording yourself and playing for others can be a huge help in making these evaluations.
Going back to my first point, it's important to keep in mind that the timpani part, while arguably more difficult for timpani than any other part is for its instrument at this moment, is not the most important part here. Great phrasing - especially within an ensemble - shouldn't sound overbearing or stick out; it should just fit. Despite the work that goes in to preparing through both research and practice, we are most often not the stars of the show (as much as we might like to think we are).
In instances like these I'm often reminded of a quote from Chicago Symphony Orchestra Principal Timpanist David Herbert:
"(Beethoven) just wrote so well for the instrument. It's such a joy to play. How can A and D bring so much joy to someone? Or C and G? Playing the tonic and dominant. I can't put my finger on it. It's just so challenging. Sometimes you're a third trumpet, sometimes you're one of the bass section and sometimes you're completely alone. . . I get completely immersed in two notes. I could spend the whole week working on it; I want to get it just right, and match what I'm doing with my colleagues. . . And if I screw up, it's the end of the world, and if I play perfectly, nobody will notice. And that's the way it should be."
(Speaking of David, please be sure to check out his blog as well!)
For tickets or more information about this weekend's concerts, please see the DSO's website.•