Visiting the cows and sheep

I’m on vacation, till September. Gone off to the gloriously lovely spot we go to nearly every summer, in Britain’s Yorkshire Dales. Staying in a 17th century house that might be visited by cows, if they escape from a farmer’s field. And then peer through the French doors of our dining room!

(Cows are easy to chase away. They’re timid. Sheep — which also escape, and visit us — are much more stubborn.)

So I won’t be blogging again till after Labor Day. I’ll approve comments for a week, perhaps, and then look at them very lazily, if at all. Which — a word to the wise — will be mean that comments posted after this week may not show up until September. My apologies, but that’s what vacation means.

And now I’ll leave you with a story, a footnote to my posts (this one and this one)  in which I said classical music should be played more vividly.

Some years ago, I was working with a major orchestra, one of the largest in the US. In the end, the things I worked on didn’t see the light of day (for reasons that were unavoidable), though I’m still warmly friendly with the two people who brought me in, both of whom are still working with orchestras, both on a very high level.

For one project, I talked to musicians in the orchestra about the Sacre du printemps. We wanted to write program note for that piece, in which musicians would tell the audiences their thoughts about playing it.

I started, reasonably enough, with the principal bassoon, and asked him what it was like to play the opening solo. It was easy, he said, because all bassoonists mastered it in music school.

But then he offered something I hadn’t asked about at all. Completely on his own — I want to stress that; I wasn’t fishing for controversial remarks — he said he thought the solo must have sounded strained and extreme when the piece was new, because nobody had written that high for the bassoon before.

Stravinsky, he said, must have wanted a rough, extreme sound, because the piece, after all, is about a pagan sacrifice. And he, the bassoonist, would love to make the solo sound rough and strained. But couldn’t do it, he said, because the conductor and the audience would think he couldn’t play well.

Later on, I talked to two clarinetists from the orchestra, and told them what their colleague had said. They felt the same way, they replied, about the section of of Ein Heldenleben in which clarinets imitate the whining, kvetitching  voices of critics. They thought their instruments should shriek and quack. But they, too, thought they couldn’t do it, because what would the conductor and the audience think?

So there you have it — musicians from a major orchestra, who felt they couldn’t play as vividly as they wanted to. (And who, let’s note, evidently also felt they couldn’t communicate their wishes to conductors, or to the audience. Which isn’t their fault. Most orchestras are run, artistically, from the top down, and musicians haven’t always told conductors what they think, or told the audience what their intentions were.)

I’d rather these musicians had told me something happier. And, in the future, I’d like to think that orchestras will change, and that musicians will do new and daring things. Even if those things are already either stated or implied in the composers’ scores!

One last story, corroborating the bassoonist’s instinct about his solo. When the Sacre du printemps was first played in concert — a season after its tumultuous premiere as a ballet score — Alfredo Casella was in the audience. He went on to be a leading neoclassicist composer, and, from 1927 to 1929  (how many people remember this?), principal conductor of the Boston Pops.

But when the Stravinsky piece was premiered in concert, he was a student in Paris. And, as he writes in his memoirs, there was no controversy about the first concert performance. Instead, there was great interest in it.

Except from one distinguished name. As Casella writes (I’m paraphrasing, since I don’t have the book with me in the Yorkshire Dales), shortly before the performance started, a figure draped in furs entered the box where he and other students sat. It was Saint-Saëns, at that time a leading musical conservative.

The piece started, and the bassoon began to play its solo. “What instrument is that?” Saint-Saëns asked.

“Maestro, it’s the bassoon,” came the response.

“It most certainly is not,” Saint-Saëns said. And then got up and left.

Apparently the bassoonist I talked to was right. The solo, at the very least, sounded nothing like a bassoon.

Have a lovely August, everyone, doing whatever you most care about, whether it’s work or play. Or baking in the sun. (Not that I’ll be doing much of that in England!)



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  1. says

    It’s the same with the Mahler 1 slow mvmt bass solo. Although, since it is a major audition excerpt, no player WANTS to play it like they can’t play it! It’s a dilemma for sure. But if the conductor is willing to conduct it like “an animal mourning the hunter”, we will play it as it originally sounded.

  2. Joshua Kosman says

    I heard the Saint-Saëns/Stravinsky anecdote many a long year ago from a great youth orchestra conductor, who concluded his telling with “Saint-Saëns felt that was there was to say about The Rite of Spring. And some people believe that’s all there is to say about Saint-Saëns.”

    And no, I’m not on my way to Bard. Happy vacationing…

  3. says

    Enjoy your well-deserved time away, Greg. I’ll be thinking of you as I drop the baton at our first QCWE rehearsal on 8/26!

  4. says

    Hi Greg,
    I enjoyed your post – and I thought I’d let you know about the solution I found to the problems you were writing about the hierarchy within some of the traditional classical music organisations, and feeling as though one perhaps doesn’t get to play as vividly as one might like. I chose a while ago to do my own thing, rather than to keep on trying to fit in with a standard view of what (and how) a classically trained clarinetist should be playing, I don’t think that independent artistic activity receives the attention that it might in Australia – it certainly didn’t have the imprimateur of the kinds of people who were my mentors in my student days – and kudos is a bit limited. I think we still get caught up in the thinking that we can only have one of each thing. We can have ‘one’ really groovy independent cross over classical ensemble, and one recorder virtuoso etc. But otherwise, it’s a great life being a microstar, doing one’s own thing. No issues with limitations to being vivid. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I think it makes you realise, working independently, which often means with finite resources of one kind or another, that the level of passion required to realise your projects needs to be limitless. Musically and otherwise! Enjoy your holiday, Nicole

    • says

      Beautifully put, Nicole! I love the microstar idea. So many of us can be that, and it might be all we need to be.

      Among much else, your words make me want to hear you play. I’ve known you in other contexts of your multiform professional life, but not your playing. I’m looking forward to catching up with that, live, ideally, but on recordings otherwise.

      And I have to wonder — if vivid, passionate playing is essential (I so much agree) to a career as a microstar, what would it do for the Sydney Symphony?

  5. says

    “Of the widely-circulated reports that the veteran French composer Camille Saint-Saëns had stormed out of the Rite premiere, Stravinsky observed that this was impossible; Saint-Saëns was not present. Saint-Saens may have left a later performance; some commentators have suggested that accounts of the premiere were distorted by ascribing audience behavior over several performances to the one evening”

    However I agree with what else has been said. Performers should be able to play how they artistically think the part should be played, although with the conductor’s approval. Conductors should likewise be more open to suggestions from the orchestra.

    • says

      Jim, I think Stravinsky and Casella aren’t contradicting each other, though this may have been your point. Casella, after all, wasn’t talking about the famous premiere, but only the first concert performance. Nor does he say S-S stormed out. I’d think, too, that S-S’s presence at the performance Casella describes is consistent with him not being at the premiere. Having heard much about the premiere, as we can imagine he must have, he might then have gone to the next available performance to hear the music for himself. With the result Casella describes.

  6. DMead57, Austin, TX USA says

    In my extensive work as an accompanist I once performed a bassoon sonata by Saint-Saëns whose second movement ends with a scale in the bassoon part going up to a high E-flat. If I remember correctly, that’s one or two half-steps higher than the bassoon solo in Le Sacre. I’m curious now as to the date of S-S’s sonata.
    I understand that solos in an instrument’s grotesque register(s) were played grotesquely at early performances. But if the composer REALLY wanted it to sound raw, all he or she needs to do is mark it to be played “roughly,” or something like that. I think the first appearance of the critics’ music in Heldenleben has markings that suggest it shouldn’t be pretty.
    I’m one of those who finds modern standards of orchestral playing a little too perfect. Many of my favorite performances of favorite pieces were made before 1960, when great conductors still took boldly individual approaches to the music (that didn’t falsify the composers’ intentions at all). I would love for some of that sharper characterization of the music to return to performance practice.

    • says

      I downloaded the score (now in the public domain) from the invaluable Petrucci Music Library ( And the last note of the second movement is even higher than you remembered — it’s E natural! It’s the peak of a chromatic scale up from A sharp, at the end of a passage marked sempre p. And thus requiring what for the time (and maybe even now) would be remarkable control of the high register. Though the movement is marked Allegro Scherzando, so maybe these last notes aren’t meant to sound as freely beautiful as (for example) the lyrical high writing in the first and last movements (which — as a sign of how high they are — are for the most part written in the tenor clef).

      The bassoon sonata is a late work, op. 168, published in 1921, the year of S-S’s death. It would be interesting to know if by that time composers were writing higher for the bassoon than in earlier years. Though the piece is dedicated to a particular bassoonist, Léon Letellier, identified in the score as the principal bassoon of the Paris Opera and of the Société des Concerts. No doubt S-S wrote the piece for him, and knew he could play the high passages beautifully. Maybe Letellier always could do that, without any influence from anything Stravinsky wrote.

  7. Steve Ledbetter says

    My daughter studied bassoon for several years when she was in middle school. She learned the opening passage from “Le sacre” before she had been playing the instrument for a month, and she could reach the notes quite cleanly. Her teacher taught her a little “lyric” that is apparently passed around among bassoonists abut that passage, imagining the bassoon itself singing: “I’m not an English horn! I’m not an English horn! This part’s too HIGH for me!” So it appears that Saint-Saëns’s view is still passed down, if only as a joke, to new learners on the instrument! (But now, as you point out, no one considers it particularly difficult to play.)