Re: Re: 20th century symphonies/excerpts

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Posted by Rick Denney--long on April 23, 2002 at 11:05:50:

In Reply to: Re: 20th century symphonies/excerpts posted by Mike on April 23, 2002 at 09:41:19:

I have seen parts (in scores) only for the second and fourth symphonies of Vaughan Williams. They are both outstanding tuba parts, but in different ways.

The second is the most likely to be performed, because it is one of the most endearing. Vaughan Williams wrote it immediately after the Tallis Fantasia, in 1914 or so, before he served in WWI. It reflects the studying he did with Ravel, from whome he learned to orchestrate "in points of color". The tuba part is tuneful in spots, exposed, and makes good use of big equipment. I can't imagine how English tuba players tried to make this part do its thing on the small F tubas they used at the time. Of course, Vaughan Williams would have heard the tuba players from the German orchestras playing their large rotary tubas, and he was deeply affected by his first hearing of Wagner. He would not have had access to such instruments in England, and one wonders what sound he had in his head. Technically, the second symphony is accessible by most decent players--I can make my way through the part pretty well if the standard is just hitting the notes. The dynamic range of this symphony is huge. Listen to the first five minutes, where the quiet opening, depicting dawn, is answering by the crash of the brass, and then you'll know where things are headed. This symphony is unabashedly programmatic, and the story is fun to tell.

Speaking of Ravel, the tuba part to La Valse may be a typical oompah part, but it allows the tuba to make sounds at volume levels not seen in any other waltz you've ever played.

The fourth is an entirely different thing than the second. Vaughan Williams had been leading up to something really big with his composition of works like Job and Sancta Civitas. (Speaking of Job--that is another great work with great brass parts that is much too rarely performed; and speaking of Sancta Civitas--this would be a fabulous alternative to yet another performance of Carmina Burana for the local semi-pro choir.) When listening only to the symphonies, the fourth seems like such a departure from the third, but there was lots of stuff in between the two. As I said before, the fourth has many low, loud earth-moving parts where the tuba and bass trombone work together, and even a few places where the breadth of the tuba is pitted against the edge of the bass trombone in alternating parts. The first movement starts with a crash (what strings?) and does some incredibly tricky rhythmic augmentation that don't sound tricky at all to the audience. The second movement is a thin and wandering slow movement that to me says more about the minor key than just about anything I've ever heard, finishing with a descending flute solo that fades into nothing. The scherzo third movement includes a duet with tuba and bassoon that is rangy and highly characteristic of the tuba (moreso than the bassoon), playing the opening line of a fugue section that ends up with the tuba trowelling the depths of the range. More challenging technically in the scherzo is some incredibly fast rhythmic passages that I could not resolve in my mind at all without programming them into a MIDI file and playing them up to tempo. I have no clue how one might actually play these figures, but my ears tell me it's done. The segued finale is a pretty typical Vaughan Williams modal march that does just a finale should do--reviews the themes established in the previous movements. As it nears conclusion, it builds to a climax that you'll know when you hear the horns play a FFF trill, and if that doesn't make your hair stand on end, then you should do something else with your time other than listen to music. The ending repeats the opening phrase verbatim, and then--ends. The end is so abrupt that it usually takes the audience by surprise (especially without a gap between the final movements), and there is often a good three of four seconds while everyone wonders who that idiot is in the balcony going bananas.

The other symphonies are even more rarely performed, which boggles the mind. The sixth has a hauntingly beautiful main theme in the first movement, and demands extreme concentration from the orchestra in the extended pianissimo finale (which I'm sure is tacet for the tuba--but at least he has something worth listening to during the tacet). If the orchestra puts in the energy, without playing above pp, the audience could not be unmoved.

Holst's Planets is a well-known work, especially for the euphers out there, and it also has great tuba parts that clearly distinguish between the round tone of the tuba and the edgy tone of the bass trombone. At least this one gets performed regularly.

Rick "the idiot in the balcony" Denney

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