Go on!

I’ve recently been following a somewhat heated discussion of the attacca- the musical practice of joining two movements of a multi-movement work without pause. Surprisingly, many musicians cannot seem to agree on the definition of an attacca.
In fact, the true measure of attacca vs non is what I call the “mop test.” If a conductor takes time to put the baton out, whip out the hankies and mop up the accumulated sweat and mucous, then it is not an attacca. If a conductor still has sweat on his face from the Adagietto at the end of the Finale, that was attacca, no matter how long the silence was between the movements. Corollaries to the mop test include the ‘wardrobe malfunction’ test. I saw Nadja Solerno Sonnenberg play the Mendelssohn vn concerto a few years back. A strap fell off her dress in the first movement, but since all the movements were attacca, it was not until the encore that she was able to repair the wardrobe malfunction. On the other hand, when the Minnesota Orch played M5 at the Proms two years ago, Vanska’s entire tux vest/suspenders apparatus came apart at the end of the Scherzo (with 6,600 people on hand and the BBC broadcasting live to the nation on TV). Since the Scherzo and Adagietto are not attacca, he was able to have an embarrassed looking principal 2nd re-attach the clips of his suspenders before starting the Adagietto (and to mop up, but he did that himself). Had the wardrobe malfunction occurred in the Adagietto, he would have had to keep his pants up with mental powers through the Finale, because those movements are attacca.


In chamber music, an attacca is when the violist does not re-tune between movements. I’ve personally never experienced such a moment in a concert.

There is also the clarinet rule. Clarinettists do not really believe in attaccas, partly because mischievous composers have always demanded clarinet changes between attacca movements. It’s hard to feel to sorry for clarinettists, as trumpet players seem to be able to play the whole repertoire on a C or Bb trumpet. All clarinettists see it as their professional responsibility to try to do away with attaccas whenever possible, and to warn conductors of injury and possible musical calamity whan attaccas taken that aren’t in the score. Any time I announce an attacca, chances are it will be a clarinettist raising his hand to warn me of the potentially dire consequences of this act of madness.

However, the most important thing about attacca’s is to TELL THE ORCHESTRA- “I am not going to take 10 minutes to mop up and tuck my shirt in after the slow movement, but will instead be proceeding attacca to the Finale.” I was once playing cello in a marvellous American orchestra to remain nameless when the maestro, in a sudden moment of inspiration, finished the slow movement of Schumann 2 and launched attacca! into the finale. Caught completely unprepared, only about 15 string players were able to get their bows on the string for a feeble first bar of the finale, but worse, the poor clarinettist, who had spent his entire career warning conductors of the perils of clarinet changes in every work of the symphonic literature, was so shocked that he dropped his clarinet (which he wasn’t, in fact, changing), which proceeded to bounce down the stage on each level of risers, completely drowning out the meagre string section for the first couple of bars.

c. 2008 Kenneth Woods 

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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6 comments on “Go on!”

  1. ComposerBastard

    This is brilliant Ken. Absolutely brilliant insight. Brilliant stories in here…great post. Where you find these thoughts?

    “…A strap fell off her dress in the first movement, but since all the movements were attacca, it was not until the encore that she was able to repair the wardrobe malfunction….”

    This also inspires me to write my current violin work with a minimum of 8 movements all attacca instead of the usual 3. And all forza, and maybe presto to boot.

    Of course the purpose would be somewhat mundane and uninteresting when played by a Nakid Contemporary Ensemble.

  2. Crystal

    I am not a classical musician and always have thought of them as very prim and proper – nice to know that they are not only that!
    Your writing made me laugh out loud – great way to start the day!

  3. Anne-Lise

    I thought I had to share this with you.

    Dress rehearsal today. On our stands was Romanian dances by Bartók. Conductor says: ‘I’m going to play this attaca.'(Remember: it’s in the score!) The only person who protests is the principal clarinettist. And not even because he has to change instruments, but because he has to turn his page!

  4. Kenneth Woods

    A friend just asked me if this post reveals a certain anti-clarinettist attitude on my part. Of course not- as they say, some of my best friends play the clarinet. If anything, it seems that my descrption of conductors as sweating, mucous oozing slobs reveals more bias….


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