As I look out from my palatial office towards the busy inner corridors of VFTP International Headquarters and our crack team of Harvard-educated interns working as fact checkers and web technicians, I am reminded of the sacred mission of this august institution- to give our humble readers a rare and precious glimpse of the glamorous life of the SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA CONDUCTOR.
A recent event drove home the importance of this mission. On this occasion, I was privileged to welcome a distinguished colleague, a genuine FAMOUS SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA CONDUCTOR to our home for dinner. When this maestro arrived a bit early, he found not the expected feast arrayed on our dining room table, but a stack of orchestra parts, a score, a pencil and an eraser.
“Ah- you’re in the midst of nuts and bolts work,” he said, “our poor ignorant fans can never fully imagine the glamorous life of a symphony orchestra conductor.”
Of course, he was right- mere imagination is too feeble a tool to create a vivid portrait of the life of a symphony orchestra conductor, hence the urgent need for this blog.
What my colleague had recognized was the process of marking and editing orchestra parts, which can be an invaluable tool for a working conductor.
Some years ago, I was at a conducting seminar on the topic of musical materials and the teacher said in a completely matter-of-fact manner that we should all own our own parts to as much of the core repertoire as possible. At the time this seemed an impossible task- the cost alone boggled the mind, as did the notion of taking the time to mark all of those parts.
I had also noticed in the past my boss, the music director of the major orchestra I was working for at the time, had no need for his own private library- he simply had a photocopy of his own scores sent from his home to the orchestra’s library. Then, the orchestra’s expert library staff would reconcile every marking, bowing and edit in his score with the parts to be handed out to the players. When you’ve seen this system in action, it seems rather a bad deal to have to buy your own parts and mark them yourself, especially when, unlike my millionaire boss, you are living on limited resources.
However, over the years, I noted that, indeed, many of my senior colleagues did have their own libraries, meticulously edited and marked, which they sent around the world wherever they conducted. Of course, my former teacher, David Zinman, earned a great deal of press recognition for his early recording of the Jonathan Del Mar edition of the Beethoven symphonies. When we had the opportunity to ask him at Aspen about the use of the new edition, he informed us that he had used his own set of parts which he had prepared for this project, and that they were so marked up that not much of Del Mar’s work could still be seen. “They look like a fucking Mahler symphony,” was his typically short reply.
Isn’t this business of marking up parts rather naughty? Not neccessarily- depends on the markings. Shouldn’t we just be able to put those nice Urtext parts on the stands and let the players get on with their jobs?
For a variety of reasons, probably not. Most importantly, notation has changed since Beethoven’s time. Beethoven wrote what he wanted the audience to hear, not what the musicians needed to do to achieve that effect. Mahler and later composers use notation to tell the musicians what they need to do to make the music sound as he wishes. Modern players are trained to read music as instructions, not as sonic representation (“I see a forte, therefore I play a forte” as opposed to “I see a forte, therefore I realize a forte”), which means one can save a lot of time and effort in frustration in rehearsal by marking in details of balance and articulation that are needed to make sure that the audience hears what the composer meant them to.
Of course, balance and articulation issues vary from hall to hall and orchestra to orchestra. A couple of years ago I did Beethoven 5 with two different orchestras 2 weeks apart using bowings I had battle tested several times before. To my surprise, I found I needed to make many changes each time to what I had done in the past and to make changes from band one to band two to suit the performing space and the playing styles of the two strings sections. If I had been using my own parts, it might have been quite frustrating for me.
However, this brings me back to my initial feeling of “oh shit- I’ll never be able to do that” when it was suggested I should build my own library. Even as a string player with many years of orchestra playing under my belt, I find that really knowing exactly what I want to mark in a string part- not just the bowings but also articulations and any dynamic tweaks- is something that needs many years and many performances to sort out. There are ideas that work wonderfully with one group once, but never again, and ideas that work everywhere, every time. Ideally, I want my parts to a Beethoven symphony to only contain the second type of markings, and nothing extra that needs to get fixed or contradicted or that will get in the way of a more natural or fresh reading. (It’s worth differentiating between having one’s own bowings, which is a complex issue in itself, and having one’s own parts, by the way. I’ve kept bowing masters of most pieces I’ve done for a long time, but that’s not the same thing as having a uniformly marked set)
Tweaked over time, a conductor’s personal library becomes inseparable from their own musical identity. I recently read an interview with Charles Mackerras in which he described how he came to start his own library. He stumbled on a distributor going out of business and bought all the sets available at a vast discount, then was able to spend the next several decades marking and editing his own materials. He described it as a life-changing, career-making episode. Even as new editions became available, it was preferable to reconcile his existing parts with the new scholarship than to replace them with the new edition. Beecham was famous for not needing nor wanting much rehearsal time, yet his recorded performances are full of impeccable balances and the most precisely judged articulations- everything was meticulously marked in his parts (although I don’t know if any of his Beethoven parts looked like “a fucking Mahler symphony.”)
Useful as it is to have your parts marked before rehearsal and to have the musicians looking at materials which are as close as possible to what you’re trying to achieve, it is perhaps just as useful to have the parts back on your desk after the concert. It was great having my own set of parts for the first time to Beethoven 2 with the OES in April, but even better getting them back after the concert and having time to go over them with the memory of the rehearsals and concert fresh in my mind (this brings us to another topic- the value of studying AFTER a concert- something we all struggle to budget time for, but which is invaluable). Think what kind of shape they’ll be in after 10 performances! Perhaps they will start to look like a “fucking Mahler symphony.”
Even in a long career, it helps to have help- this is time consuming work. I recently read an interview with Marin Alsop’s “personal librarian.” Now that’s what I need! Beecham, who was a very wealthy man, didn’t need to hire a personal librarian- his long-suffering wife marked his parts for him. I seem to remember that the same was true of Harnoncourt’s wife as well. I’ve carefully mentioned this to Suzanne several times, but to no avail. However, we now have a son…. In fact, there’s a librarian in town whose daughter used to work for his company and is now working for the BBC. Perhaps if you need a good library assistant, you should breed them yourself? If Sam gets a pencil and eraser for his 8th birthday, Vftp readers will know why.
Once I decided to start building a library in earnest and had the resources to do so, I wanted to start with most central pieces in the repertoire- the Beethoven symphonies, the last four Mozart symphonies and the like. Other choices are more personal. It is key to my secret plans for world domination to record the Schumann symphonies, so I am gradually acquiring those parts. Of course, in addition to having one’s own markings in the parts, another good reason to own your own parts is to finally be free of crap editions and to finally stop getting to rehearsals and finding out that the woodwinds have letters, the brass have rehearsal numbers and the strings have bar numbers, or that people are playing from 2 different versions of the same piece. The new Breitkopf Schumann parts are not as good as they could possible have been (there are some lousy page turns and the Critical notes aren’t up to snuff and it seems like the editor has not spent much time with the Autograph or with the Clara Schumann edition, basing his edition instead solely on the first edition), but they’re very good and a vast, vast improvement on the old edition. They’re easy to read, nicely printed and user-friendly in terms of bar numbers. Likewise, the Barenreiter Mozart parts from the NMA (Neue Mozart Ausgabe) are great- easy to read and easy to rehearse with.
With Beethoven, we now have a choice of wonderful editions. It wasn’t always so. The old Breitkopf edition was and is pretty good, but the many different reprint editions (Kalmus, Lucks, Broude, etc) often had/have incompatible bar numbers and editorial insertions. The last time I did Beethoven 8 it was using ancient Broude Brothers parts that were a disaster- lots of naughty little changes and a mixture of parts of different sizes and ones with and without bar numbers. A nightmare, really.
Not so this time- I’m just finishing editing my new set of parts in the new Breitkopf Urtext edition edited by Peter Hauschild. There are some interesting changes from the old Breitkopf I grew up with as well as the Del Mar which I did a few years back, but most importantly, they are well printed and professionally presented. I’ve written before about the two main Urtext Beethoven editions and will do so again as the year unfolds and I roll out more of my own sets, and you can read more about the Breitkopf here . So far, I can tell you that I’m using
Symphony 1- Undecided. I actually use the Henle edition of the score edited by Armin Raab, rather than the Clive Brown or Del Mar, and may end up buying those parts, but am also intrigued with Brown and of course Del Mar is always good
Symphony 2- Clive Brown/Breitkopf. Did find a few wrong notes, but otherwise wonderful and user friendly.
Symphony 3- Del Mar. Nothing against the other editions- I’ve been doing this piece from the Del Mar edition for too many years to change now, and it’s the Beethoven symphony I tend to need the most tweaks in- adjusting to a new edition would take ages.
Symphony 4- Del Mar. I actually found a few things in my parts this summer that I wasn’t happy with that would have been better in the Hauschild, but that’s the beauty of owning the parts- you can fix what you don’t like.
Symphony 5- I’ve used both Clive Brown and Del Mar recently. I prefer Brown in several places and appreciate his preference for making available variant versions where there is legitimate confusion over Beethoven’s final intentions, where Del Mar seems to prefer to be definitive. The Del Mar parts, on the other hand, are more user friendly, particularly where page turns are concerned. I haven’t yet bought this one, but I’m leaning towards Brown.
Symphony 6- Stay tuned- I’m doing it this Spring and will start looking at my options then. I’ve done it in the old edition and in Del Mar, but don’t know the new Breitkopf at all. If any of my colleagues have compared available editions and have thoughts, please share.
Symphony 7- Del Mar. Wonderful edition and quite used to it now.
Symphony 8- Hauschild/Breitkopf. Using for the first time in a few weeks, and just finishing editing them. Very happy so far. Probably went for it over Del Mar partly because I was a little annoyed that the Del Mar 4th I used in July wasn’t as good as I’d hoped (although the Critical Notes, as always with Del Mar, are very interesting and opinionated).
Symphony 9- Haven’t bought yet. Did it last with Del Mar and was happy, but am intrigued by Hauschild (it was the last one he did in the series).
Other works may have to wait- I’m doing Brahms 4 again this year, which would be a great piece to have in my library. However, there is a new Critical edition in progress and only the first 2 symphonies have been released. It seems silly to invest in a 90 year old reprint edition when I can wait for something better. I guess that has been the general lesson I’ve learned over the years- there is no hurry to these things.
For now, it is back to Beethoven 8. The strings are done, and I have to make some decisions about the winds. There are a lot of balance problems in the 1st movement of the symphony, perhaps because the piece was written with an enormous string section in mind (the premiere used 36 violins, 14 violas, 12 cellos, 7 basses and doubled winds- a fact often over looked by those who claim he preferred smaller orchrestras). With a huge string section, some of the balance problems do go away (depending on how much doubling you do in the winds), and my next performance is with a large string section (albeit with non-doubled winds), so maybe this time I don’t need those balance tweaks. Remember, the goal is only to mark what is needed every time, not what might be needed or effective one time.
Ah yes- and the other goal? Could it be to make your Beethoven parts look like a “fucking Mahler symphony?” Stay tuned…..
Ah yes, the glamour never stops here at VFTP Intl.
UPDATE- I’m sorry that the original version of this post didn’t have any of the relevant links. I think that’s been fixed now.