I’ve been spending most of this week huddled over my cello, preparing the solo part of the Schumann Cello Concerto, which I’m playing with the Lancashire Chamber Orchestra.
For the first time, I’m doing it without conductor (yes, I realize I am a conductor, so perhaps I should say I’m doing it without anyone conducting).
Is this a musical suicide mission?
Schumann’s language thrives on flexibility, fantasy and freedom, and his unique rhythmic vocabularly can easily obscure the location of the barline, or even the beat. For this reason, this work is considered a notorious conductor killer. I know that the one time I played with orchestra before, in spite of trying to be sparing with rubato, the conductor, a good friend and a good conductor, was deeply and possibly permanently traumatized.
I guess this experiment is predicated on the idea that the solution to the difficulties of this piece might be as simple as the soloist (me) knowing where there are opportunities to be flexible and where there aren’t- without a conductor standing there to put it all together, I’m forced to make sure that what I’m doing makes sense and is natural and easy to follow. It also forces the musicians to learn the solo part, and to really, really listen.
I don’t know if it will work!
It’s been a cello intensive year to date- the Dvorak concerto took up a lot of my energies in January, and I’ve been busy with the trio in March and April, so the cello universe has been very much on my mind. I’ve been really excited to learn that one of my cello heroes, Lynn Harrell, has started a blog. One of his recent posts expresses his frustration with young cellists who don’t bother to try to understand the intentions of the composer-
One thing that has always irked me whenever I give Master classes at different conservatories and Universities while on tour. And it is starting to concern me more deeply than before. What is that you ask? It’s a seemingly deliberate disregard for how a composer has marked his music. For example, directions and hints to the would-be performer on how to play the piece, what speed to take, what balance, goodness; even what notes are correct.
What we’re talking about here is a basic level of respect for the text but what seems to be more and more common these days is just guessing at the meaning of metronome markings and foreign words. The result is an increasing number of would-be performers feeling more and more entitled to change what has been left by the original creator and to feel as though their flimsy, novel approaches are legitimate simply because they are novel.
The idea that a composer doesn’t have de facto the best and most illuminating approach to the work is fundamentally ridiculous. But that doesn’t seem to stop these musicians from thinking that it might be Brahms’ way but they have the right to disregard him and substitute their own view! This is to propose that their way is as good as ,well…Brahms.
I find this more and more distressing because without at least first trying to understand and recreate the text means that our knowledge of a composer’s use of the notational language is diluted and made fuzzy. We have a big enough problem with numerous corrupt editions and while efforts to find more accurate editions continue, the movement to disregard composer’s intentions makes these efforts more and more difficult, or worse, seemingly not important or necessary.
I agree with everything he says, except for the notion that there is anything new with this. Sadly, I don’t think that young cellists are to blame, but their teachers, our conservatory system and (Harrell correctly points this out!) our music publishers. I’ve gotten more and more militant about learning concertos from the full orchestral scores- it makes such a huge, huge difference. I know that turning pages is a pain, but it’s worth it. A cello part should just be like a cheat sheet to be used only for run-throughs once you’ve learned the piece properly.
So, I got out my cello part to the Schumann for a run through this week- it’s the old International Edition edited by Leonard Rose (a great cellist, an immortal recording artist and hugely important teacher by any measure). I suppose 80% of American cellists have this edition and grew up with it. After looking at the score for a week, the differences were distressing. There are wrong notes and changed notes, moved slurs, different rhythms and invented articulations, and nowhere in the text does Rose tell the cellist what is his suggestion and what is actually from Schumann. Where changes have been made, the player is not told there has been a change, nor is there any record of what has been taken out.
Worse yet, Rose suggests a whole-scale recomposition of the last movement. He advises a massive and pointless cut in the development which can only have been made by a musician who doesn’t understand the structure of the piece, then gives two suggested cadenzas before the end. Schumann pointedly wrote a very short accompanied cadenza before the coda- he didn’t want a long solo improvisation. Rose does include Schumann’s original, but only as a “last option” after the two cadenzas, and nowhere does he mention that the existence of a long cadenza is his idea and not Schumann’s.
Sadly, this is nothing new- the celebrity edition has always been a great selling point for publishers (and I’ve griped about it before), but if you want to know why young cellists don’t respect the text, look no further. Times haven’t changed- Breitkopf and Hartel have come out with a new Urtext edition of the Dvorak and Schumann concerti, but sell with them a cello part edited by Heinrich Schiff. Like Rose, he’s a great player and musician, but his suggestions, additions and alterations are presented in the same print as those of the composer. At least he doesn’t change the chords in the 4th bar of the cello part of the Dvorak (an unforgivable sin in both the Rose and Starker editions- really, who changes a note written by Dvorak!?!!?). For instance- there are bowings in the concerto that come from Dvorak himself- in the new Schiff solo part, Schiff’s bowings, and his changes of original markings are marked in exactly the same way as Dovrak’s originals, without comment. Why a publisher would go to great expense to put together an Urtext edition then suggest cellists prepare the solo part from another corrupt edition is beyond me.
Perhaps most depressingly, these mangled solo parts are written evidence of the very same thought process Maestro Harrell bemoans- these great, great artists have taken to changing things that they seem not to understand. If you go through the Schumann part with a score, you can see that Rose (or the graduate student who actually edited it!) wasn’t working from a score when he edited the solo part. Dynamics that are moved no longer line up with important musical and harmonic events in the orchestra. The cut disrupts a clear, simple and coherent musical structure. Far from improving on the composer’s original ideas (the notion of improving the Schumann Cello Concerto or Dvorak is simply beyond absurd!), what these editions do is simply immortalize misreadings and mistakes.
Not only do these sloppy old editions evince a depressingly casual disregard for the composer’s intentions, they also show a very limited knowledge of the piece itself. The single line of the cello part is not the Schumann Concerto- the Schumann Concerto is the whole score. If you’re just thinking in single-line terms and leaving it to some hapless conductor to reconcile your wayward discoveries with the rest of the music, you’re not doing the music justice.
This doesn’t mean there is no room for creativity, spontenaity or waywardness. Schumann wrote this great work in his usual fervent burst of creative energy, so there is actually a lot left to the soloist to work out in terms of dynamics and phrasing. Likewise, some of the metronome markings are very problematic. It is a piece in which you do have to struggle with the text, and may even have to go beyond the text, but surely the starting point for that process is knowing the text.
To appropriate Harrell-“The idea that a composer doesn’t have de facto the best and most illuminating approach to the work is fundamentally ridiculous.” Equally true whether the offender is a legendary cellist and recording artist or a struggling young cello student playing in a masterclass