PhrasingPhrasing implies direction.
by John Wion
When we express ourselves verbally we start with a thought that we then put into words. Depending on our level of education and the nature of the expression, the result might vary considerably in length and construction, but the appropriate amount of breath will always be taken, the stresses will be made in the correct places, and the quality of voice will relate to the emotion contained in the thought. Compare this to someone reading a text that they do not understand intellectually, or to which they bring no emotional involvement, and you see the difference that is often apparent between vocal and instrumental performers.
Expressive phrasing is rarely missing from a singer's performance but is often lacking in an instrumentalist's.
Telemann significantly wrote that whoever plays a wind instrument must be conversant with singing. With singing, composers' and performers' sources of expression derive from the words. Composers are inspired by the lyrics' basic emotional content and move the expression forward with appropriate melodic line, harmonic logic, and rhythmic stress. Performers use lyrics and their emotional content as a basis for recreating the composer's inspiration.
Flutists can learn much about phrasing from following the simple lines of beautiful arias and by imitating the ways that great singers express them. Look at how the opening of Puccini's "Un bel di, vedremo" (example 1 below) moves from the tonic down the scale on the first four downbeats. Then listen how great sopranos extend that line through intervening pitches and changing vowels, across rests, until the tonic is reached again on bar eight. (example 2 below)
By playing such arias with an understanding of both the narrative content and the musical direction we start to breathe in a more natural fashion, just as in conversation when we instinctively take the correct amount of breath for the length of the sentence, the distance of the listener, and the power of the emotion. We begin to use the entire period of each rest to breathe normally, instead of holding our breath until the last moment and quickly inhaling regardless of need.
We can similarly learn from vocal material that has been transcribed for flute, such as Boehm's arrangements of Schubert songs or Schubert's own use of his Trockne Blumen as a subject for his variations. One can usually tell whether a flutist has heard this melody in its original setting by the choice of tempo and sence of line. The 'singing' flutist will choose a slower tempo and will sustain the line with longer staccato and tonal weight on each note. Additionally, the emotional quality of the expression will be affected by knowing the text of the song. (example 3 below)
When playing instrumental music, not having the clarity of words as a guide, we have to find the logic elsewhere.
If we are not conscious of a musical direction when we play, off-beat notes may become stressed just because they are long and down-beats may be under-stressed just because they are short. (example 4 below) not (example 5 below)
Many flutists will not hear that bright notes need toning down in a particular situation, or that dull ones need to be brightened, and will allow the vibrato and dynamic to fluctuate without regard to the direction of the music.
Flutists are taught, for example, that closing certain keys on the instrument will produce a certain pitch, and that closing more keys will change that pitch. These fingerings relate more to notes on a printed page than to a musical interval, and the action can be carried out mechanically without thought. Singers, on the other hand, cannot sing an interval unless it has first been heard in the mind. Flutists' phrasing (as well as their intonation) will always improve when they start to "hear" the next anticipated pitch before actually moving the fingers, because the act is automatically leading them forward.
A simple musical phrase will usually rise to a single high pitch and decline again to its starting point. Sensitive musicians will intensify the sound to that high point (perhaps increasing the tempo as well) and ease back to the end of the phrase. Listeners will subconsciously be brought along a satisfying musical journey. More complicated instrumental phrases are not always as easily understood by performers. One cannot move the phrase in a logical fashion if its direction is not perceived, and the result will not be satisfying to listeners.
Simplifying such phrases is an excellent way to understand them. For example, the flute's four bar opening in the slow movement of Mozart's Concerto in D Major (example 6 below) can be simplified to G - A - B. (example 7 below) The A in bar two is repeated. (example 9 below) The As in bars two and three are delayed by G# appoggiaturas on the gown-beats, and the movement to B in bar four is delayed by an A# appoggiatura. (example 9 below)
Performers aware of this progression will see the D and B in bar one as an ornamentation of the opening G and move the phrase through those notes to the G# in bar two. That G#, reduced by ornamentation to a sixteenth note, will be lengthened and stressed to carry the phrase through to the A on beat two. That A, though a quarter note, is seen as a resolution and played lighter. Similarly the long A in bar three is under stressed, and its following C leads forward to the stressed A# in bar four. (example 10 below)
Another way to perceive this snese of forward motion is to group all the notes following a beat with the next beat, rather than the written beat groupings. Musicians who perceive the notes following each beat as belonging to that beat tend to play in a static fashion, whereas the perception of the afterbeat notes leading to the next beat, like grace notes, gives a powerful sence of direction. (example 11 below)
A flutist sensitive to phrasing will also use an even vibrato. A common fault with flutists is to start a long note without vibrato, then quickly introduce a noticeable vibrato for the remainder of the note. The result is an illogical and unsatisfying phrase because of the effect of these surges in inappropriate places. Players who truly see the direction of a phrase will not play in this disruptive way. This does not mean that an equally modulated vibrato throughout a musical line is implied. Vibrato is modified in both speed and amplitude, and notes within a phrase may be expressively colored thereby. An uneven vibrato, an excessively wide or slow vibrato, or an erratic vibrato, will have a considerably disruptive effect on a phrase. This is also true in a moving passage when a player uses vibrato. A pulse can coincide with a particular note giving it an unintentional accent that interrupts the musical line.
Rubato, and Italian word meaning 'robbed', is use in music to describe the taking of time from one part of a phrase and giving it to another. This implies firstly that the performer has a very clear sense of basic tempo. Rubato then becomes an expressive device whereby the tempo is moved evenly, and often imperceptibly, forward or backward to increase tension or to heighten emotion, and eased back with similar evenness. Rubato is only successful when the movement grows out of a tempo, the way a human pulse can quicken, and is awkward when there is an uneven progression to a different speed.
Absolute rhythmic accuracy is often counterproductive to expressive phrasing. In the opening of Debussy's Prélude à l' après-midi d'un faune, an exact duplet followed by an exact triplet will be less expressive than if the first note of the triplet is slightly longer and the third slightly shorter. (example 12 below)
This phrase is a good one to observe many of the subjects we have been discussing. In bar one, the C# leads forward with a slight increase in dynamic and amplitude of vibrato to the B. The B then falls toward the G because each note is slightly quicker than its predecessor. Both dynamic and tempo then ease back to bar 2. This bar has similar direction but with slightly more exaggeration toward the G. The last three notes in the bar however, instead of easing back, lead forward to bar 3. From this bar one must show the phrase leading from the C# to the B on beat three and away to the final A#, avoiding the common disruptive emphasis on the upp G# or even a breath after the E.
Some performers are mistaken in their approach to avant-garde music in similar fashion. They will apply strict rhythmic accuracy to groups of same value notes when a more effective 'gesture' will be obtained by a very slight accelerando, ritardando, or rubato.
Just as one can simplify a melody to see a progression of key pitches, one can connect various voices within a solo line to aid the snese of phrasing direction. In the Poco adagio movement of C.P.E. Bach's Sonata for Unaccompanied Flute, one can discover two or even three voices, as in the following: (example 13 below)
In the Allemande of J.S. Bach's Partita, much thought can be given to such connections. While many will be obvious, other are less so. In the following example the dominant D is implied as sustaining until moving to its (implied) tonic G, creating a three bar phrase. Players who understand this will only break the phrase with a breath if absolutely necessary, and will then do so in such a way that the direction of the phrase is kept clear. (example 14 below)
Here the leading tone G# is implied as sustainin for four beats until its (implied) resolution to the tonic A. However, the tonic chord on the first beat of bar 37 begins with the upper and lower neighbour of the C and the tonic A is not heard till the second beat. Players who understand this will not breathe after the first note of bar 37. (example 15 below)
Whereas some instrumental phrases are clearly separated with rests, many cases exist where no rests occur. In these places melodic fragments must be perceived as separate entities and not run together. The Sonata in B Minor by J.S. Bach offers many examples of this, including the following: (example 16 below)
Phrasing instrumental music then has two elements.
The first is a musical one, finding the logic that led the composer to create the phrase. The second is a technical one, finding the means via the instrument to convey the musical loginc to an audience. The first involves meter, harmony, and form, while the second involves dynamics, nuances, vibrato, and rubato. As so often happens, the two are interconnected, and understanding of the first will lead to an appropriate use of the second.
What phrasing means to most people is the expressive, singing quality that enriches a simple melodic line so that it touches the soul. Imitation is one of the most powerful learning tools, and the sustaining and shaping of operatic arias is an excellent way for a flutist to develop phrasing awareness and acquire control. Knowing the specific emotional range of an aria from its words leads us to strive for a quality of sound and use of vibrato and rubato that will carry those emotions through the flute to an audience; imitating the instincts, skills, and artistry of the great singers as they express these emotions can lead us down a path of limitless possibility.
John Wion's Introduction
Born in Rio to a US/Australian couple, I grew up in Melbourne, Australia. I started playing fife in the school fife and drum band at the age of seven and began studying flute at ten. I studied with the great Leslie Barklamb until age 21 when I went to NY to try and sound like Julius Baker. Later studies were with Claude Monteux, William Kincaid and Marcel Moyse. After working as an elevator operator and package boy at the Waldorf Astoria, I got a most glamorous start as a musician when the NY Philharmonic was really desperate for an additional flutist for the Mahler ninth with Mitropoulis (flu epidemics are not totally bad!). Key points ahead were a four month North American tour with the Royal Ballet (Margot Fonteyn), Camelot on Broadway (Richard Burton, Julie Andrews and Robert Goulet), and piccolo with Leopold Stokowski's new American Symphony. I began my current position with the NYC Opera in 1965.
I am married to a former NYC Ballet Soloist who now stages Balanchine ballets. We have two grown sons in the computer field (the older works for Major League Baseball and repaid all the years of schooling with tickets to the final World Series game in October!). I began college teaching in the seventies, and am now a Professor at The Hartt School, where I have a class of fourteen undergrads and grads.
I also did quite a lot of solo playing and recording in the seventies until a hand dysfunction set me back. Recently I have been doing a bit more (a solo CD for MHS and a CD of Steven Gryc's music on Opus 1), and added to some old lps to produce three CDs for the school's new label, HMP. I got into desktop publishing when I couldn't find a publisher interested in my plan to write a series of opera excerpt books. After learning Finale and Pagemaker I now have done seven volumes of excerpts, along with a few other projects.
I attended the second NFA convention in 1974 and became hooked. Apart from participating in several conventions, I have served the NFA in various capacities including Program Chair in 1986 (NY) and President.
I am honored to have a corner on Larry Krantz's homepage.
Selected Discography & Publications
- 1996 -
To Recordings Page On John Wion's Web Site
Nine volumes, 110 operas, 549 pages of excerpts and accompanying notes.
Solos In Opera
by John Wion
Every now and then the opera flutist gets to play a more extended solo than the usual few bars. The most famous is in the mad scene of Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor." Here the flute is the soloist in the introduction to the scene, then accompanies the soprano throughout her aria, and plays along in her cadenza (even though Donizetti didn't write one.)
After more than thirty years playing opera I thought I had come across pretty much everything and put it into nine volumes of excerpts. It was a humbling experience therefore to learn that the New York City Opera would be performing a recently discovered Rossini opera this season, and that it reputedly had an extended flute solo.
The "Viaggio a Reims" was written for the coronation of the French king and after the scheduled performances was put aside. Rossini used some of the music in a later opera and the score was lost until some twenty years ago. Our rental parts duly arrived in early summer and I discovered that the flute solo is a two page event with cadenza introducing the recitative and aria of Lord Stanley, a bass, and one of an unprecedented fourteen soloists in this extravaganza.
And then, while in Stratford this summer, I mentioned this unexpected solo to someone who said "but do you know Adam's "Troubador"?" She lent me a recording which I skimmed through quickly. One of the characters in this opera by the composer known today largely for his "Giselle" plays the flute. As a result this instrument is woven into the plot and the music throughout the opera.
Some flutists on this list may have come across Adam's variations on Ah vous dirai-je maman (twinkle twinkle) for soprano, flute and piano. It comes from this opera and is a scene for three soloists, flute and orchestra. I know of no imminent performances of The Troubador, but the Rossini will be performed several times by NYCO this month. Details can be found on my web site.
From FLUTE List - September 1999
Obligato Flute in Opera
In the finale of act 1 of Magic Flute Tamino plays the golden flute he has been given. In the second act finale, during his tests, the solo flute is also the chosen solo instrument. Both solos were intended to be played off stage but are usually played in the pit.
In the first act of Rosenkavalier the Marschallin holds her "levee" where all and sundry present themselves seeking favors. The visiting flutist plays an extended show-off lick and solo. In the score this music is spread amongst the three flutes for reinforcement and "circular breathing."
Flutes often play back-stage music that is a part of the on-stage action. The most soloistic of these occurs at the opening of the second act of Tosca - a trio of flute, viola and harp is heard from outside Scarpia's apartment. Many of the longer solos appear in ballet music. The French had a long tradition of ballet in opera, and ballets were often written by foreigners when their operas were presented in Paris.
The most famous example is the solo in the the ballet Gluck added to his Orfeo ed Eurydice. Otherwise the flute plays very little in that opera. Verdi also wrote ballet music for Paris performances. These contain lovely flute solos but are rarely performed now except when they take on a life of their own such as The Four Seasons by Jerome Robbins to the ballet music from Vespri Siciliani. Even the flute solo in Strauss' Salome is for a dance (seven veils.)
Obligatos and introductions often go together. Some are just for flute, as in the Lucia Mad scene, and some are for a group of instruments. In Mozart's Il Seraglio, for example, the soprano aria Martern aller Arten features flute, oboe, violin and cello. Mozart did this a lot. In Marriage of Figaro "Deh vieni non tardar" uses flute oboe and bassoon.
The flute is mostly associated with the soprano. Another mad scene is from Thomas' Hamlet. Then there is Cara Nome from Verdi's Rigoletto, Una Voce poca Fa from Barber of Seville, Glauce's aria from Cherubini's Medea, Olympia's aria from Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann, and Zerbinetta's aria from Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos. An unusual one is from Bellini's La Straniera. After the flute's solo introduction to Isoletta's aria, it plays an accompaniment of continuous triplet arpeggios throughout the aria.
Sometimes a composer uses the flute prominently in the introduction but then not at all in the aria (Verdi's Nabucco.)
One of the most interesting flute solos occurs in the overture to Tchaikovsky's Maid of Orleans. For no apparent reason it ends with a flute cadenza that segues into the opera. When I saw this performed by the Bolshoi Opera the curtain came up and the cadenza was played on stage by a costumed flutist.
Such an extended solo as I wrote about in Viaggio a Reims is indeed uncommon for any instrument. The two that come to mind for violin are the Meditation from Massenet's Thais and a concerto like scene in Verdi's I Lombardi. There is one for bassoon in Medea and one for harp in Lucia.
Any one interested in the flute solos mentioned here can find which volumes of my excerpts contain them by going to my web page where there is an index. Not Viaggio however :-)
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