Sunday, June 26, 2011

'Bowing' - The Strad Magazine - March 2007

Q. When I attend orchestral concerts I notice that all the string players are bowing in the same direction. How is this organised? Is it directed by the composer?
A. This is quite a recent phenomenon, probably first used by the great figurehead conductors of the 20th century. Only very recently have composers made it their business to mark in ‘bowings’.

Q. So who organises this if it’s not written in the material?
A. The parts are often handed down from generation to generation, picking up good or bad solutions as they go. Sometimes clean parts are given to the leader to ‘mark up’, but often conductors bring their own sets of bowing and markings in order to stamp their authority on an interpretation.

Q. On what basis are these bowing decisions made?
A. Generally pragmatism, rather than any great artistic ideal. And the solutions are often quite arbitrary; splitting a composer’s long phrase into 2 or more short ones and often eliminating the smaller details of articulation for the sake of some supposed ‘greater unity’. It is also common for long held notes in a middle part to be split to conform to the shorter notes in another part even though, presumably, the composer didn’t write long notes for nothing!

Q. Do I detect that you don’t like some of these decisions?
A. Well, I suppose that some well-judged practical help can be very useful especially on first reading. It’s sometimes helpful to know in advance that it won’t do your co-ordination any good to try to start that tricky triplet passage on an up-bow. . .

Q. But I kind of like the way it looks - everyone in the same direction – like an army parade.
A. Err. . . each to their own! Of course, synchronised swimming is fascinating, but for Beethoven wouldn’t you prefer to see each individual musician face their own personal struggle?

Q. You mean each player ‘doing their own thing’?
A. Yes! That’s what makes concerts that change the world. For most orchestral players, doing the wrong bowing and being the ‘odd one out’ is the stuff of nightmares. It is often a Moral Issue too. Tut-tut, if our desk partner plays even one note the wrong way round - how unprofessional!

Q. A moral issue?
A. It’s a religion! Tiny insignificant details seem to be discussed and dissected endlessly. It is common for players to put down their instruments, and forgo the only chance to play the piece before the concert in order to fix the part. Often in amateur orchestras bowing seems to be the only thing that goes on in rehearsals. Maybe this ‘office work’ enables us musicians to feel like we have real jobs. Perhaps the Church of Bowing is used as a replacement activity so that the important issues of phrasing and articulation, and communication and meaning, can be put to one side.

Q. Surely synchronised bowing just sounds better though?
A. Sometimes, maybe - if you like your music like that. But listen to some Furtwangler recordings – some of the most extraordinary orchestral sounds ever produced. He hated rigid bowings. Stokowski too. Even these days there are some conductors who understand that long legato lines can only be made if everyone changes at different points, but often they are met with resistance from orchestras. Money talks too! – most of the great session orchestras still use free bowing, simply because the mixture just sounds better on tape.

Q. But why is your opposition so personal?.
A. Fixed bowings stifle individuality. Bowing is analogous to breathing, and being told when to breathe and how deep and how much oxygen our blood needs by some external authority is quite un-human
A. Can you relate the breathing analogy to the practicalities of playing a string instrument?
Q. Yes. It’s a physical thing. A down bow is a release – an exhalation, and an up bow is an increase of tension – an inhalation.

Q. How does this relate to music?
A. There is a wonderful fundamental connection between bowing and harmony, or to put it another way, between breathing and counting.

The notes of the scale, and the harmony they imply, demand either an ‘out’ or an ‘in’ breath. It is popular to call these ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ beats. (i.e. 1 and 3 strong – 2 and 4 weak) but paradoxically exhalation can feel like relaxing (weak) and inhalation becoming tense (strong). Careful though, I don’t mean actually breathing as you bow – you might hyperventilate! This natural physical action is often taught out of us in the name of ‘continuous legato’. Our breathing is also very ‘curvy’, slowing down at the end each breath, whereas ‘constant bow speed’ seems to be the new ideal, perhaps re-simulating the string sounds of today’s amazing computer synthesisers.

Q. So how do these strong and weak beats relate to bowing your part?
A. Let’s take the wonderful second subject tune from the first movement of Brahms B flat sextet. As in the scale example above, melodies are often divided into groups of 4 or 8 bars and into combinations of pairs of breaths. But look, this Brahms tune is 9 bars long! What does this do to our ‘natural’ bowing plan? Let’s look at the cello part.

If we start down bow and simply carry on ‘as it comes’, at some point we just end up the wrong way round. To our Church of Bowing members this crisis can be averted by taking out a pencil and changing something; anything, just to get back on track. This usually means looking backwards and working out manually that if you start on an up bow it will all ‘work out’. But our not-yet-converted musician can look deeper, and using a combination of brains, intuition and feeling find a musically honest solution. Hopefully the starting point will be a part with no previous markings - that’s certainly very unusual! With no distraction it will become apparent that all is well until bar 7. Bar 7 played on a down bow will feel just wrong. Brahms has inserted an ‘extra’ bar – it feels like he has doubled the length of bar 6, and so the extra bar is an ‘in breath’ or ‘up bar’. It’s a tremendous effect.
Footnote <A good example of mindless rationalisation often happens in the viola part in bars 6 and 7 where the slurs in bars 2 and 4 are continued. Brahms original bowing sounds much more passionate and panting!>

Q. Yes, fascinating. But now you have found a good bowing, why not just write it in?
A. Yes, of course. Many fine musicians will do just that. But there are several reasons why one might decide to think twice.

Firstly, maybe the discovery of why there needs to be an extra up bow helps us to communicate the musical meaning. The constructive indecision of our second cellist working out for herself all over again the ‘problem’ means she can only but freshly communicate.

Secondly, we might just be wrong! Tomorrow, we might see the phrase in a different, possibly even deeper way and come up with a solution that surprises us. If Tuesdays’ perfect solution is written in neatly in graphite we are certainly less likely to experiment or be inspired. (A friend of mine maintains that anything written in the music, good or bad, reduces your certainty of discovering a good bowing from 90/10 to 50/50).

Q. But we might forget…
A. Good. If a bowing really means something it will be impossible to forget, and if we do forget, it is not likely to be a terribly good bowing in the first place – Good Riddance! Many parts are completely riddled with last year’s good ideas.
Q So it seems that the bowing religion is not reserved for orchestral players. ..
A. No, its not. A very illustrious quartet was disbanding and I was kindly offered their complete set of “bowed and fingered” parts. Err, no thank you! – it would be like looking into someone’s dirty laundry basket.

Q. So let me get this straight, you are proposing that we don’t write in anything at all?
A. Well, let’s not be dogmatic, but it is amazing how little is really necessary. I have some wonderful 18 century quartet parts that, despite having been obviously well used, contain no markings at all. It is very exciting to play from them, and their age and value means that pencils are certainly not allowed! To a modern eye they are very sparsely marked and have many inconsistencies, but very quickly we can get used to reading them in a different way. It is interesting to note that sometimes there are particular bowings specified, but only when the composer insists. Much of the time freedom is given to the performer to use their good judgement and personal taste.
Hofstetter Op.3 no.5 – Andante cantabile (formally attributed to Haydn) Edition Baillaux - c1775

Q. So it seems that you are advocating a more playful approach to bowing.
Brahms Clarinet quintet - last 2 bars
A. Yes, I’m sure all good string players have at some point had that marvellous feeling that ‘anything is possible’ with the bow - up or down, heel or tip, spiccato or staccato – as if playing with a magic wand. Good sensible organised bowings rule out many of the more unusual solutions that might be possible or even desirable. Take the wonderful feeling of a long diminuendo on an up-bow to pianississimo at the heel. This sort of thing is almost completely banned in the world of sensible bowing and yet it is often exactly what the music demands.

Q. Are there other ‘difficult’ bowings that are in danger of being lost?
A. Yes. There is a commonly held belief that a sforzando must always be played on a down bow irrespective of where it comes in the phrase, because it’s ‘easier’: Bowing must be adjusted accordingly. However, often the sforzando is at that point in the phrase because it falls on a weak beat or bar. Adjusting to a down-bow turns our interesting emphasised weak beat it into a plain old strong beat. A good example of this is the allegro from the last movement of Mozart’s G minor quintet. The up-bow sforzando is tremendous fun to play and gives the movement a spin and lift -

- Whereas the down bow start and sforzando have the affect of re-barring the whole movement!

Similarly, great lengths are often taken to ensure that ‘subito pianos’ are always after a down bow. It is certainly much more demanding to crescendo on an up bow and then play a quiet note at the heel – but the struggle is often exactly what the composer is after. We have to find a way to dissipate all the coiled up energy – which has implications for timing and sound that the easy solution eliminates.
Beethoven String Quartet Op.132 1st movement - bars 192-194

Q. So you’re not keen on making your life easy are you!
A. It depends on what believe is difficult. For example, it is easy to imagine that we have to always do an up bow after a down bow. But this is not the case! When we have that ‘magic bow’ feeling it becomes possible to do the next bow in the either direction without it feeling like a retake or a slur. To do this we just have to remember where the impulse comes from (often the upper arm) and simply ‘start again’. This is particularly useful in the inner parts where niggly cross string passages with various articulations are accompanying a tune that is being played freely. Dramatically, this technique can be used for the opening of Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ Quartet. No retake after the first note is necessary, the triplets are then played staccato in the upper half, and the up bow on the second bar leaves us with a terrific ‘up in the air’ feeling. Have a go, it really works!

Q. So it seems that far from being anti-bowing, you are actually a bit of a bowing nut?
A. Yes, collecting and inventing unlikely bowings and bowing techniques could be seen as a life-long hobby. There is a perhaps apocryphal story about Sir Yehudi Menuhin playing the Brahms violin concerto where the opening few bars of the first violin solo were an almighty mess. Asked later what happened, he is reported to have explained ‘I just wanted to see if it would work to start on an up bow!’


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