I joined a brass quintet during my first semester of college, and the professor coaching the group assigned for us to play the Quintet No. 3 by Russian composer Victor Ewald (1860-1935). I have become very familiar with and fond of Ewald’s quintet works in the almost 25 years since then, but at the time tackling this work seemed daunting. Not only was it a major work with a lot of notes, but the professor wanted me to play the part on the euphonium, as Ewald wrote with an ensemble of all valved instruments in mind. That assignment would be commonplace for me now, but at the time I had little better than a passing familiarity with that instrument. Still, I borrowed an instrument, used a thoroughly inappropriate mouthpiece (my trombone mouthpiece), and practiced until I could play the part competently. After the performance, my trombone professor (who had also at one time been first euphonium in the Eastman Wind Ensemble) said something to the effect of “if you are going to play the euphonium, you’re going to learn to do it correctly.” I purchased an instrument and began lessons the next year, and thus began my career as a serious doubler.
That’s a good story, but my purpose in writing today has more to do with how we as a group of undergraduates (including two freshmen) got through a major work for brass quintet. Although I do not recall all of the details, I do remember that we came up with a fairly elaborate story as a program to help us to interpret at least the first movement. (It had something to do with a knight riding a horse, and I’m pretty sure there was a swordfight in there.) While we still had to practice to meet all of the technical demands of the piece, having even a very basic storyline to guide our interpretation enabled us to deliver a more compelling presentation of the piece than would otherwise have been possible for us.
Ewald’s more famous contemporary, the Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), also was fond of storytelling through music. Interestingly, he apparently would sometimes write early drafts or versions of instrumental pieces with some kind of program in mind, but later try to retcon his own works and say that they were absolute music rather than program music, or at the very least to portray only very broad themes rather than specific stories. In any case, the listener quickly becomes aware of the thematic ideas that the composer was trying to create, which become even more apparent in Mahler’s works for vocal soloists and/or choirs with orchestra. Mahler was, like his friend Richard Strauss (1864-1949), a masterful musical storyteller.
While the importance of story in musical composition, interpretation, and performance might seem obvious, advanced musicians sometimes “pooh-pooh” the use of stories or programs to give direction to performances, particularly of instrumental music. In one sense, one does want to move beyond the level of making up very specific plot lines the way my quintet colleagues and I did in college. However, while something like this might be abandoned in the specifics, the general dramatic or thematic shape of each piece of music must be conveyed to the listener. This is typically quite simple. Most pieces will begin with a brief introduction, then rise to a climactic moment of tension, and then resolve again in a way that resolves the tension and leaves the listener both relieved and delighted. And within those broad areas there will be numerous smaller risings and fallings of the constituent phrases. Experienced musicians become accustomed to identifying these large and small sections and shaping their interpretations accordingly. Even when the only identifiable storyline is “beginning-tension-climax-release-resolution,” that rudimentary story is present, giving direction to both performers and listeners.
If you think about it, practically every good story follows that same “beginning-tension-climax-release-resolution” pattern, and it is the task of the musician to portray this, even when there is no specific program or story in mind. This is why we assign phrasing studies for students…and ourselves…to practice. As I’m fond of telling my students, we practice Bordogni etudes not because the melodies are interesting and profound—they really are campy and the phrasing obvious. But once these are understood and mastered, the instruction to “phrase this like a Bordogni etude” works for nearly any piece of music, in any genre. It works even when the musician doesn’t necessarily feel the emotions involved. In that way, a skilled musician is like a good actor portraying a role, projecting the appropriate expressive content regardless of his or her inner feelings.
Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998), the famous tubist and pedagogue, exhorted his students to become “storytellers in sound.” Do we always have to have (or invent) a specific storyline for every piece of music you play? No. When the musician becomes skilled enough at portraying the general dramatic contours of a piece, the listener can then bring whatever story he or she desires to the experience of hearing the piece. The result? A pleasing experience for all involved.