Brahms vs Joachim on articulation

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John Ruggero
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Brahms vs Joachim on articulation

Post by John Ruggero » 10 Dec 2017, 18:43

Commentary

The accompanying exchange (see the attached file at the end of this post) occurred in May 1879 in letters between Brahms and his good friend Joseph Joachim. They were ironing out various technical issues in the solo part of Brahms’ violin concerto. Brahms admired Joachim both as a violinist and former composer (Joachim gave up composing after meeting Brahms) and accepted many of his ideas, even altering passage work on Joachim’s advice. However, at one point, articulation markings added by Joachim touch a nerve, and Brahms expresses exasperation. The following collision between the traditions represented by these two men is fascinating even if their discussion proves futile: they completely misunderstand each other and the confrontation seems to leave no impression on either of them, confirming Brahms’ pessimistic view of such discussions, a fact that he tries to make light of at the end.
Brahms Ex. 1.jpg
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Brahms had marked an octave passage in the last movement with wedges, a relatively new use of this symbol for short, sharply attacked notes. It is a marking that he used occasionally (Clarinet Quintet) possibly because it fulfilled a need for a light accent mark, a need I mentioned in a recent thread on Notatio. Joachim replaced the wedges with dots and slurs. Brahms objects that this is the symbol for closely bound notes (portamento or portato for us) as seen in the music of Beethoven and others. Joachim explains that unlike earlier violin composers such as Viotti, the new violin school uses this marking to show the bowing groups used for staccato passages and that portamento is now shown with slurred tenuto marks, a notation Brahms clearly detests. Joachim gives three examples of the new style. Brahms responds that he is not convinced by the examples because he doesn’t subscribe to the philosophy behind them. “You presented clear examples, which I would have marked exactly like that.” meaning that if he believed in Joachim’s approach, he would, of course, have marked them like the examples. But since he doesn’t agree with the approach, he wants Joachim to explain why bowing directions are necessary for staccato passages. Andreas Moser, the Joachim disciple who edited and provided notes for the Brahms-Joachim correspondence, suspects that Brahms, being a pianist, didn’t understand the different styles of violin staccato shown in the three examples, and that explains why he is not convinced by Joachim’s explanation. But I think that this misses the point.

Brahms felt that he was upholding the tradition of composers like Beethoven in which articulation marks derive from and clarify musical structure. For him they are abstract concepts transferable from instrument to instrument without modification. It is up to the player to find the appropriate way of conveying the meaning of the marking. For example, when Brahms writes a slur for any instrument, it is to show that the notes are to be connected together because they are a conceptual unit. Since it is most natural for a string instrument to play such groups in a single bow stroke, a violinist might think that Brahms is indicating bowing with the slurs, but Brahms is simply marking the legato units as he does for every instrument. And this has nothing to do with the fact that he is a pianist. He might just as easily be criticized for slurring his piano music like a violinist, a charge sometimes leveled at earlier composers. At the heart of this view is the concept of music as an abstract structure that is realized by instruments. Brahms never thought of music as something created out of colorful instrumental effects and therefore had little interest in a ways of notating such effects.

Joachim and his student have the new view that markings should be exact directions for instrumental performance. For example, Joachim assumes that slurs have an exact manner of performance in piano music because he believes that they should have one on the violin. He feels that confusion is created by those who use slurs as “phrase marks” to mark off sections of the music and routinely warns his students about pianist-composers who slur string music like piano music and expect clear breaks between slurred groups. He obliquely points a finger at Brahms himself when he asks him to consider the question, but this is unjustified. None of the major composers ever used “phrase marks” or expected the ends of all legato groups to be clipped. Brahms responds that the performance of slurred groups on the piano has everything to do style, context and the player’s imagination, just as on the violin, and that legato groups need not be separated from each other on the piano in the mechanical way notated by Joachim. Only two-note slurred groups are by convention clearly separated from each other on all instruments.

New markings were necessary to satisfy the desire of violinists for explicit bowing indications and composers to notate new effects. Joachim suggests wedges and slurs as an alternate to staccato dots and slurs for the passage, but then comes closer to Brahms’ view when he reveals that he himself found the correct performance of the passage obvious from the context and the rhythmic notation alone. This is what Brahms expects of musicians, since as the editor mentions, he has a very high opinion of their ability. The editor Moser feels that this expectation may be unjustified, even with the most brilliant players, which gives us insight into another aspect of the attempt to nail down everything in notation.

Needless to say, Brahms remained steadfast and retained the wedges (without slurs) when the work was published.

(Thanks to Knut Nergaard for his suggestions regarding the English translation. Other suggestions and corrections are welcome and would be greatly appreciated.)
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Re: Brahms vs Joachim on articulation

Post by Schonbergian » 11 Dec 2017, 13:39

Although I am not an exceptionally skilled pianist, I've noticed that playing from urtext editions of, say, Beethoven (with the legato groups clearly marked out as defined here) feels far more natural and "right" than the heavily edited, early 20th century editions where one big slur is used to indicate a musical phrase. It seems far more intuitive--a shame, then, that most composers nowadays eschew that for "phrasing" slurs.

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Re: Brahms vs Joachim on articulation

Post by John Ruggero » 11 Dec 2017, 15:54

I think your comment is very perceptive, Schonbergian. A kind of heaviness comes over such music that is completely at odds with the style when those long slurs are added.

But do most current composers use slurs to show phrases rather than legato? Perhaps those that do feel that it is impossible for performers to know where phrases begin and end in their music. In such cases, small L and inverted L brackets might be a better choice.
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Re: Brahms vs Joachim on articulation

Post by David Ward » 11 Dec 2017, 18:00

John Ruggero wrote:
11 Dec 2017, 15:54
But do most current composers use slurs to show phrases rather than legato?
In a piece I wrote in 1968, I used some long phrase-marks/slurs after what I perceived as the fashion of Verdi. They indicated both phrases and enhanced vocal legato, bel canto as it were, so they were perhaps on the cusp of phrase/legato marks. Either way, I have not often marked things this way since. No-one either commented on or questioned the notation in rehearsal.
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Re: Brahms vs Joachim on articulation

Post by Schonbergian » 11 Dec 2017, 20:02

John Ruggero wrote:
11 Dec 2017, 15:54
I think your comment is very perceptive, Schonbergian. A kind of heaviness completely at odds with the style comes over such music when those those long slurs are added.

But do most current composers use slurs to show phrases rather than legato? Perhaps those that do feel that it is impossible for performers to know where phrases begin and end in their music. In such cases, small L and inverted L brackets might be a better choice.
Personally, I've never had that problem with Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and any other composer that's used slurs in this way. If the music is well-written, the phrases will come out naturally.

The most egregious offense in this category has come from certain composers for the voice (Vaughan Williams and Rossini come to mind at once) that use slurs in this manner. Legato is already assumed in vocal music unless otherwise notated, and we phrase with the text or with a need for oxygen anyways, so all it does is clutter the page.

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Re: Brahms vs Joachim on articulation

Post by John Ruggero » 11 Dec 2017, 22:17

Schonbergian wrote:
11 Dec 2017, 20:02
Personally, I've never had that problem with Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and any other composer that's used slurs in this way. If the music is well-written, the phrases will come out naturally.
Exactly. That is why these composers never needed to put in phrasing marks. However, they were writing in a common practice style known to all good musicians of the time. Now, when many composers create their own personal language, there is no guarantee that anyone else will be able to understand it without a lot of help. For example, Schoenberg, your namesake, invented his famous symbols for main and secondary voices, because he couldn't even rely on musicians understanding which was the main melody.
Schonbergian wrote:
11 Dec 2017, 20:02
The most egregious offense in this category has come from certain composers for the voice (Vaughan Williams and Rossini come to mind at once) that use slurs in this manner. Legato is already assumed in vocal music unless otherwise notated, and we phrase with the text or with a need for oxygen anyways, so all it does is clutter the page.
I looked through the scores of Rossini's The Barber of Seville and Vaughan Williams' Symphony no. 1 but saw only conventional slurring in all parts.
David Ward wrote:
11 Dec 2017, 18:00
In a piece I wrote in 1968, I used some long phrase-marks/slurs after what I perceived as the fashion of Verdi. They indicated both phrases and enhanced vocal legato, bel canto as it were, so they were perhaps on the cusp of phrase/legato marks. Either way, I have not often marked things this way since. No-one either commented on or questioned the notation in rehearsal.
As you point out, Verdi seems to miss the legato slurs of instrumental music at times, as you did at that time, and supplies them in his vocal parts. But they are still legato markings, they are not intended to show the beginning and end of phrases.

I think that it was a misunderstanding of Chopin's long legato slurs that confused many musicians in the 19th century and the confusion still reigns as shown by the term "phrasing" for legato markings. Of course, Chopin's slurs often coincide with the phrases, because he used a more generally legato approach than earlier composers. That he did not consider his slurs to be any more than legato symbols is shown by the many instances where the slurs do not coincide with the expected phrasing but actually override it, telling the player NOT to make an expected phrasing break, or in other cases to continue the "legato" through rests by means other than finger overlapping: continuous arm gestures.
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Re: Brahms vs Joachim on articulation

Post by Schonbergian » 13 Dec 2017, 17:11

John Ruggero wrote:
11 Dec 2017, 22:17
Schonbergian wrote:
11 Dec 2017, 20:02
The most egregious offense in this category has come from certain composers for the voice (Vaughan Williams and Rossini come to mind at once) that use slurs in this manner. Legato is already assumed in vocal music unless otherwise notated, and we phrase with the text or with a need for oxygen anyways, so all it does is clutter the page.
I looked through the scores of Rossini's The Barber of Seville and Vaughan Williams' Symphony no. 1 but saw only conventional slurring in all parts.
Here is the IMSLP score of Vaughan Williams' Songs of Travel, where he uses them quite prolifically and to no real end (in my opinion): http://ks.imslp.net/files/imglnks/usimg ... Travel.pdf

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Re: Brahms vs Joachim on articulation

Post by Schonbergian » 13 Dec 2017, 17:20

And here is one of the few times you'll find "instrumental" articulations in vocal music, and smartly so as well (m. 28, lower three parts), from Josef Rheinberger, cut from much of the same cloth as Brahms.
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Re: Brahms vs Joachim on articulation

Post by John Ruggero » 13 Dec 2017, 20:45

Thanks for those examples, Schonbergian.

The Rheinberger is, as you say, a smart use of instrumental notation in vocal music.

Vaughan Williams seems to be indicating breathing places with his slurs, since they often occur in places where they are not obvious. But the following is very strange. Is a breath really taken in the middle of morn-ing and wouldn't it be sung mor-ning?
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Re: Brahms vs Joachim on articulation

Post by Schonbergian » 13 Dec 2017, 20:57

No singer worth their salt would breathe in the middle of a word like that--slur or not. And, of course, the simple breath mark is far less obtrusive if that is what is desired.

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