The bassoons have a number of fast tonguing passages in the finale of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony. This short, four-bar solo is the most famous, and is requested on almost every principal bassoon audition. A fast-moving tongue is essential for this excerpt, and a more detailed discussion on this skill can be found in the Articulation section.
Though many players become obsessed with performing this excerpt as fast as possible, in truth a tempo of ♩= 138-144 is sufficient. In fact, the only included example with a tempo significantly faster than this is Dohnányi’s recording with the Cleveland Orchestra. If you do find yourself in an uncomfortably fast orchestral situation, you might consider Archie Camden’s advice to slur the first two notes of the solo since the beginning is mostly covered by the resonance of the preceding cadence anyway.1
Note Groupings and Air Flow
As with many of the technical excerpts included in this project, determining proper note groupings is incredibly important for a successful performance. David McGill discusses this solo in his orchestral excerpt CD, and the note groupings he recommends are shown in Example 5.1.2
Example 5.1. Beethoven, Symphony No. 4, Mvt. IV – mm. 184 to 187, David McGill’s suggested note groupings
These groupings are very useful for slow practice, but at faster speeds I prefer to think of the second half of the passage as two long lines—one ascending and one descending (Example 5.2). Thinking of the first C in m. 186 as the end of a note grouping can actually cause problems for the following notes, since the tendency will be to play the D grace note slightly louder than the C, which in turn requires a slight tapering of the airstream between the two notes. Instead, I focus on blowing one steady stream of air that will take me smoothly up the line from the G2 in bar 2 to the G3 in bar 3. These groupings are not completely disregarded, however, since it is still important to think of B♮ – C – E♭ as pickups into the high G. The crescendo marking in Example 5.2 signifies how I intensify my air stream once I reach the B♮, propelling me up to the high G.
Example 5.2. Beethoven, Symphony No. 4, Mvt. IV – mm. 184 to 187, author’s groupings and indication for air support
Rhythm Patterns for Practice
One of the most effective methods for practicing this type of technical excerpt is to create different rhythmic patterns that highlight different note groupings. Along with the benefit of improving finger technique, these patterns also aid in developing tongue speed and coordination with the fingers. These rhythmic permutations are similar to those that I discuss for the third movement of Ravel’s Piano Concerto, and can be utilized for almost any technical passage. There are a number of possible practice patterns for this excerpt, three of which I have diagramed below (Example 5.3).
Example 5.3. Beethoven, Symphony No. 4, Mvt. IV – mm. 184 to 187, rhythmic patterns for practice
Example 5.3a emphasizes the third note in each sixteenth note group (written here as an eighth note tied to a dotted-eighth note), while Example 5.3b focuses on the first sixteenth of each grouping (written here as a quarter note tied to a sixteenth note). Lengthening notes in this way will help smooth out the transition to the next note by giving the fingers a rest and allowing the player time to think about the necessary finger movement. We can also modify duplets into triplets (Example 5.3c), creating short bursts that are excellent for working the tongue.
Example 5.4. Beethoven, Symphony No. 4, Mvt. IV – mm. 184 to 187, additive practice sequence from the end of the excerpt
Another effective practice technique is to begin at the end of the passage and work backwards, adding one note at a time (Example 5.4). This systematic addition is wonderful for identifying exactly which notes are problematic, and when practiced at a brisk tempo provides the additional benefit of improved tongue speed and endurance. Each grouping should be repeated a number of times before adding the next note.
The D Grace Note
I already touched upon the air support we should give the passage with the D grace note, but the note itself should also be addressed briefly. Many students have difficulty incorporating the grace note at faster tempos; the key is to start the grace note as soon as possible, which requires giving the preceding B♭ the shortest duration possible. Remember, the D grace note occupies the same rhythmic space as the preceding B♭, so the duration of the B♭ must be shortened enough for two notes to fit before the downbeat. It is important to note that “shortest duration” does not mean “clipped”; the latter term implies a change in the style of articulation, which is not what we want. The tonguing should remain smooth and legato throughout the solo, even during the grace note.
1 Camden, 47.
2 David McGill, Orchestral Excerpts for Bassoon, Summit Records DCD 162 (CD), 1994.