A screeching, trill-laden E♭ clarinet solo leads into this tutti bassoon passage from the “Dream of a Witch’s Sabbath.” In audition settings, mentally hearing this clarinet introduction can be very helpful in preventing yourself from inadvertently beginning the excerpt too fast. Berlioz gives us a marking of ♩. = 104, but feel free to take it a couple notches slower if it allows for a cleaner performance.

The Necessity of Phrasing in Technical Passages
This particular excerpt brings up an issue that students often struggle with in their playing—the separation of “musicality” and “technique.” It is important to realize that the two are invariably intertwined, and that there are no “technical” passages or “musical” passages—just passages that highlight one more than the other. With this excerpt in particular, many players simply see a “technical” excerpt that requires no thought of musical phrasing or gesture. But instead of thinking of technique as a facet separate from musical phrasing, we should actually view it as an entity that is dependent on musical phrasing. David McGill discusses this issue in Sound in Motion:

Many musicians have the impression that the world of musical study is cut from two different cloths: “technique” and “musicality.” The truth is that if either of these elements is missing, there can simply be no music. Music cannot exist without notes and cannot live without expression. If one believes that a separation between technique and musicianship exists, one’s performance risks becoming a patchwork of “technical” passages interspersed with “musical” ones.1

Musicality, at its most basic level, is a function of breath control, and it is the proper use of the air that often holds the key to “cracking” a technical passage. In this particular excerpt, however, many players do not consider the ramifications of proper breath control, and instead choose to focus solely on developing tongue speed.2

Bassoonists are often guilty of crescendoing to the final, highest note in each of these four-note groupings, and this seemingly harmless emphasis can actually doom the rhythmic accuracy of the entire passage. These small crescendos slowly cause the space between the groupings to compress, inching the fourth note of each group closer and closer to the downbeat. Most troubling is that it only takes one player committing this sin in an orchestra setting for a total collapse in metric stability.

If you pay close attention during recordings and live performances, you will notice that the bassoons almost never slow down here, despite the difficulty and length of the passage. There are usually only two ways that this section will sound:

  • The rhythms are steady and accurate
  • The rhythms slowly begin to compress, causing the bassoons to sound like they are rushing

Many of the included recordings are very close to the latter, with perhaps the most obvious example being Maazel’s recording with the Cleveland Orchestra.3 In contrast, listen to the rhythmic precision shown in John Eliot Gardiner’s recording with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. This recording is by far the most rhythmically solid of any of the examples, and it is no coincidence that this particular bassoon section also places the most emphasis on the first note in each grouping.

The method for circumventing this shift is simple in theory, but difficult in practice. Simple stated, the emphasis in each four-note grouping should be placed on the very first note, which requires giving a slight diminuendo over the subsequent three notes (Example 7.3).

Example 7.3. Berlioz, Symphonie fantastique, Mvt. V – mm. 47 to 50, with added diminuendos

It is puzzling that the opposite of this phrasing is so common for this excerpt, since the bassoon’s natural tendency is to get softer as the range gets higher. My theory is that players concentrate so much on “pushing” out the tongued notes that an unintended crescendo occurs instead.

Despite how they appear in the written music, each note in these groupings is not created equal. The first bottom note should be thought of as the main note, functioning as a springboard to the following three. In comparison, the last three notes in each grouping are almost inconsequential (Example 7.4).

Example 7.4. Berlioz, Symphonie fantastique, Mvt. V – mm. 47 to 50, reduction

Think of performing these groupings in the same way you would jump on a trampoline, correlating the nadir and apex of the jump to the lowest and highest note of the group, and the speed your body is moving at to the dynamic level the notes should sound. The bottom note in each group is similar to the point where your feet leave the surface of the trampoline—in other words, the point where you are launched into the air. The next three notes go higher and higher much like your body does, but in the same way that your body’s speed decreases as gravity slows your jump to its peak, the dynamic of the note groupings should also decrease as they reach theirs. During the rest, gravity brings your body back down to the surface of the trampoline, beginning the entire process again on the following note. If we actually filled in these missing notes, it would look something like Example 7.5.

Example 7.5. Berlioz, Symphonie fantastique, Mvt. V – mm. 47 to 50, filled-in figure with added hairpins

Developing Rhythmic Accuracy
Another factor contributing to the rhythmic issues in this excerpt is the way the music itself is notated. I always found it troubling that the notation here resembles something more likely to be found in a passage written in a duple meter rather than in a triple meter. Typically, the 6/8 meter is divided into two dotted-quarter notes, which in turn are divided into three eighth notes. So wouldn’t it follow that each eighth note should then be subdivided into two sixteenth notes, thus maintaining the two three-eighth-note divisions of the dotted-quarters? The beaming and choice of rests that Berlioz uses here do not promote these typical divisions. I understand that Berlioz probably beamed the notes in fours to avoid causing any unintended hitches for the bassoonists reading the music, but the fact remains that it is not the best way to notate this passage in terms of maintaining rhythmic accuracy.4

Example 7.6 provides two alternatives that help clarify the patterns. Example 7.6a adds a broken beam between the first two notes and the last two notes, indicating that these groupings are subdivisions of the six eighth notes found in a typical 6/8. However, Example 7.6b shows the notation I prefer most, since this version not only subdivides the rests, but also promotes the triplet feel of the groupings. I find that seeing two sixteenth rests (as opposed to just one eighth rest) keeps me from rushing the silence between the note groupings, and much like in Example 7.5, the beaming encourages the diminuendo we should play over the course of each group.

Example 7.6. Berlioz, Symphonie fantastique, Mvt. V – mm. 47 to 50, re-beamed note groupings

Example 7.7 shows two rhythm patterns that are excellent for developing proper airflow and rhythmic accuracy. Example 7.7a emphasizes the first note of each grouping by elongating it to a dotted-eighth note, while Example 7.7b prevents any possible rhythmic compression by requiring the player to continue tonguing through the rests. This second pattern is also especially useful for developing tongue speed and endurance.

Example 7.7. Berlioz, Symphonie fantastique, Mvt. V – mm. 47 to 50, suggested practice patterns

Finally, when practicing the excerpt as written, try setting your fingers for the first note of each subsequent group as soon as the eighth rest starts. In addition to helping finger technique, it will also reinforce the idea that the first note of each grouping is the most important.

Tempo and Fingering Suggestions for the Last Section
The trills in the final section of this excerpt can be very tricky since they appear right after fourteen straight bars of sixteenth notes. Practicing this section without any of the additional trills or graces should be the initial focus, especially since many players have a tendency to slow down once they reach this point of the excerpt. This is understandable—after reading such a long passage of sixteenth notes, the brain tends to see the quarters and eighths and think they should take more time than they actually do. To combat this, I actually think of pushing forward when I reach this point; in context, this tends to keep the tempo up to the same speed as the previous section.

Finally, we have a few alternate fingerings available to use here. Fingering 7.1 shows my preferred way of playing the quick D – E♭ grace note figure in m. 62, and Fingering 7.2 and Fingering 7.3 show two possible F – G trills.

1 McGill, 264.

2 In fact, fast tonguing is dependent on proper air support. See Articulation.

3 Interestingly, this recording also has the fastest tempo of the included examples.

4 See the discussion of the cadenzas in Scheherazade for McGill’s comments on note beaming and how it relates to phrasing.