The opening of the second movement appears on almost every second bassoon audition today, and while the tempo can vary greatly amongst violinists—as it also can for the slow movement of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto—a tempo of ♪ = 52-58 seems fairly standard. I may be biased as a bassoonist, but I much prefer the forward-moving pace of Heifetz’s 1955 recording with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which maintains a tempo of about ♪ = 60-64. I find that imagining the oboe solo as I play this excerpt can help keep the line moving forward, even at such a relatively slow tempo. Observe the hairpins and dynamic markings closely—especially the pianissimo marking given to the extended section from mm. 19 to 22—but do not let the soft dynamic context of the excerpt inhibit the creation of musical line and phrasing.
I consider this passage and the opening of Wagner’s Tannhäuser to be brother and sister excerpts, since many of the same issues come up in both. Be sure to see that section for further discussion on playing softly in the low register.
A Missing Low C?
The autograph score of Brahms’s Violin Concerto contains the single most puzzling discrepancy found in all of the scores and parts that I examined. As can be seen in m. 10 of the autograph, the quarter note C1 in the second bassoon part instead appears to be written as a C2 an octave higher. What are we to make of this? All of the scribbled pencil markings indicate that Brahms made a number of edits in mm. 9 and 10, yet the two bassoon lines in these bars remain untouched.1 Furthermore, every other low C in this excerpt was left intact, and the only discernable edit in the entire second bassoon line is the addition of the dotted slur articulation in bar 14.
Jon Newsom, author of the facsimile’s foreword, suggests that such confusion is to be expected when examining a composer's original manuscript:
It is important, of course, to know all we can of a composer’s intentions, but no score can be final. Intelligent readings of either neatly engraved publications or rough freehand drafts usually raise more questions about a score than they answer. In this respect, it is hoped that our facsimile publication of Brahms’ Violin Concerto will succeed in introducing those healthy doubts that make the work of thinking musicians worthwhile.2
The most likely explanation is that this C2 was changed to a C1 in the final engraver’s proofs, but until the proofs themselves are examined we must consider the possibility that our current low C is an error.3 We do know that Brahms wrote to Joachim on May 31 requesting suggestions for the opening of the Adagio (the piano score was sent for publication in June), lamenting that he had never been completely satisfied with it in performance. Unfortunately, though, what changes may have been made at this stage are unclear.
The significance of this possible misprint cannot be overstated, since many bassoonists consider this particular note to be one of the most challenging in the entire excerpt. There are a number of low Cs throughout the opening, of course, but this particular one makes a considerable number of demands on the player, including a soft, gentle attack and a delicate, controlled taper. Further research comparing the holographs of the orchestral score and piano reduction with the engraver’s proofs would be a very worthwhile endeavor.
Another interesting fact is that Brahms originally marked the tempo of the second movement Un poco Larghetto, indicating a tempo slightly slower than the Adagio of the final version. For an extended passage that requires such endurance and control, it is fortunate for bassoonists that Brahms did, in fact, make this change.
The term dyspnea refers to the buildup of carbon dioxide in the lungs that occurs when a person holds his or her breath. A similar physiological response also occurs when playing the bassoon over long, soft passages, as the amount of air exhaled through the instrument often cannot match the amount of air originally taken into the body. In the opening of the Adagio, the second bassoonist is tasked with performing twenty-two straight bars of music at the softest possible dynamics, and thus the likelihood of the player experiencing symptoms of dyspnea are very high.
This condition is what players are actually referring to whenever they describe a feeling of “breathlessness” while playing this excerpt. Luckily, careful planning of both the timing and depth of the breaths can help to lessen the chances of this oxygen deprivation. Jooste explains:
To avoid this sort of dyspnoea [sic] while playing bassoon in which little time to breathe exists… controlled exhalation can take place by using the following method. At the end of one phrase the player exhales quickly and immediately continues with the next phrase without inhaling any air, i.e. with the remaining air in the lungs. Only at the end of the next phrase he quickly inhales.4
Due to differences in skill level, lung capacity, and reed resistance, breathing plans will naturally vary among bassoonists. My approach is to only fill up about half of my normal lung capacity at the beginning of the excerpt, though even then I usually still have to breathe out before taking in another breath at the end of m. 10. Weisberg offers an additional breathing technique that can be very useful during a few spots in this passage:
A player with some experience knows very soon after the phrase has been started whether or not he has too much breath. He can then expel some of the air through the corners of his mouth while he is playing. With practice this can be done with almost no disturbance of the embouchure.5
To do this, we must apply slightly more pressure with the upper and bottom lip while letting the corners leak a small amount of air. Of course, this is the exact opposite of the embouchure we usually want to play with, so it will hopefully take some amount of practice to feel comfortable incorporating it. Example 8.1 indicates a few brief spots where we can most likely get away with this. It is very important, though, that the corners of the embouchure are re-engaged before reaching any of the downward intervals, such as the D – G leaps that occur in the first two bars shown below.
Example 8.1. Brahms, Violin Concerto in D Major, Mvt. II – mm. 7 to 14, indications for air leakage and shoulder movement
Low Notes and Shoulders
Example 8.1 also indicates another technique that I find indispensable for playing soft low notes: lowering the shoulders to help “push” the air out of the abdomen. This helps to maintain an intense and focused airstream that is needed to play softly in this range, and while I admit that I am not entirely clear on the exact physiology of how and why this works, I do know that it does. Experiment with lowering your shoulders straight down (as if someone was standing behind you, pushing down on your shoulders) at the points indicated in Example 8.1, and try to maintain that lowered position for the entire middle section, as shown.
Finally, there are a few notes in this excerpt that I find can benefit greatly from modified fingerings. Adding the left hand resonance key to the low A will help lower the pitch slightly (Fingering 8.1), which in turn creates a much purer M3 interval between the Fs and As (such as in mm. 3 to 6). I add the left hand pinky C♯ key to the low Gs whenever possible (Fingering 8.2), and also find that adding the right hand pinky A♭ key to the open F in m. 15 can help stabilize that particular note a great deal (Fingering 8.3).
1 The sets of revisions Brahms made in the score are delineated by the color of pencil used: the brown ink indicates the first draft, the blue pencil indicates markings a conductor would typically add (Brahms conducted the premiere in Leipzig), and the dark red ink indicates changes to the violin part likely suggested by Joachim (and possibly written in his hand as well).
2 Johannes Brahms, Concerto for Violin, Op. 77: A Facsimile of the Holograph Score, (Washington: Library of Congress; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979), vii.
3 Brahms surely checked the engraver’s proofs before publication, but since the proofs are made as mirror images, mistakes would still often find their way into the printed scores.
4 Jooste, 11.
5 Weisberg, 93.