This lyrical bassoon solo opens one of the most famous tenor arias in the entire classical repertoire. Be mindful of the constant rhythmic motor of the arpeggiated harp accompaniment and how it creates the illusion of a duple-versus-triple feel by essentially subdividing the 6/8 meter into four dotted-eighth notes per bar (which contrasts a subdivision in the bassoon line of six regular eighth notes per bar). Most of the included examples take a tempo of about  ♪ = 76-78, though James Levine and The Met are much closer to  ♪ = 86.

Bassoonists are often hesitant to display overt phrasing in this solo, and this can give the impression that the players themselves are not entirely clear on what the gestures should be. Ideally, we should approach this melody with the same sense of drama that the tenor does. To do this, we must first formulate a plan for how we want to play each phrase, and the plan I follow is shown in Example 9.1.

Example 9.1. Donizetti, “Una furtiva lagrima” – mm. 2 to 9, mm. 2 to 9, phrasing and vibrato indications1

As you can see, the intensity and speed of the vibrato should increase on each note of the ascending F – G♭ – A♭ line. I find that an expressive, singing vibrato is much easier to produce on all of the G♭s here by using the alternate G♭ fingering shown in Fingering 9.1.

The phrasing in the first half of the solo is fairly straightforward, and is demonstrated most clearly in the recording from the Philharmonia Orchestra (although I do not care for the overly harsh tonguing of the G♭s). The phrasing in the second half, on the other hand, seems to vary considerably depending on the player. In the second bar of the second line, I prefer a more literal reading of the crescendo and calando markings, which in turn produces an E♭ with a light, floating quality.2 Some bassoonists, however, choose to lead into this E♭, and still others choose to lead into the following B♭ on the downbeat. I believe that some of this discrepancy stems from a misprint in the bassoon part, which places the crescendo marking under the high A♭ instead of at the beginning of the measure.3 In any case, each of these interpretations can be heard in the following recordings:

  • Orchestre du Théâtre National de l'Opéra de Paris (closest to my gesture above, though I prefer the floating quality given the E♭ in the Philharmonia Orchestra recording listed below)
  • London Symphony Orchestra (emphasizes the E♭)
  • Philharmonia Orchestra (emphasizes the B♭)

Example 9.1 also indicates the levels of vibrato I use on each note of the fundamental ascending F – G♭ – A♭ line. I give each of these notes progressively more intense vibrato, and I also add an obvious legato to the G♭ in the third bar.4 This legato adds another layer of drama to this ascending line by giving each of the three fundamental notes a slightly longer length (Donizetti already gives us a full quarter note for the A♭). I should also note that I find it much easier to produce an expressive, singing vibrato for all of the G♭s in this solo when using the fingering shown in Fingering 9.1.

Special mention should also be made of a few important voicing situations that arise during this excerpt. For the F – B♭ and G♭ – C slurs in the first half of the solo, moving from “EEE” for the upper note to “OOH” for the lower note will help the interval sing through the slur with an open, warm color (flicking the second note of each slur is also very important in getting the slurs to speak smoothly).5 Likewise, this same voicing scheme of “EEE” to “OOH” is also helpful for ensuring that the tongued F – A♮ and F – B♭ intervals near the end of the solo are sufficiently wide in terms of pitch.

Speed and Fingering of Turns
Many bassoonists have a tendency to perform the turns in this solo too quickly, which can often interrupt the smooth, singing quality of the line. Rushing these small notes is usually the result of thinking of them as an ornament attached to the following eighth note. To avoid this, I prefer to think of the grace notes as notes that simply fill in the sound between the two main eighths. This broadness can be achieved by beginning the turns slightly sooner, similar to the rhythm shown in Example 9.2.

Example 9.2. Donizetti, “Una furtiva lagrima” – mm. 6 to 9, with turns written out

In fact, this is the same notation Donizetti uses for the turns that occur later in the bassoon part, so we can safely assume that this broader style is appropriate for the opening solo as well.  Also, one way to make the first turn sound smoother is to use a trill fingering for the G♭ that only requires the addition of the right hand pinky (Fingering 9.2).

Contextual Use of the Staccato Marking
One of the most interesting features of the music from this period is that composers often provided articulation markings with different intents depending on the context of the music. This appears to be true of the staccato markings found in “Una furtiva lagrima” as well. One common use of the staccato marking during this period was simply to reiterate to the performer that certain notes should be articulated, as historian Clive Brown explains:

The use of dots or strokes simply to indicate that the notes so marked were not to be slurred, yet not to specify a genuinely staccato execution, appears to be very common in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century music. In many scores of the period these marks are very regularly encountered in mixed figures of slurred and separate notes, even if the composer hardly ever employed them in other contexts (as was often the case in the second half of the eighteenth century). In such passages they are necessary to the player, as Koch observed, to make clear which notes are slurred and which separate. In these circumstances the notes with articulation marks were evidently not expected to be played shorter or sharper than notes without articulation marks that occurred in close proximity to them, though whether the marked and unmarked notes were meant to be played staccato, or whether both were intended to receive some kind of non-legato execution, is often unclear… In other words, these notes will not really be staccato in the commonly understood sense of the term, simply unslurred.6

From this perspective, Donizetti’s use of staccato markings in this solo makes much more sense, especially during the mixed articulation passage from mm. 8 to 9. Additionally, this also helps explain the otherwise confusing inclusion of a staccato marking on the very last B♭. In performance, I like to give these staccato notes a clear but gentle articulation with the tongue, followed by a resonant ending.7 In essence, I simply play these notes in the same way that I would if there were no additional staccato marking.

1 For a more detailed explanation of my vibrato labels, see Vibrato and Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony.

2 Calando indicates playing softer and slower.

3 This has been corrected in the included bassoon part.

4 The A♭ specifically is a note where I feel the vibrato coming from deep within my abdomen. This is needed to produce a very dramatic vibrato that is both fast and wide. See Vibrato for more information on developing an intense vibrato.

5 See Voicings for more information.

6 Clive Brown, Classical and Romantic Performing Practice 1750-1900 (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 209-10.

7 See Articulation for more on resonant endings.