The lengthy bassoon solo spanning the fourth and fifth movements of Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony presents a number of challenges that are solely unique to this excerpt. At around four minutes in length—easily the longest principal bassoon solo in our standard orchestral repertoire—it not only challenges the player’s lyricism and musicality, but also the limits of his or her endurance. Furthermore, it is not enough to simply play the solo expressively—there also needs to be enough variety in the phrasing to hold the listener’s attention for its entire duration. Since the fifth movement passage is comparatively straightforward, I will be focusing this discussion on the lyrical solo in the fourth movement.
In the manuscript of the fourth movement, Shostakovich gives a tempo marking of ♪ = 84; however, this tempo is actually marked over his original indication of ♩= 56. For the fifth movement, he also replaces his original marking of ♩= 112 with a tempo indication of ♩= 100.1 While I do follow his corrected tempo of ♩= 100 for the fifth movement, I still prefer a tempo closer to his original ♩= 56 marking for the fourth. This tempo is most closely reflected in the included recording by the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, while his corrected tempo of ♪ = 84 is closer to the tempo taken in the recording by the Scottish National Orchestra. In my opinion, a tempo of ♪ = 84 is much too stagnant for such a lengthy solo structured around half notes; on the other end of the spectrum, an exceptionally fast tempo like the one taken in Bernstein’s recording with the Wiener Philharmoniker can make the solo feel rushed, drastically reducing the pathos of the line.
Identifying and Bringing Out Tension in the Line
The biggest challenge in this solo is preparing a musical plan of attack. Shostakovich writes, “These solos should be free, expressive, and light. This is especially true of the bassoon.”2 While he does give us some specific dynamic indications, we should feel free to push and pull the tempo where we see fit. However, there are certain parts of the solo where altering the tempo is much more natural sounding than others, and, in order to understand where these places are, we should take note of the consonance and dissonance in the bassoon line.
In the first half of m. 10, the bassoon has three statements of a descending half note motive over a sustained F Major chord in the brass. Each of these intervals are consonant: the first interval of F – C is the root and fifth of F Major, the next interval of D – A is the added sixth and third of F Major (essentially creating a passing vi7 harmony at that point), and the last interval is another statement of the opening F – C. These three sets of notes are the most consonant intervals in this opening phrase, and Shostakovich highlights them by making them the longest notes of the phrase, as well as placing diminuendos on the second and third sets of intervals. Starting with the idea that these half notes should be the focal points of this opening section, we can next assign some specific guidelines to follow:
- Half notes (besides the opening set) should relax slightly in both tempo and vibrato over the course of the two notes; because Shostakovich does not include a diminuendo on the opening half notes, I instead play them in a broad, declamatory fashion in the tempo I intend to base the overall solo on.
- All descending notes should move forward into the next note of a longer note value; for example, the eighth notes in the first half should lead into the A♭2, while the quarter notes that descend from the D♭4 should lead into A♭3.
- All upward notes should slow down slightly as the range moves higher, and should be played as pickup notes into the half notes; in the first half of the bar, these lines create the tension that is dissipated by the consonant half notes; in the second half of the bar, these notes lead into the main notes of the descending F – E♭ – D♭ – C resolution.3
After the half notes, the second most important notes are the quarter notes that approach them from a half step above (E♭ for the second set of half notes, and G♭ for the third). This motive occurs throughout the entire solo—you will notice that almost every instance of two half notes is preceded by a quarter note a half step above. Because of this half-step interval, these quarter notes should have the most tension in each set of notes leading into the half notes, and giving them the most tension requires that we emphasize them somehow in our playing. We already saw one method of stressing particular notes in our discussion of the second movement of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto that involved slightly lengthening the duration of the note. But we can also stress notes by adding a more intense vibrato, and I find that a combination of these two methods is very effective for these dissonant quarter notes.
This solo is also a perfect example of a lyrical line that can benefit greatly from the wide range of vibrato that can be created with the abdomen. The four factors that should influence our decisions regarding vibrato are:
- The range of the notes
- The dynamic of the notes
- The harmonic tension of the note
- The intervallic tension of the line
These last two factors are especially important, as Jooste explains:
For the judicious application of vibrato, the player first has to determine which notes or even parts of them should contribute to the build-up of tension, what the relative level of tension should be, which notes form the climax of the tension line and which notes or parts thereof should contain an element of tension at all.4
Example 16.1 shows most of my major phrasing decisions for the first full bar, including the levels of vibrato I apply to certain important notes. While I do use vibrato on most notes in the solo, I concentrate on specific harmonic dissonances and half-step intervals to act almost like vibrato “goal” notes that my vibrato intensity can lead to and away from. The numbers I have assigned indicate the speed of the pulses, and for the sake of simplicity, we can say that the width of the pulses are directly related to the given dynamic (a louder dynamic equals wider pulses, and vice versa). For example, because of the dynamic difference between the two notes, the G♭ in the middle of the second line will have a narrower Vib. 3 vibrato than the A♭ half note just before it. Along with the dynamics, the pitches themselves should also have an influence on the width of the vibrato. For example, playing extremely high notes like the D4 in m. 22 with a very fast and wide vibrato will make the vibrato stick out from the note itself; so although I give this note the fastest vibrato (since it is the highest note of the solo), I make it narrow enough to sound appropriate and tasteful for a note of that range.5
Example 16.1. Shostakovich, Symphony No. 9, Mvt. IV – m. 10, phrasing suggestions
One unusual issue arises in m. 29 of the fourth movement, where we are asked to keep a long hairpin alive during a rest between the D♮ and E♭. The end of the D♮ requires a variation of Weisberg’s resonant endings that requires giving the end of D♮ a little push and lift with the air, while keeping the abdominals flexed so the airstream can be reinstated at the same level for the following E♭ after the rest. McGill describes a similar technique:
In reed playing, the embouchure should tighten from the corners of the mouth at the very end of the note while the abdominal muscles give a minute push with the air. This slight increase in air pressure at the final moment keeps up the intensity of the cutoff and prevents any residual feeling of deflation. Ending a triumphant note in this way, as a great opera singer might, can create a thrilling effect.6
Although there is a rest, we want to create the impression that the sound is continuing to travel through it, not stopped by it. Resist the temptation to end the D♮ by closing the glottis—keep the airstream unrestricted, and use the embouchure to close the note.
Finally, for the D♮2 – C♭3 slurred leap in mm. 31 to 32, I find that I can leave the whisper lock down for the D♮ (which I put on during the rest in m. 26) and then press and hold the C vent key for the C♭. Having the whisper lock down prevents the lower D♮ from jumping up too soon, and on my bassoon the vent key will override the whisper key in this situation. You may find that this is not the case on your own instrument, but I recommend experimenting to find out.
1 Iakubov, 124.
2 Ibid., 122.
3 This is essentially just a movement from scale degree 1 to scale degree 5 with a modal inflection in the middle.
4 Jooste, 118.
5 See the Vibrato for more information on these vibrato labels, as well as Weisberg’s explanation of why very wide vibrato on high notes generally does not sound good.
6 McGill, 182.