One of the most interesting features of this opening solo is that it begins the symphony in E Minor instead of the indicated B Minor. Along with the descending chromaticism in the basses, this gives the opening a very unstable feeling; and even when we do reach B Minor at the end of the solo, it takes the form of a lingering half cadence. Tchaikovsky gives us the tempo of ♩= 54 in his score.
Crescendos, Diminuendos, and Voicings
We can help to bring out the dissonance and instability of the opening by playing the hairpins exactly as Tchaikovsky has written.1 Starting the crescendos on the second beat as indicated brings out the dissonances between the bassoon line and the basses, and leads into the resolution of the basses’ suspensions on the third beat. For example, in m. 2 the basses resolve a 2 – 3 suspension from E to D♯ in the underlying B Major harmony, and in m. 3 the basses resolve a 3 – 4 suspension from D♯ to D♮ in the underlying G Major harmony.
Performing the diminuendos and crescendos can often cause the notes to go very out of tune unless the internal voicings are adjusted accordingly. Example 22.1 shows the type of voicings I use to keep the pitch steady over the long hairpins.
Example 22.1. Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 6, Mvt. I – mm. 4 to 6, suggested voicings
Likewise, the same voicings can be applied to the second large diminuendo and crescendo in mm. 10 to 12 (Example 22.2.).
Example 22.2. Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 6, Mvt. I – mm. 10 to 12, suggested voicings
In order to include these voicings, it is important to play on a reed that is well suited for soft low notes. If we have to fight against the reed in order to keep the pitch down throughout the solo, then any possible changes in the internal cavity can be very difficult to execute. In general, we want a freer-blowing (i.e., more compliant) reed that vibrates at a lower frequency. For more information on the adjustments we can make to our reeds for low register response, see Reeds.2
Timing of the Breath
This solo is a good example to use for discussing the timing and process involved with our initial breath. Each excerpt should begin in a similar manner—with a cleansing exhalation, followed by a deep inhalation that utilizes a “HO” vocalization to keep the throat and oral cavity open. Both of these should occur with the top lip in its proper position on the reed and the jaw open. Make sure that the “HO” inhalation does not end abruptly by closing the glottis—the “woosh” sound of the breath should end with a natural taper, not with the “EHH” sound that signifies the closing of the throat. The next step in the process is to set the embouchure and tongue on the reed, and finally to release the airstream by moving the tongue away. This should all be done in as fluid a motion as possible, similar to how a conductor gives one smooth motion for the opening downbeat of a piece.
This entire sequence should be calm and relaxed—not anxious and rushed. Typically, we should allow for at least one full beat to inhale and set our embouchure before beginning to play. In the case of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth, I prefer to exhale for two beats, and then inhale and set during the final beat before the bassoon entrance (Example 22.3).
Example 22.3. Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 6, Mvt. I – mm. 1 to 2, breathing and preparation
There are a number of fingerings we can experiment with here to help muffle our entrance, but the tradeoff is that they can sometimes make it difficult to create a smooth, effortless line. Two of my favorite fingerings to use here are shown in Fingering 22.1 and Fingering 22.2; each uses the low B♭ thumb key to help muffle the sound, but if you have the extra low C key as I do (shown in the fingering chart) it can be a little troublesome to reach over it to the B♭. One nice thing about using both of these fingerings together, however, is that many of the fingers stay in the same position between the E and F♯, and placing the thumb at the very bottom part of the low E thumb key allows the thumb F♯ to be added very gently. This particular F♯ fingering tends to be very flat in pitch, so adjust accordingly if you decide to use it.
1 We can see from the included facsimile score that Tchaikovsky meticulously placed the hairpins to begin right on the second beat of these bars.
2 A discussion on how to make a reed less compliant (in other words, the opposite of what we want for this excerpt) can be found in the section for Ravel's Piano Concerto. This can be helpful in pointing out the types of adjustments that we should avoid in this case.