The opening of Tannhäuser appears on almost every second bassoon audition, and, like the opening to the Adagio of Brahms’s Violin Concerto, requires great endurance and control over the lowest range of the instrument. The second bassoon is the bass voice in the opening chorale of horns, clarinets, and bassoons.
An important note about the parts—the rhythm of the fourth full bar is often incorrect in both first and second bassoon parts. The correct rhythm is a half note and a quarter note, not a dotted half note.1 The tempo shown in the score is ♩= 50, but for audition purposes I prefer to take a more manageable ♩= 60. When performing in an orchestral setting, focus on blending and supporting the sound of the horns.
The E Major key signature can cause the intonation and timbre of these low notes to be very unwieldy. There are a number of modified fingerings we can use here, and the notes that I find benefit the most are the low A, low F♯, and low E. My preferred A1 fingering for this excerpt adds the left hand E♭ pinky key and the right hand thumb F♯; however, you may want to omit the F♯ if you find that it muffles the A too much (Fingering 23.1). For the F♯s, I like to add the left hand pinky C♯ and right hand thumb E to the standard key arrangement (Fingering 23.2). In fact, this is my standard muffled F♯ in both octaves, but it does require more air support in order to keep the timbre from sounding too muffled compared to the surrounding notes. This fingering produces an F♯ that errs on the flat side, so this additional support will also help keep the pitch up to a true F♯. Finally, we can add the left hand pinky C♯ for the low E (Fingering 23.3), which not only lowers the pitch, but also allows for much more responsive soft attacks and tapers. I use an “EWW” voicing to keep the pitch up with these F♯ and E fingerings, and find this easier than struggling to keep the notes down to pitch with the regular fingerings.
Resonant Endings and Breath Support for Soft, Sustained Lines
In most of the recordings, you can hear that the opening chorale is not played as one continuous, sustained line; instead, certain notes are given a small lift that delineates each of the smaller phrases. This nuanced gesture should also be included in our solo performance of the excerpt, and will demonstrate to an audition committee that we are familiar with the typical ensemble phrasing of the opening. These lifts can be thought of as extended versions of Weisberg’s “resonant endings”—the decay of the airstream and tightening of the embouchure occur in the same manner, but over a longer period of time that is appropriate for the note length and tempo.2 These small lifts that indicate the phrase endings are shown in Example 23.1 (indicated with a V marking). I have also added additional hairpins that show the phrasing we should use in the first half of the excerpt (within the piano dynamic context). As you can see, these lifts correspond to the endings of the slight hairpins we should give the line.
Some performances give a slight taper to almost every note, and an example of this interpretation can be heard in the recording of the Philharmonia Orchestra. However, I find that this does not flow as well as sustaining the phrasing until the lifts at the ends. This more sustained style of phrasing is also closer to what is most often heard in the “Pilgrims’ Chorus” of Act III—there is clear pronunciation of each syllable, but no overt tapering.
Example 23.1. Wagner, Tannhauser – mm. 1 to 16, suggested phrasing
The most important point to make about actually performing the tapers is that the airstream should never completely stop at any point (other than to take in another breath, of course). The airstream itself should only decrease to the point where the reed stops vibrating, and most of the tapering should occur by tightening the embouchure. Practice the tapers very slowly—you should be able to hear a small amount of your breath continue to travel through the instrument between the notes. To keep the airstream alive in this fashion, make sure that the lower abdominals remain flexed and active. Finally, remember to keep the corners engaged and the shoulders down, just like we discussed for Brahms’s Violin Concerto.
Subdividing Triplets and Sixteenths
Subdividing in slow, sustained passages like this can be extremely difficult, especially when there are issues like intonation and tapering to worry about as well. The entire opening up to m. 6 should be mentally subdivided into triplets, and especially make sure not to let the triplets in the second bar drag. I find it helpful to remember that these three notes are six times faster than the half note before, and that I should not let the preceding half note lull me into a false sense of complacency. In order to perform an accurate dotted-eighth-sixteenth rhythm in m. 7, actually begin subdividing sixteenth notes during the last quarter note of the previous measure, which is the first note of that particular phrase.
1 This incorrect version can actually be heard in a few of the included examples, such as the Staatskapelle Berlin and the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra recordings.
2 See Articulation for more information.