Monday, December 31, 2012

Janacek's Sinfonietta

WARNING: If you are a not a conductor, musicologist, editor or a Janacek devotee, you may want to stop here. --- ec

I have long felt it ill-advised for conductors to touch up scores, with the intent of 'improving' them. Great scores are best left alone. This is a tenet of the conducting profession. My studies were with teachers who were adamant about defending the integrity of composer and score, and I am passing on that same tenet to my conducting students at The Hartt School. We steer away from this line at our own peril.

Then I programmed Janacek's Sinfonietta, and that core belief was shaken. Hubris, or some misplaced desire to improve the score, were not the drivers here; rather, it was one of necessity.

In the edition I ordered from Universal, edited by Fuessl, the orchestra parts were unplayable, largely due to a plethora of repeats that are confusing and unreadable. Observing my intelligent players appear blurry-eyed in rehearsal, making (and repeating) uncharacteristic mistakes, I had no choice but to do everything in my power to help them. And so, with the initial intention of simply writing out repeated passages (many of which crossed over natural phrase points), I copied out every note of the score, using only the parts that my newly-generated score would produce. But then there were othere problems, beginning with the trumpets.

Sinfonietta was once titled "Military Sinfonietta," and no small wonder, given the brilliant fanfare that opens the work. For this, Janacek asks for an additional 13 brass players, including 9 trumpets which do not play in the orchestra.

Confusingly, in the Fuessl edition, three of the fanfare trumpets return to the orchestra for the second movement, while three others do not play at all until the third movement.

Ideally, there are 9 trumpets who play the outside fanfares only, while the other 3 trumpets play within the orchestra, beginning with the second movement. Another edition by Eulenberg wisely does this. But then this version asks the tuba to substitute for the fourth trombone. This unfortunate compromise -- understandable, given that most orchestras have just three trombones -- effectively removes the textures that are unique to Janacek's sound world. While the tuba is important, much of the low brass music in Sinfonietta is clearly written for four trombones.

Which begs the question: in a piece that requires an additional 9 trumpets, 2 bass trumpets and 2 tenor tubas, 25 brass in all, why would Eulenberg leave out the 4th trombone? If Fuessl's errors are in the distribution and layout, then Eulenberg's (reminding me of Mahler's famous comment, Tradition ist schlamperei) is one of poor economy.

Musicologists and editors sometimes make decisions with their eyes only; conductors are wont to use their ears without considering important documents to bolster their case. One might suggest that I would fall in the latter category, particularly since this is the first time I have conducted a major work by Janacek. But the act of copying each and every note of Janacek's score, while simultaneously rehearsing it, gave me an amazing window into the world of this composer.

And so, writing out all of the parts for my players, I remembered things that didn't work in rehearsal, among them:

--an inaudible bass clarinet solo
--bassoons sitting around with very little to do
--violas playing in the stratosphere (while violins pitied them)

and I began to wonder: do orchestras not program Sinfonietta for reasons that go beyond the need for 25 brass players?

Skeptics may accuse me of calling Janacek a poor orchestrator. In fact, his sound palette is unique to him, the stuff of genius. To wit:

-Who else but Janacek writes for two tenor and two bass trombones?
-The solo harp writing is exquisite.
-Flutes are galactic one moment, holding up the orchestra with a bass pedal the next.
-In the finale, the celli play a low Alberti bass figure which is ominous beyond belief.
-Before the fanfare returns, there is the all-important Eb clarinet, taking Strauss's Eulenspiegel to a new level of pain and despair.

For these instances and many more, I am deeply in awe of Janacek. Still, there is so much in Sinfonietta which has me scratching my head, leaving me with questions that will remain unanswered until I can see the original score.

So what is my new version, then?

Urtext? No.
Ersatz? Again, no.

Janacek's music is public domain in Canada and Europe, but not yet in the United States; my edition will not be available to conductors and orchestras until I have had a chance to consult the original source. Just from the way I've laid them out, with new, better-placed rehearsal figures, the orchestra parts I have created are preferable simply from the standpoint of playability.

It has been a fascinating musical exercise, ultimately leading to a concert where an audience heard an orchestra, newly unleashed and unbound, performing Janacek's orchestral masterpiece.

1 comment:

John Smiley said...

Didn't Sir Charles Mackerras publish an edition of the score? He certainly spent a lot of time working on Janacek's scores...