Investigating the artistic and educational potential of mid-sized chamber groups
Sigstein Folgerø and Gjertrud Pedersen
Symphonies Reframed is a Research and Development project at the Norwegian Academy of Music (NMH), initiated in 2014 by pianist and associate professor of accompaniment, Sigstein Folgerø. In 2015, associate professor of music history, Gjertrud Pedersen, joined the project. The foundational premise of Symphonies Reframed is to recreate symphonies as chamber music in a traditional style. A new ensemble model, the “tri-harmonic ensemble”, has been created to serve this purpose.
Since its inception, the project has evolved to include works with vocal, choral and solo parts, as well as sonata literature. Ensembles of professors and students have rehearsed, interpreted and performed Folgerø’s transcriptions of works by Brahms, Schumann and Mozart. Pedersen has led subsequent interviews and critical discussions with participants.
This exposition will illuminate three core questions: What artistic features emerge when changing from large orchestral structures to mid-sized chamber groups? How do the performers reflect on their musical roles in the chamber ensemble? What educational value might the reframing unfold?
Before the advent of audio recording technology listeners had to travel to a concert venue to enjoy the sound of a symphony orchestra. At home, chamber music was in its prime – with the piano as a centrepiece of any respectable bourgeois home. People learned, listened, taught, performed and enjoyed music at all levels, from amateurs to professionals.
Even though the sound of an orchestra eluded the private settings at the time, its majestic repertoire was being heard – in the form of transcriptions. Versions for 4-handed piano were the most common. Arrangements for wind ensembles allowed for outdoor performances. String players enjoyed an overwhelmingly rich literature of original chamber music, but they were also given the opportunity to delve into symphonies by means of transcriptions.
The symphonic form grew in size and scope throughout the romantic era, and reached its peak before World War I in works such as Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 and Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder. In the following decade, we saw the rise of the sinfonietta as a new means of performing symphonic works with lesser resources. Members of Schoenberg’s Verein für musikalische Privataufführingen (Vienna, 1918-1921) transcribed and performed a number of romantic orchestral works. These transcriptions maintain an orchestral structure. They typically involve 9-15 musicians and a conductor. The sinfonietta includes five string parts, each representing one string section of the orchestra. Furthermore, it includes some of the prominent soloistic wind parts of the original score. The piano and harmonium serve multiple purposes, including harmonic completion, voice doubling, dynamic balancing and sound colouring. This model aims at assimilating the original orchestral scoring.
Today, the term “chamber music” spans a variety of ensemble forms. At one end of the scale, we find the duo, where only two parts meld together into one piece of music. At the other end, we encounter larger instrument groups and multiple parts, often coming together under the leadership of a conductor.
Symphonies Reframed has focused on a mid-sized ensemble setup, with the aim of capturing a feature that is unique for chamber music, at the juncture between the “soloistic small” and the “orchestral large”.
This project focusses its attention towards ensembles of 7-9 musicians. By choosing this range of the scale, we are looking to facilitate group interplay without the need of a conductor. We also want to facilitate a richness of sound colours by involving piano, strings and winds.
The number of possible instrument combinations in a mid-sized ensemble is immense. However, history provides a rather brief list of semi-standardised ensembles. In the septet-nonet range, we find some notable examples of original works, which became models for ensuing composers.
Beethoven septet: Clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello and
Eb major, Op. 20, 1799; Standard adopted by amongst others Conradin Kreutzer, Franz Berwald and Adolphe Blanc.
Schubert octet: Clarinet, bassoon, horn, violins I & II, viola, cello
and double bass.
F major, D. 803, 1824; Expansion of the Beethoven model, adding violin II.
Spohr nonet: Flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn; violin, viola,
cello and double bass.
F major, Op. 31, 1813; Standard adopted by amongst others Louise Farrenc, Georges Onslow, Franz Lachner, Joseph Rheinberger and Tilo Medek.
These works make use of the combination of a wind- and a string sub section. As genuine works of chamber music, they were important for the formation of our ensemble setup. Our “tri-harmonic ensemble” emerged out of the following guiding lines:
Three harmonically independent sections (winds, strings and piano)
Small enough to allow interplay without a conductor
An equal number of winds and strings in the sub sections (trio or quartet)
Individual parts (no doublings or groups)
Uniqueness of instruments (no instrument occurring twice)
Musically prominent piano part (on equal footing as the wind and string sub section)
The ensemble setup that follows from these guidelines may take two forms:
Tri-harmonic nonet: Piano, violin, viola, cello, double bass and wind quartet
Tri-harmonic septet: Piano, violin, viola, cello and wind trio
The exact combination of wind instruments is chosen in accordance with the features of the original score. As a group they need a rich tonal range with a continuous and partly overlapping register. Individually, they should lend themselves to appropriate thematic and soloistic material from the score.
When approaching a symphonic work with these limited resources, one quickly realizes that a “cut- and paste approach” to the original material is futile. Even a sinfonietta, with its five string parts, may struggle to adequately capture the string parts of the original. The challenge for the wind parts is no less.
One possible approach would be to utilize the piano, which covers all registers, as a completing instrument for any lacking voices. This is a solution which was practised by Schoenberg and his pupils. However, contemporaneous original chamber music may give rise to another approach. The piano, although versatile, has a distinct sound colour when compared to winds and strings. Each note it produces also has an intrinsically diminishing sound volume, which contrasts with the ability to sustain melodic lines characteristic of the other instruments. Original chamber music tends to utilize the piano as an accompanying and contrasting resource. The piano also has the ability to double and support voices which are already played by other instruments. For a symphonic score, it is a capable force by itself. As previously mentioned, the orchestral literature is available as transcriptions for the piano alone – usually in 4-hand guise.
Our tri-harmonic “philosophy” is to apply the three harmonically self-sustaining sections of the ensemble in a counterposed manner. This enables a freer approach to the re-instrumentation of the original material. Despite this, we remain mindful of the style of the original piece. Our work is carried out within the realm of “faithful transcription”, not as a “free arrangement.”
Chamber ensembles and orchestras are vehicles for different original repertoire. The difference in artistic output thus hinges upon both the ensemble structure and the composition at hand. Symphonies Reframed seeks to enable an assessment of the qualities that are specific to the performing corpus and not beholden to any particular piece of music. Our transcriptions have enabled comparisons and reflections, using original compositions as a reference point. Some of our ensemble musicians have had first-hand experience with performing the original works as well. Others have encountered the works for the first time through our productions. This has enabled a multi-angled approach to the three central themes of our research:
What artistic features emerge when changing from large orchestral structures to mid-sized chamber groups?
How do the performers reflect on their musical roles in the chamber ensemble?
What educational value might the reframing unfold?
These questions have arisen from a combination of our own research interest, dialogues with the participants during rehearsals, feedback after performances and analysis of the group talks conducted by Pedersen. The latter were recorded and have been transcribed into writing. These different ways of obtaining feedback constitute several entrances to investigating the artistic and educational potential of mid-sized chamber groups. Our three main questions are intertwined and we have chosen not to parse them as separate research topics.
We will now present six reframed works of music, realized during the time interval from 2014 to 2018.
When Symphonies Reframed received funding as a pilot project in 2014, some preceding work had already laid the ground for its development. As a freelance pianist and associate professor of accompaniment, the project manager wished to apply his first-hand knowledge of chamber music by Johannes Brahms. A natural first step was to look into one of his symphonies.
After having transcribed the 3rd and 4th movements of Brahms’ Symphony No. 4, an ensemble of three professors and six students were gathered for rehearsals and a performance in November 2014. The full symphony was completed and performed in March 2015.
The instrument line-up for this transcription was chosen in accordance with the characteristics of the original score. In order to comply with the tri-harmonic guidelines, some sacrifices had to be made. In addition to piano and four strings, we made use of flute, clarinet, bassoon and horn.
Some parts from the original score carry over unaltered into the arrangement. One example of this is the flute solo in bars 97–104 from the 4th movement which is frequently used as an excerpt at orchestra auditions. The arrangement maintains the solo unchanged, whereas the ensemble offers musically relevant context for the flute part. Generally, however, a quite free handling of original material is applied. This approach is both a stated arrangement guideline and a consequence of the lack of certain instruments. Even when an instrument is available for a pure copying of an original part, this is not necessarily the preferable path forward. A wind quartet is a rather small section. In order to represent the full orchestral wind section, the strings might have to lend support to complete the harmonic picture. This, in turn, might affect the instrumentation of the accompaniment, whose original instrumentation is no longer available.
The resulting domino effect is significant throughout the arrangement. It provokes a thorough rescoring of the piece, using the style and idiomatic qualities of Brahms’ own chamber music as a model, as well as the original score.
With the tri-harmonic instrument line-up, we have offered a new and transparent manifestation of Brahms’ Symphony No. 4. Feedback from students, colleagues and members of the audience attest to this point. Our colleague Bjarne Magnus Jensen, who played the violin part, gives the ensemble setup this characterization: “It is quite a large chamber group, still it is extremely intimate. I find this exciting – it is intimate and still symphonic.”
After the performance, we asked the participating students to share some written reflections on their experience of playing Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 in chamber format. One of the students shed light on the experience of responsibility and taking an active part in the group:
I very much liked the combination of kind of being in a small orchestra, but still having quite a lot of responsibility. I learned a lot about playing and intonating with those instruments I rarely play chamber music with. (…) I also think it worked well that there were you [Folgerø] and Bjarne Magnus [Jensen] leading, but there still was a low threshold for everybody else to ask questions and share opinions. I also started to listen and look at others more, learn others’ parts better than normally and unintentionally lead a bit myself too, because such a big group was tricky to hold together.
Another student underlined that playing the Brahms symphony in chamber version had been a valuable experience when it comes to exploring sound qualities:
It has been very useful and instructive to perform this kind of musical work in chamber version, since each musician carries a greater soloistic responsibility than usual. It also opens for more detailed work on the quality of sound and timbre.
As a pianist by profession, Sigstein Folgerø, the project manager, chose to play the piano part himself. Knowing every part of the score after having transcribed the whole work, he became an automatic target for questions at the rehearsals. However, he avoided pushing his own interpretational preferences during the productions and relied on his colleagues and the students to work out the details. To a large extent, our two productions of Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 became non-hierarchical projects, where every participant contributed actively in shaping the interpretation.
Our second project involved Schumann’s Symphony No. 2. In this work the oboe plays a prominent role and prompted a change in the tri-harmonic instrument line-up from our previous work with the Brahms symphony. The piano and string section remained identical. In the wind section, oboe substituted the flute, thus forming a quartet of oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn. This particular combination of winds has some historical precedence. Mozart applied it in combination with piano in his quintet, KV 452.
The 2nd and 3rd movements of the symphony were performed in November 2015, again by a mixed ensemble of professors and students. This was primarily an experiment with the new instrument combination. It lent itself adequately to the rich romantic sound of Schumann’s writing. At the same time, it offered similar transparency and intimacy as witnessed during the preceding Brahms projects. Due to the similarities with previous work, we decided to postpone the completion of this work, leaving the 1st and 4th movements for a later occasion. We directed our focus away from the strict category of pure symphonies; instead, orchestral literature that involved voices became the next line of inquiry for Symphonies Reframed.
The next stage in the application of the tri-harmonic ensemble involved interplaying and intermixing with singers. We initiated a collaboration with the chamber choir at NMH, which resulted in performances of Johannes Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem, op. 45) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor (The impresario, KV 486). These two productions introduced three significant new elements to Symphonies Reframed:
The inclusion of singers expanded the format. From covering solely a mid-sized instrumental ensemble, Symphonies Reframed now also incorporated choir and solo singers.
The two projects involved a conductor, which meant a shift from the non-hierarchical structure that we had in the earlier projects with Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 and Schumann’s Symphony No. 2.
The adding of singers also entailed scenic dimensions, which was especially striking in the performance of the Mozart singspiel.
We will now give a short presentation of the two song-projects and share some reflections on how these projects opened up new viewpoints on the processes of unfolding and understanding artistic and educational practices.
In March 2016, Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem was performed in Majorstuen Church in Oslo with ensemble, choir and soloists from NMH. The orchestral score was transcribed for a tri-harmonic nonet identical to the one applied in the Schumann project. The original choral and solo voice parts remained unchanged. The choir consisted of 35 singers including three soloists. Seven students and two professors formed the tri-harmonic nonet.
The violin part, which is absent in the first movement of Brahms’ original score, plays a role in Folgerø’s transcription. Its designated role in this movement is largely secondary to, and below the viola part, thus maintaining a significant characteristic of the original score. It also serves as a substitute for the flute part, which is absent in the ensemble instrument line-up. The piano, which is non-existent in the original score, covers different instruments in our version, amongst them timpani and harp.
The rehearsal period commenced with separate rehearsals for the tri-harmonic ensemble and the choir. The tri-harmonic ensemble therefore had a preliminary phase as an independent chamber group. During the process, it merged with the choir, which was led by professor in choral conducting at NMH, Grete Pedersen. She also conducted the performance.
The performance of Ein deutsches Requiem included staging elements. During the opening of the first movement “Selig sind, die da Leid tragen” (“Blessed are they that mourn”), most singers were positioned along the church wall. The singers constituted a sounding circle surrounding the audience. During the second movement, the singers moved and formed a semi-circle behind the ensemble on stage.
The inclusion of singers, conductor and staging elements was further explored in our next project, Mozart’s singspiel Der Schauspieldirektor, which was performed in March 2017 at the “Lyden av NMH” festival at the Opera in Oslo.
Having tested the tri-harmonic nonet format in three works of the romantic era, we now chose to apply the tri-harmonic septet: flute, clarinet, bassoon, violin, viola, cello and piano.
Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor tells a story about an impresario and two competitive singers. In our production, a jury was added – to support a story of audition and competition, and to offer soloistic roles for more singers. Excerpts from other works by Mozart were included. This laid the ground for more students having soloistic roles as well as participating in the choir. The result was a show crammed with comic as well as serious sections.
Some arias were also altered and expanded, for example the trio “Ich bin die erste Sängerin” (“I am the prima donna”), originally scored for three singers, was in our production expanded to include eight singers, sharing the different melodic lines in a comic, manifold dialogue. In this way, reframing deals both with reducing the orchestra score from full orchestra to mid-sized chamber group and with expanding some of the arias to include more singers.
After the performances of Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem and Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor, we carried out group interviews with some of the participants. Gjertrud Pedersen led the group talks, which in total included ten students ranging from first-year Bachelor to second-year Master (five singers and five instrumentalists) and two teachers. The talks focused on dialogue between the participants, with two or three participants in each session.
The group talks were conducted both to collect information from the participants, and to facilitate verbal reflections in groups. By gathering participants in small groups, we got information that normally is not accessible for us. We believe that verbal reflections on musical and learning experiences can be fruitful both for our students and for ourselves, when considering further development of Symphonies Reframed.
We were curious to hear how the participants experienced playing in, and singing with, the tri-harmonic ensemble. We also wanted to hear their reflections on musical roles and learning perspectives. The reflections below illuminate some of the students’ perspectives from the different group talks. The students do not necessarily conform around one common conclusion.
Like the students we talked with after the project with Brahms’ Symphony No. 4, the instrumental students who participated in the two song-projects emphasized that the tri-harmonic ensemble encourages listening and chamber music interplay. Reducing an orchestral score to seven or nine musicians gives each musician comprehensive roles, combining the “punch” of the orchestra, as one of the students described it in a conversation afterwards, with a “soloistic attitude”. This student followed up with reflections on different modes of listening and performing in this chamber version versus a full orchestra:
It opens a new chamber music repertoire. It is fun playing this excellent music in small format. It becomes something else than doing the full version. It makes you very active, one hears the music very clearly, and even more I think, compared to being in an orchestra.
It is different to participate in our mid-sized instrumental group compared to an orchestra. Furthermore, there are differences between playing with similar instruments, like in a string quartet or wind quintet, compared to performing in mixed wind and string ensembles. Finally, there is a significant distinction between performing in a group consisting solely of instrumentalists, compared to performing together with singers. Several of the instrumentalists had no previous experience of collaborating with singers, and said that playing with singers had been particularly fruitful. After the project with Der Schauspieldirektor one of the instrumental students said:
“I’ve never played with singers before, and it was so interesting to follow them. I like this part when you just have to be really all ears.”
From the singers’ point of view, often surrounded by piano or other singers in their student life, they expressed enthusiasm for gaining experience of singing with strings and winds. They got the chance to hear different musical lines carried out by particular instruments, and also to experience communication with both individual musicians and the tri-harmonic ensemble as a whole. One of the singing students said:
You so much more become a musician. It can be a duet between you and the flute. (…) If all is played by the piano, you don’t pay attention [to the musical lines] in the same way.
A required supplement to being all ears relates to distinct speaking. One has to be all ears – and at the same time speak clearly. We would like to quote an excerpt from one dialogue between two instrumental students to shed light on the importance of the ensemble size when it comes to getting a hearing:
– That’s a good thing with chamber music; you can actually have a voice.
– That’s the best part, because then you get very nice ideas, like “wow, yeah”, I never thought about [it before], that’s the best part of it (…)
The quote above also shows an example on how the group talks could facilitate shared discourses for the students. In this way, the group talks became arenas for dialogue and verbal reflections both on the students’ experiences of the two concrete projects and on their own learning processes in general.
Through the two projects, our song and instrumental students ventured into deep water. They played solos, acted on stage in close interaction with fellow students and learned to combine arias and choir parts with choreography. For instance, "Lacrimosa" was performed with thoroughly prepared choreographic movements by the singers.
It is, of course, difficult for young voices to match a full orchestra, especially the soloists, but with only seven or nine musicians, it is possible for the singers to work with subtle details in their musical interpretation, both in the choir and as soloists. We will quote one of the song students, reflecting on the reframed version as an appropriate practice arena:
When we, in the future, hopefully get the opportunity to sing with a full orchestra, then the music will be familiar because we have performed a “baby-version”. We are at an early stage, but one has to start somewhere.
In this way, the tri-harmonic ensemble constitutes a significant step from singing solo with piano accompaniment and singing solo with a larger ensemble. The “baby-version” gives the students “inside experience” with musical works that are not normally accessible to them. One of the instrumental students made a similar statement:
I think at this age [it is rare] to be able to play this kind of music, because it is not really available for us, like unless we do an opera project or we were hired by orchestras. I think I have to wait for a while to be able to play this kind of music [in an orchestra].
Although the two quotes above come from different group talks, we find it relevant to compare them. It is interesting to notice that both singers and instrumentalists describe their own participation in the two projects as highly relevant for future development and professional life. Nevertheless, the two student groups have different perspectives and different needs, which became clear when we talked with the students on their experience with different musical and scenic roles.
The transition from full orchestra to mid-sized chamber group means that each instrumentalist has to handle several different roles. For example, the viola part can cover a full viola group, or second violin group – and also the viola can play soloistic parts that were originally scored for another instrument, like solo oboe or another wind instrument. One of the instrumentalists said: “It was nice to play all that stuff.”
Besides being nice, handling different roles also entails taking responsibility. The members of the tri-harmonic ensemble have to be aware of the features of different roles, as well as deciding how one will act and how it should sound. In this way, the tri-harmonic ensemble differs significantly from a full orchestra. Some of the instrumentalists were able to compare the tri-harmonic ensemble with an orchestra, based on comprehensive experience with various chamber and orchestral settings. As one student said: “We actually had more roles than we would normally have in an orchestra.”
The tri-harmonic ensemble is not the same as a small orchestra – it is something else. And this “else” encourages the musicians to develop ownership and be responsible. Several of the instrumentalists emphasized the importance of everyone taking an active part in the ensembles. One of the participating students said:
In such a small group everyone should feel really responsible. Because we have only one of each instrument, it is quite important that everyone is really into the music and trying to figure out what they want, how it should sound.
During the different projects, we noticed that some of the instrumentalists had a tendency towards striving for an orchestral sound, while others showed a more chamber musical attitude. Perhaps the auditory memory from the original version was stronger for instrumentalists who had previously experienced the original version as players or listeners? The tri-harmonic ensemble mixes elements that Jensen describes as both “intimate and still symphonic”. It is a challenge to find the balance between being true to the original and creating a sound quality which is characteristic for the tri-harmonic ensemble.
The presence or absence of a conductor also turned out to be crucial when it comes to the participants’ experiences of co-determination and non-hierarchical structures. On the one hand, we have the projects with Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 and Schumann’s Symphony No. 2, which were rehearsed and performed without conductor. On the other hand, we have the two song-projects with Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem and Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor, where some of the rehearsals were carried out with singers and instrumentalists separately, and where the conductor led all the tutti rehearsals at the end of the rehearsal period and of course led the performances.
During the two song-projects, we learned that singers and instrumentalists to some extent have different perspectives and needs. This was especially striking in Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor. In this process, the instrumentalists had focused on chamber music interplay in their rehearsals. The song students, on the other hand, had comprehensive rehearsals on both the music and the staging before they met the instrumentalists. To some extent, the song students created their own roles and characters; for example, the members of the “audition jury” made up their own spoken lines. Under supervision from professors, the singers also performed choreography during the choral parts, for instance “Scenda Amor” from Idomeneo, which was performed as a disco dance. When the instrumentalists and singers met at the tutti rehearsals, they were forced to pay attention to each other’s needs.
From the singers’ perspective, the expansion of “Ich bin die erste Sängerin” is an example of a situation that challenged their roles both as solo and as ensemble singers. As mentioned earlier, this trio was expanded from three to eight singers in our version, and sections originally scored for one singer were divided between several students. One of the students, who did not participate in the octet, said:
As an observer, I think the octet was the most successful in the whole performance. I listened to the original version afterwards, and I got quite disappointed over how boring it sounded in relation to the octet version.
In our talks after the performance, the song students emphasized that they found it challenging to link the different melodic lines in “Ich bin die erste Sängerin” together and at the same time act on stage, but they also underlined that they really enjoyed this way of working.
The conversations on Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem and Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor, gave the students the opportunity to share verbal reflections on musical praxis and learning experiences. We want to relate these processes of reflection to Gadamer’s term “play”. In his elaboration on the term, Gadamer emphasizes that the purpose of the play “is not really solving the task, but ordering and shaping the movement of the game itself” (Gadamer, 2003: 107). In this sense, our group talks on musical practice do not necessarily serve an exterior purpose. In the light of Gadamer’s thinking, the process of reflection and interpretation can be seen as the “play”.
There is a significant difference between reflections in real time compared to looking back and reflecting in retrospect. It is also a significant difference between performing music and putting things into words after a concert. We will quote one of the participants; trying to say something about this gap between knowing and saying: “I don’t know how I can explain (…) I have never thought about it (…) Or, I have thought about it, but not about how I can put it into words.”
Attitudes and perspectives shared with fellow students might grow, develop and change over time. Through the interviews that we carried out, it became clear that the students might perhaps share different viewpoints if they got the possibility to experience the project once more. One of the students said: “Maybe if I take this project and do it again, maybe I will look at that a bit differently.”
The two projects with singers differ in many ways from the other four projects we have carried out within the umbrella of Symphonies Reframed. Firstly, these two song-projects are significantly larger both in range and time frame compared to the other four projects. Secondly, the song-projects included a conductor, which meant abandoning the principle of the non-hierarchical structure of the ensemble setup. Last, but not least, the group talks gave fruitful contributions to our own perspectives on the features of Symphonies Reframed - as arenas for both artistic and educational practices.
The tri-harmonic septet model turned out to be a well-balanced format as an orchestral substitute in the Mozart operas. A natural next step would be to put it to the test in a symphony of the classical era. Since we already had experienced its independent artistic qualities during parts of the Mozart opera project, we chose to venture into concerto literature. A collaboration was initiated with a 4th-year Bachelor piano student. Our new transcription was to be performed at his exam, and in concerts preceding it.
Mozart’s piano concerto No. 20 in D minor has many symphonic qualities. The orchestra is applied as an independent and counterposing force in the dialogue with the soloist, not merely as an accompanying and imitating partner. The re-instrumentation of this work presented a new element to Symphonies Reframed. By keeping the original piano part, we had to rely on the remaining six instruments to carry the orchestral part. The piano could have been imagined as an ensemble instrument during the orchestra tuttis. This however, would intermix with the piano’s soloistic role in the piece, and was therefore abandoned. The remaining ensemble is best described as a “di-harmonic sextet”, composed of a wind trio and a string trio.
Flute, clarinet, bassoon, violin, viola and cello were chosen for the ensemble. In the original score, the clarinet is absent. It enters a Mozart piano concerto for the first time in No. 23. An oboe would present a closer kinship with the original sound of the concerto No. 20. A clarinet on the other hand offers a greater range overlap with the bassoon and a good ability to complement the string trio as a “fourth string player” when needed. The re-instrumentation process that followed was one of even greater challenges than in previous projects. Here, the aforementioned “domino effect” almost came to a halt due to the scarcity of available instrumental “bricks.”
The transcription was performed three times during spring 2017 by an ensemble of students from NMH, and again in September 2017 at Folgerø’s recital in Støren Church with an ensemble of professional musicians.
After having reframed a symphonic score for a di-harmonic ensemble setup, we wanted to explore this new territory further. After all, the sum of all parts in our Mozart concerto remained a tri-harmonic septet. How would a di-harmonic ensemble act if the piano were abandoned entirely? Might reframing even involve re-instrumenting an original piano part for winds and strings?
Our latest step (by 2018), Brahms’ Clarinet Sonata No.1 (op. 120), deals with expanding. Originally being a duo for clarinet and piano, we now chose to reframe the work for a di-harmonic octet. In the original, the clarinet part intermixes with a thematically rich and polyphonic piano part. It could therefore remain unchanged, whereas the piano part became the object for transcription. To complete the octet, three wind players and four string players were chosen: flute, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello and double bass. Associate professor Fredrik Fors played the clarinet part. The remaining parts were played by two professors and five students. A concert was given at the “Chamber Music Week” at NMH in November 2017.
This new approach changed the nature of the transcription process significantly, and deviated from the previous exercises in re-instrumenting orchestral scores. Only a few sections of the original piano part could be transferred directly into string or wind writing, and still remain idiomatically appropriate for the new instruments. However, the polyphonic and rich thematic nature of the piece provided an inspiring starting point for the task. Some piano-specific parts had to be changed quite considerably in order to fit the new instrumentation. It was decided to arrange a preliminary rehearsal ahead of the project week in order to test the material and still have time for revision. This turned out to be a very useful strategy.
The preliminary rehearsal also allowed every musician to get accustomed to this novel approach to the work. Different ways of positioning the ensemble were also discussed. The original sonata, offers an intrinsic sound distinction between the two instruments. In the transcription, on the other hand, the clarinet part blends in with the other winds to a large degree. In our production, we chose to position the clarinet in front as a soloist, with the remaining septet as an accompanying semi-circle. This underscored the separation of roles between the two bodies. Another approach could have been to let the clarinet join the others, with a resulting octet of equal parts. The artistic and performative impact of such a strategy remains an open question for future inquiry.
Symphonies Reframed has explored different ways of reframing both orchestral and chamber music works. With Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 and Schumann’s Symphony No. 2, the works were transformed from a full symphonic orchestra to a nonet with four wind players, four string players and a piano. The same transformation was applied in Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem; the orchestral score was reframed – the original choir-parts remained unchanged. A step further was taken with Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor. Here the orchestra score was reframed as a tri-harmonic septet with three strings, three winds and a piano. Additionally, some arias were expanded to include more singers. In Mozart’s singspiel the staging also played a significant role in the performance. Both Ein deutsches Requiem and Der Schauspieldirektor demanded a conductor, which challenged the non-hierarchical structure we had in the preceding projects. In Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20, we came back to our basis ensemble without a conductor. The orchestral score was reduced to six musicians – keeping the original piano part. This introduced an adjustment of the original trihamonic ensemble to become a di-harmonic ensemble. All these processes involved reducing the original score from full orchestra to chamber format. Most recently, Symphonies Reframed produced an expansion of Brahms’ Clarinet sonata No. 1, Op. 120, for di-harmonic octet.
Symphonies Reframed has evolved since its inception. From its origin with symphonic reductions for tri-harmonic ensemble, it has grown to involve transformations of more original forms: opera, requiem, concerto and sonata.
After ten performances of six works over the course of four years, we have experienced the emergence of some interesting artistic features. Some may have been specific to a single performance at a particular stage of the development of the project. The combination of personalities in the ensemble and the maturity level of the project are both variables that have changed over time. Some features however, have been present throughout the course of the project. We believe these features are intrinsic to the interaction occurring in mid-sized chamber groups:
Transparency: As expected when being only a fraction of the size of a full orchestra, the weightiness and momentum of the orchestral sound is not obtainable. What appears in its place is a captivating clarity and the ability for the listener to keep track of complex musical details. This quality is held in high regard in original chamber music. For the symphonic literature, it represents a rare dimension, which seems to open a new perspective and impression for performers and listeners alike.
Expressiveness: The harmonious blend of the orchestra’s big string sections allows for a relaxed, warm and effortless sound quality. Transferred to a chamber ensemble, one might experience a more insisting and expressive sound. Contributing in a string group is akin to being “one hair in the painting brush.” The technique which is used to blend in with a large group is not applicable when carrying one part alone. This asks for a different shaping of the sound, which we perceive as more expressive.
Intimacy: All neighbouring parts in our ensemble contribute with different parts to the whole picture, whereas the different sections of an orchestra may be situated quite far apart. Chamber music asks for intimate interaction at many levels - in the awareness of the parts of others, in developing a uniform interpretation without the aid of a conductor, and in projecting the performance out to the audience. Performances at smaller venues allow for the audience to feel the energy of every single musician as well as of the ensemble as a whole.
Ownership: In chamber music it is both a possibility and a necessity to express one’s own opinions and contribute responsibly to the interpretation as a whole. This may pose a challenge when opposing opinions and personalities are working together. If such challenges are overcome, one shared interpretation may emerge, for which the musicians feel an increased level of ownership.
Leadership: The roles of the musicians are affected if a conductor enters the picture. By granting authority to one leader, instead of sharing it between many, some of the challenges when working as a non-hierarchical chamber group went away. However, one lost the possibility to test various interpretational suggestions, and the exercise became more focused toward fulfilling the interpretation of the conductor.
Educational value: Our productions have offered students an arena in which to work in close cooperation with professionals in a non-hierarchical manner. The musicians have experienced being in the realms of solo performance, chamber music collaboration and collective orchestral endeavour, all at once. This has challenged their imagination of how canonical works of classical music ought to sound and opened for new learning perspectives. Our transcriptions provide a small-scale arena for developing skills and insight into symphonic literature, and they provides a chamber music context in which orchestral audition excerpts may be practised.
(SF’s OVERVIEW-FIGURE HERE)
|Composer:||Work:||Process:||Ensemble form:||Unchanged original parts:||Time of performance:|
|Brahms||Symphony No. 4||Reduction||Tri-harmonic nonet||*||Nov 2014 & March 2015|
|Schumann||Symphony No. 2 (incomplete)||Reduction||Tri-harmonic nonet||*||Nov 2015|
|Brahms||A German Requiem||Reduction||Tri-harmonic nonet +voices||Choir, solo parts||March 2016|
|Mozart||«The impresario» & opera excerpts||Reduction||Tri-harmonic septet +voices||Choir, ensembles and solo arias||March 2017|
|Mozart||Piano Concerto No. 20||Reduction||Tri-harmonic septet**||Solo piano part||May, June & Sept 2017|
|Brahms||Sonata in F minor Op. 120||Expansion||Di-harmonic octet||Clarinet part||Nov 2017|
*Some segments are unchanged, amongst others soli which are relevant
for orchestra auditions.
**Di-harmonic sextet + original piano part.
Our transcriptions, although traditional in their treatment of the original piece, apply a free handling of the original parts. They draw inspiration from the idiomatic nature of original contemporaneous chamber music, rather than the particular scoring of the works they recreate. The development of the tri-harmonic ensemble was inspired by three chamber ensemble models from the early 19^th^ century: The Beethoven Septet, the Schubert Octet and the Spohr Nonet. During the course of our project, some lesser known original chamber music works came to our attention:
J. N. Hummel wrote two septets:
No. 1 in D minor, Op. 74 (1816) for flute, oboe, horn, viola, cello, double bass and piano.
No. 2 in C Major, Op. 114 (1829) for flute, clarinet, trumpet, violin, viola, double bass and piano.
From Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s hand, we found a unique example:
Nonet in F minor, Op. 2 (1894) for oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello, double bass and piano – the exact instrument combination which we first applied in Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 and, later, in Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem.
It was a joyful surprise to discover these marvellous works of chamber music which exactly mirror our independently developed tri-harmonic ensemble.
Gadamer, H.-G. (2003). Truth and method (2 Ed.). New York: Continuum.
Morgan, D. L. (1997). Focus Groups as Qualitative Research (2 Ed.). Thousand Oaks, California: Sage.
Parks, R. S. (1999). A Viennese Arrangement of Debussy’s ‘Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune’: Orchestration and Musical Structure. Music & Letters, Vol. 80, No. 1, Oxford University Press, pp. 50-73.
Schoenberg, A. (1975). The Modern Piano Reduction. In Leonard Stein (Ed.) Style and Idea: Selected writings. London: Faber & Faber, pp 348-350.
Schön, D. A. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals think in Action. Aldershot: Ashgate.
In this text “transcription” is used in the context of music: A faithful rewriting/adaptation of a piece of music for other instruments than for which it was originally intended. ↩︎
The phonograph was invented by Thomas A. Edison in 1877. The technology for audio recordings and reproduction became widespread at a much later point. ↩︎
J. P. Salomon, Haydn’s impresario and colleague in London, arranged 12 of Haydn’s symphonies for chamber ensembles (piano quintet + flute). J. N. Hummel offered similar treatment (for piano trio + flute) to many of Mozart’s and Beethoven’s orchestral works. ↩︎
Examples: Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 – 12 instruments + voice; Lieder eines fahrenen Gesellen – 9 instruments + voice; Lied von der Erde – 15 instruments + voices; Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 – 9 instruments; Debussy’s Prélude à l’après midi d’une faune – 10 instruments. ↩︎
For more on the dialogues between Schoenberg and his pupils, see Parks (1999). ↩︎
It is interesting to notice that although Schoenberg conducted and supervised several reductions of major orchestral works, he underlines that a piano reduction never can compensate for the sound of an orchestra. In his essay “The Modern Piano Reduction” from 1923 he states: “A piano reduction comes into being, not like a work of art – from unknown causes, but like a useful object – for known reasons, for a particular purpose” (Schoenberg, 1975: 348). Further he compares the piano reduction with viewing a sculpture from just “one viewpoint” (Schoenberg, 1975: 349). ↩︎
Bjarne Magnus Jensen is university lecturer in violin at NMH. Jensen has participated in the projects with Brahms’ Symphony No. 4, Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 and Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem. ↩︎
Instrument lineup: oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello, double bass and piano. The teachers were Bjarne Magnus Jensen and Sigstein Folgerø. ↩︎
Sigstein Folgerø reframed Mozart’s orchestra score to septet, Ståle Ytterli and Nina Harte (staging) supervised the production. Tone Bianca Sparre Dahl and Lars Notto Birkeland worked with the choir during the rehearsing period. The performance was led by the conductor Per Borin. ↩︎
Amongst others, “The three ladies” from The Magic Flute and choir parts “Lacrimosa” from Requiem, “Placido è il mar”, “Qual nuovo terrore”, “Oh voto tremendo!”, “Scenda amor” from Idomeneo and “Che del ciel” from La Clemenza di Tito. ↩︎
In total we carried out five interviews, which took place at the following dates: 13.6.2016, 31.3.2017, 6.4.2017 and 28.4.2017. The interview study is notified to the Data Protection Official for Research, NSD - Norwegian Centre for Research Data. The students’ utterances are made anonymous. ↩︎
One might call these group talks “focus group interview” in accordance with David L. Morgan’s definition. He defines focus group interview as “a research technique that collects data through group interaction on a topic determined by the researcher” (Morgan, 1997: 6). The researcher, in our case Gjertrud Pedersen, acted as a moderator for the dialogue more than a questioner. ↩︎
Donald A. Schön (1983) has described this as “reflections in action” compared to “reflection on action”. Although Schön did not write specifically about musical praxis, we find his writing from the early eighties relevant for our work with critical reflection on musical praxis and learning perspectives. ↩︎
The overture to Der Schauspieldirektor and the introduction to “Cual nuovo terrore” from Idomeneo are instrumental tutti parts, with no voices taking part. ↩︎
J. N. Hummel’s version of this concerto for piano, flute, violin and cello utilizes the piano extensively in the orchestra tuttis. ↩︎
The soloist may still join the tuttis ad libitum, which was common practise at Mozart’s time. ↩︎