Bass Blog

Michael Hovnanian formerly played bass with an orchestra located in a large midwestern city.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Some Lame Notes

The Trout Quintet bass part isn’t the most challenging thing ever written for double bass. The passage I always need to look at is the d minor variation. The ‘A’ major arpeggio has always posed a bit of a challenge. It is never nice to play that note out of tune or to end the phrase with an awful squawk.

Over the years I have often been obsessed with arpeggios and their fingerings – I have an unfinished book on the subject buried beneath piles of other projects that will probably never be completed either. Anyhow, here are a few different fingerings for that arpeggio.

And here are the fingerings for the variation I used at the concert on Sunday.

The astute observer might have noticed that an obvious fingering choice was not presented. Namely:

or any other of that ilk, meaning those using the ‘A’ harmonic on the ‘D’ string.

And so I come to the secret (perhaps diabolical) reason for this post. I have always had disdain for the ‘A’ harmonic substituting for the closed note. To me it usually comes across as some sort of copout – the crutch used to prop up an inadequate technique.

The Trout Quintet doesn’t come up very often, so the aforementioned harmonic isn’t on my list of the worst offenders. Here are a couple:

Strauss, Ein Heldenleben, #9

where the dulcet, flutelike tone of the harmonic in the middle of the line sounds out of place, dare I say even a bit comic.

Bach, Bouree from the 3rd cello suite (in the G major edition)

where similarly, the apex of the phrase suddenly changes color, demonstrating the player lacks the technique (or courage) to reach the high note.

I know my views are probably in the extreme. Perhaps my dedication to arpeggios makes me unduly biased against this one note, but there you have it. And now I brace myself for the slings and arrows of the harmonic apologists.


Anonymous said...

I love harmonics. I refuse to play anything but harmonics. The only problem with harmonics is they're always high notes. I don't care for high notes. If you need ledger lines above the bass clef (contra) staff to write a note, it's hardly worth playing in my book. Do you have any advice for a hardworking, opinionated guy such as myself?

Anonymous said...

I whole heartedly agree!! I think harmonics totally change the tone, color and focus of the sound. Harmonics sound best when they are in a proper "harmonic"s passage (Hindemith for example) but when placed alongside normal timbre they always fall short in the musical line.

Anonymous said...

In the case of #9, I guess I'd rather have a harmonic slightly change the color of a very short note in the middle of a passage than have it be out of tune... in the trout example it seems like a totally different context, the note being the end of the phrase. On the other hand, depending on how you shape that arpeggio the harmonic could sound really good as the last note. I don't really think I'm an appologist for harmonics, but it seems a little odd not to use tools at our disposal when they're appropriate.

Matt Heller said...

I notice the Oscar Zimmerman books seem especially liberal with trick harmonic fingerings. An example is in the 3rd movement of Schubert 9, letter B. I wonder what people think of that use of the 'dulcet' A harmonic.

Perhaps it's best to put the harmonic question to non-bass players, since we're so accustomed to them. As Brian wrote, certain contexts seem less offensive, to my bass-addled ears anyway.

Anonymous said...

I haven’t looked closely at the Zimmermann fingerings in a long while. My recollection is that they are often practical more than musical. Standards have changed a lot since those books were published.

I’m all for harmonics where ‘appropriate’ but the examples I cited – particularly Heldenleben – are instances where I don’t think that is so. If somebody looks at that passage and decides the last note of the 3rd bar would sound great as a harmonic – well, then that is their musical judgment. That is the highest point of the main motive (or two bar cell – whatever you want to call it) of the piece, not just some random note in the middle of something. That’s my view anyhow.

What I see more often is the harmonic used to avoid playing the closed ‘A’ out of tune. Two and then four bars later you have to play the high ‘C’s closed anyway – so why not make the fingering consistent?

I have heard a lot of players play those closed ‘A’ in tune. If I’m listening to an audition I would prefer the in tune closed note to the in tune harmonic. Maybe it is my suspicious nature, but when I hear the harmonic I’m always wondering if it is covering for the fact that the player can’t play the closed note in tune and is making (for me) a is dubious musical choice for technical reasons.

Anonymous said...

Why doesn't anyone ever debate the harmonic 'G' that is always played in the first bar of heldenleben #9?

I agree completely with this post, by the way. Just wondering.

bcarter said...

without citing any obvious etudes or methods and relying on common musical knowledge i think all of these replies, mine included, agree that there has to be a purpose for a harmonic, any less is, i think, immature.

playing with purpose is an important thing to remember. one should not substitute technical deficiencies with convenient novelty. playing the Bach cello suite #2 off of the Madelena transcript one might phrase things more rubato than normal to make bow changes, but one must not succumb to such novelty... similar in the use of harmonics.

another example, playing with rabbath technique and petracchi and higher level technique is not taking benefit in the solid foundations of simandl.

i fight my university teacher with this subject. she is an avid rabbath disciple and uses it, i think, in impractical places where something might be more aapropriate for the musical setting. i'm not saying rabbath method isn't useful... but i'm saying it is useful in some instances and not in others where other methods are more appropriate... just like harmonics. we should first follow what the music dictates and then make the mature decision to use such things as harmonics.

we should not do something just to make things easier... that is why we practice.

bcarter said...

novelty and laziness is no substitute for solid mature bass playing. harmonics have their place where specifically intended, but, i think, should very rarely be used elsewhere because they are such specific note colors.