Bass Blog

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

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Number 9…

Ein Heldenleben, undoubtedly a masterpiece, nevertheless rubs me the wrong way. I know as a (working) bassist I’m supposed to like it, love it even, since it is chock full of popular audition passages, but I can’t get past the things I don’t like about the piece, its gigantism, all that bombast, to name a couple. Not my cup of tea, as they say. I wonder if any hero ever dared to play softly? Anyhow, when the option to take those concerts off presented itself, the choice seemed obvious.

As mentioned, Heldenleben contains more double bass audition passages per page than almost any other piece in the literature. The passage at (rehearsal) number nine has probably ruined more dreams of an orchestral career than any other.

Sometimes you might see a few gummy old bass players, veterans of auditions long past huddled toward the back of the bar. Over a stale pint or two they recount in hushed reverent tones disastrous failures, successes won at terrible cost. Their Ypres, Verdun, The Marne, unknown beyond their circle, sound strange in our ears; Number 9, the Battle Scene, 49, 77. “Nine measures after number 15, there I stood, alone, without a mute…”

So friends, next time you go to a performance of Ein Heldenleben, cast a sympathetic eye towards the bass section. Number 9 comes up only a few minutes into the piece – top of the second page. Then you will see the page turned, a deep breath taken, perhaps an eye rolled heavenward in memory of a colleague who didn’t make it. And as they begin to play, without doubt, you think to yourself – what a delightful passage for the horn.


seer said...

Yes, in my own evolution to stage 4 a major factor was the hundreds in not thousands of hours spent on passages destined to be obliterated by brass instruments in performance. :)

During a recent concert of lighter material, still being covered by said brass, I thought to myself, "Why did I even learn to play off the string?"

Brad said...

Oh, this should be no problem for the great bass players of the ¢$Ø.

MK said...

Strauss originally wrote a soft, non-bombastic ending for Heldenleben, but was encouraged to revise it for the sake of the version that is commonly played now. You might be interested to know that the guest conductor, who is directing the un-nameable midwestern orchestra this week, recently recorded with his band a very fine account of that original version with the non-bombastic ending.

Geo. said...

Wolfgang Sawallisch also recorded his Philly version of Ein Heldenleben with the original quiet ending (Amazon link here). We get performances of Ein Heldenleben in March.

nocynic said...

For all the bombast, the final gesture is a soft chord in the winds. It is always a bit of a problem programming Strauss tone poems at the end of a concert--except for "Till Eulenspiegel", they all end soft, and the orchestra doesn't get the rousing send-off that we all crave. They are all more-or-less biographies, and in the interest of Teutonic completeness they all end with the protagonist's death.

eric said...

As an audience member, I've always found the best part about Ein Heldenleben (when visiting that big orchestra in the big city I'm from) is that it allows me to leisurely walk to the train station without having to fight through the post-concert anarchy on the platforms.

Unfortunately I've seen crowds running towards the train after EH was performed - much in the way a mass exodus occurs when the dangers of a natural gas leak or terrible underground flood occur.

...actually, they're probably rushing to get home and re-visit this passage in one of their favorite recordings of said orchestra doing it (how many do y'all have 20 EH's recorded?)