Following on from last week’s post on slurs and short phrases in the Baroque and Classical periods, I thought I would look at some other examples from Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin and Ravel and try to distinguish a bit between those phrase marks that show the grammar of the music (those places where the commas and full stops go, indicating where the music breathes) and those that show the articulation.
Phrase marks in Baroque and Classical period music tend to be shorter, and usually indicate articulation. Whether we make an audible separation at the end of a slur or short phrase, or whether we simply play the start of the phrase stronger and then lighten as we move towards the end of the phrase depends on context. It is not possible to make a hard and fast rule, but we do need to consider these markings – we cannot just ignore them.
Needless to say, a reliable Urtext edition is absolutely essential. I was working with someone today on the Appassionata Sonata of Beethoven, who was using the old ABRSM Craxton-Tovey edition. While it has many excellent qualities, this edition contains numerous errors when it comes to slurs – including a whopping great phrase mark over the whole of the first four-bar phrase when Beethoven’s autograph clearly shows a break. We need to consider how we are going to realise Beethoven’s intentions here, evidently not a long seamless legato line as the Tovey edition suggests. But not a gap either – we might best realise this by giving a slight stress or placement of the first beat of the new phrase.
In Romantic music we often find long phrase marks that indicate not only a prevailing legato approach but also the long line – a sense of unity and forwards sweep. In Chopin’s music we find examples both of this long line, and shorter phrases. There is a long phrase that extends from the first bar of the Prelude in D right up to the end in one unbroken arch (except for the final cadence). Here is as much of it as I can comfortably fit on the page:
The slurs in the Moderato section of the G minor Ballade, for example, tell us that the first note of the slur (the stem-up dotted minim) is stronger and the second note softer and lighter. Even though the slur goes from a weak to strong beat the metrical hierarchy is trumped by the slur, which we play strong to weak.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ce8p0VcTbuA
In this example from the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in C minor, op 10 no 1, we need to take great care to make sense of the articulation markings – both those that are given and those that are implied. The crotchet upbeat from bar 3 to bar 4 is going to be detached even though this is not explicitly marked. Why? Because it is a light upbeat in a fast tempo. We will need to make sure we don’t pedal across the bar line from bar 4 to 5, but make the tiniest of separations before the downbeat f chord (the first event of the next four-bar phrase). Notice that bars 9-10 and bars 10-11 are two-bar phrases connected by a longer phrase mark. The fun starts in the next phrase (from bar 13) where Beethoven has taken great pains to indicate a different articulation for the RH (syncopated slurs over the bar line) from the LH (connected). We first organise this phrase without the pedal, aiming for as legato a fingering in the LH as possible (using finger substitutions and the technique of chord legato as necessary) while insisting on clarity of articulation in the RH slurs. Thereafter, whatever pedal we decide on will not cover over the staccatos or we’ll ruin the effect (a kind of argument between the hands that’s not supposed to sound comfortable).
In the hands of classically-minded players these articulations will be crystal clear and precise to the ear; those of more romantic temperament might show the spirit of Beethoven’s markings without being quite so literal (perhaps covering them with pedal). Notice how meticulously András Schiff attends to all the details in this lecture-demonstration (worth listening all the way through, by the way).https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E5_FL5LLU7E
Moving on to music from the Romantic era, but still rooted in Classical traditions, the Intermezzo in A, op 118 no 2 by Brahms is littered with two-note slurs in both the melodic line and the lower parts. It is very obvious that a literal separation would be ludicrous – thankfully I’ve never heard anyone attempt to do this. How would you play this music differently if it had a long legato phrase mark over the whole of the first phrase? What difference do you feel the slurs make to the way the music moves, to its accentuation? With them there is a sense of throbbing, of marking the beats. The slurs affect the gait of the music (tee-ya-dah, tee-ya-DAH, and so on).
Before we leave Brahms, check out the phrasing in the Intermezzo in C# minor, op 117 no 3. We find both short phrase marks of the articulation/inflection type and the longer grammatical ones present together.
If you haven’t seen the YouTube clips of the great French pianist Yvonne Lefébure then I can highly recommend them for her energy, enthusiasm and passion. Mme. Lefébure was a formidable presence as a teacher and, as someone who knew Ravel personally and played for him, somewhat of an authority on his music. What she has to say about the legato marks at the beginning of Jeux d’eau will fascinate you. Apparently they are not indicating touch at all, which should be non legato according to Lefébure. She describes a meeting with Ravel who was delighted she had found the right non legato sound, and told her to pass on the tradition.
In this video, there is a masterclass on the work in which she demonstrates the non legato touch. Towards the end, there is an interview in which she mentions it again. When I listened to a couple of other masterclasses on this piece on YouTube, I discovered the teacher was assuming a legato and working with the student to this end. If only composers could get this phrase mark thing right so it could be universally understood!