The Harpsichord in Symphonies

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The Harpsichord in Symphonies

Postby Dog Sniper » Tue Mar 20, 2007 2:20 am

Can someone with knowledge enlighten me as to the meaning of the part labeled Violoncello e Basso (Cembalo) in the scores of classical period symphonies? I understand Cembalo translates to "harpsichord". Parts labeled as mentioned appear, for example, in the following score of a classical era symphony (W.A. Mozart, Symphony No. 1, KV 16):

Image

Does this mean that the part is for cellos, double basses, and a harpsichord all at once?

There is also footnote, as you can see above, but I can't read it, as it's in German: **) Fagott ad libitum; hierzu sowie zur Mitzwirkung des Cembalo vgl. Vorwort.

Something about being able to add a bassoon to the orchestra to supplement the harpsichord, at one's discretion?

Thanks for your time. As you can undoubtedly tell, I have very little musical knowledge - please excuse me.

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Re: The Harpsichord in Symphonies

Postby imslp » Tue Mar 20, 2007 3:31 am

Dog Sniper wrote:Does this mean that the part is for cellos, double basses, and a harpsichord all at once?

There is also footnote, as you can see above, but I can't read it, as it's in German: **) Fagott ad libitum; hierzu sowie zur Mitzwirkung des Cembalo vgl. Vorwort.

Something about being able to add a bassoon to the orchestra to supplement the harpsichord, at one's discretion?

Thanks for your time. As you can undoubtedly tell, I have very little musical knowledge - please excuse me.


Other people feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that back in Mozart's time (especially the early years), it is rather common for this kind of freedom to be given to the performers, especially with the bass part. I don't think it is so much requesting that all three instruments play at once as much as just a normal "habit" that is written down; the same thing happens with bass parts in many many other pieces at that time (I think this happens with Bach's too).

I'm not perfectly certain about the performance practice of that time (whether all three instruments must be played), but I'm sure on the fact that performing was much less strict in adhering to the composers intentions, and I can see how performers back then would have dropped the harpsichord or bass if they didn't have one. Unlike the later Romantic styles where the composer reigns supreme, back in the early Mozart years composer had to compose for the performers; and the performers reigned supreme. Only with the advent of Romanticism and Wagnerian ideals did the composer "triumph" over performers, and we get the current musical atmosphere where the performer follows the composer and not the other way around.

Hope this helps! And if other people know the performance practice of the 18th century better, please correct me!

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Postby Yagan Kiely » Tue Mar 20, 2007 12:14 pm

(whether all three instruments must be played)

There must be at least cello and BC. Contrabass I believe is optional.

It is customary in late rococo to early classical to have a bc part.

[q]Only with the advent of Romanticism and Wagnerian ideals did the composer "triumph" over performers,[/q]Not entirely true, Haydn had complete control over the performers.

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Postby imslp » Tue Mar 20, 2007 5:39 pm

Not entirely true, Haydn had complete control over the performers.


Haydn was a completely different animal ;) I was thinking about the fact that Mozart had to rewrite arias that some prima donna didn't like (in his early years).

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Postby goldberg988 » Tue Mar 20, 2007 8:14 pm

I recall learning that Haydn played keyboard continuo during performances of his symphonies at Esterhazy. I think it was common practice at the beginning of the classical period to have a continuo part played on harpsichord with any symphony, although it soon became optional. In modern performances of later symphonies of Mozart and Haydn harpsichord is usually left out, although it is probable that some performances from the era did include it.

I seem to even recall that a harpsichord was used in an early Beethoven symphony performance.

As concerns the bassoon, it was common to have one also playing the continuo part (which explains the german footnote). I also think that contrabass is very necessary to the sound of the continuo part, and definitely a requirement.

So, it is possible to have cellos, contrabasses, bassoon(s), and keyboard continuo all together playing that part.

Keep in mind this is the 8 year old Mozart, and he's writing a 'symphony' that looks very much influenced by Sammartini, who ALWAYS used harpsichord in his symphonies.

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Postby pml » Wed Mar 21, 2007 6:58 am

Violoncello e Bassi , or just Bassi by itself, usually implies the inclusion of all of the instruments in the ensemble that have not been given obbligato parts, but also, generally speaking, implies the exclusion of instruments that would play in a higher octave species than the violoncello (or cembalo's left-hand bass). So Mozart wrote out just six staves: his orchestra equipped with a pair of oboes might well have included a bassoon also, so with nothing else to do the bassonist would play along with the string basses. On the other hand if this hypothetical orchestra included flutes, we wouldn't expect them to double the bass part in a higher octave!

For some of the early divertimenti and serenades Mozart wrote, it's well known that in Salzburg the standard string trio arrangement was for two violins and double bass, not cello: so in certain works Bassi excludes doubling at the higher octave. One also sees this in the early liturgical works for Salzburg which often lack a viola part, and strings are assumed to be violins and double bass. (In the organ world this would be described as sounding at sixteen foot pitch, rather than eight foot pitch.)

In the larger works this principle often applies; in choral works there was a tradition of reinforcing the alto, tenor, and bass sections of the choir with an æquali of alto, tenor, and bass trombones, which occasionally are given obbligato parts; otherwise they may be assumed to be doubling the respective choral part at the unison. Robert Levin's list of the piano concertos normally assumes bassoons ad libitum in the absence of obbligati parts, and occasionally modern performers of these concertos play along with the tutti in the style of a continuo player.

One dead give-away of continuo participation would be if Mozart had figured the bass part, explicitly implying a keyboard accompaniment of some kind (whether cembalo, fortepiano, or organ as in the liturgical works) with the figures indicating the nature of the harmonic accompaniment. The other possible indication "tasto solo" again would indicate a keyboard instrument being played, since this instruction usually requires that player not to add any harmony above the given instrumental line.

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Postby Yagan Kiely » Thu Mar 22, 2007 12:17 pm

[q]In modern performances of later symphonies of Mozart and Haydn harpsichord is usually left out, although it is probable that some performances from the era did include it. [/q]I very much doubt symphony 40 or the military symphony had harpsichord, I also doubt with Beethoven, for it would not suit the context, general dynamics or atmosphere of the piece.

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Postby goldberg988 » Thu Mar 22, 2007 3:28 pm

From Grove's dictionary:

"...but composers at London concerts about 1790–1800 directed from the piano, playing from the bass throughout, as Haydn is reported to have done in his London symphonies."

As we said earlier, in this era there wasn't much attention given to what the composer wanted. If some ambitious keyboard player got his hands on a copy of the bass part of Mozart's 40th he might just realize the part at the keyboard. I'm not saying it was the rule, but it more than likely did happen.

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My thanks

Postby Dog Sniper » Fri Mar 23, 2007 3:22 am

Thank you all for conferring your knowledge on this. :)

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Postby kongming819 » Thu Mar 29, 2007 7:36 pm

Wouldn't the combination of VC, CB, and harpsichord be the basso continuo of the baroque and early classical period?
I have seen a couple of live orchestral (in the Baroque sense of the term) Bach performed by the Jacksonville Symphony and I noticed all three (hint 1) onstage. Then my violin teacher told me about the use of basso continuo using those instruments, where they would essentially play the same things, adding a sort of a bottom/bass/rhythmic (?) support.

BUT!!!!! I'm not sure in any of this...not really an expert in early orchestral music. :wink:

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Postby pml » Fri Mar 30, 2007 12:50 am

Wouldn't the combination of VC, CB, and harpsichord be the basso continuo of the baroque and early classical period?


The classical approach evolved from the Baroque, so its the same idea, but by the time of Haydn and Mozart the keyboard used in various orchestras might have been an early fortepiano, cembalo or other type of keyboard; tradition not standing still, likewise some orchestras may have eschewed keyboard support from a comparatively early date. I'd guess the use of harpsichord in Haydn symphonies is predicated on that being the instrument he himself used at Eisenstadt and Esterháza; elsewhere e.g. Paris and London on his later concert tours he still conducted from the keyboard though this was becoming the exception rather than the rule.
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Postby Yagan Kiely » Sun Apr 01, 2007 5:27 am

I just heard a performance of Mozart's 41st with Harpsichord.

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Postby Yagan Kiely » Sun Apr 15, 2007 3:55 am

Quote from Norton anthology of western music:

"It includes a harpsichord playing the basso continuo, still used at the time in England (though not in Haydn's orchestra in Esterháza) but omitted in most modern performances."

So, Haydn's English Symphonies do contain harpsichord, but his Esterháza symphonies do not.

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Re: The Harpsichord in Symphonies

Postby sbeckmesser » Wed Sep 23, 2009 5:45 am

For me, the preferred keyboard continuo instrument of the Classical period, if one is to be used at all, would be a fortepiano. As much as I love the harpsichord (I even own one, in dilapidated condition) I find its sonority irritating in the context of Classical symphonic works and even historically inappropriate in late Haydn, Mozart and early Beethoven (early, thinly scored Haydn and Mozart, as in the initial quoted example above, is another story). In fact, the latest thinking on Haydn and Mozart performance practice, is that while a keyboard may have been present (to accompany the arias and other concertante works that were usually intermixed with symphonic movements during concerts) it may not have been played during the purely symphonic pieces. Hogwood's truncated recorded Haydn-symphony cycle often omits a keyboard. Besides, once you get a symphony orchestra together, you don't need a continuo instrument to obtain complete 4-part harmony including 7th chords (unlike, say a Baroque trio sonata) and even in a smallish orchestra (say, 20 strings), any continuo keyboard instrument is very difficult to hear if the band is playing anything above a mezzo-forte (I speak from experience here). The Baroque keep-the-ensemble-together function of the continuo instrument fell, therefore, to a person giving gestural cues. This could be a "conductor" seated at the keyboard but not playing it or standing apart from it as a modern conductor. Often the concertmaster gave cues with glances or gestures. This can work effectively, as the recordings by the conductorless Orpheus chamber orchestra show. Musicologists Neal Zaslaw and John Spitzer, writing in The Birth of the Orchestra, cite comment by one Rellstab that by 1789 "many German theater orchestras had abandoned the harpsichord: some of them had replaced it with the piano; others used no keyboard instrument at all."

Many recordings, such as Norrington's recent series of Mozart symphonies on Hanssler, include a harpsichord in an attempt pay lip service to "authenticity." But these are almost always overmiked and sound much louder and prominent in the recording than is ever possible to hear from even a relatively close seat in a concert hall. And if an instrument has to be boosted by the engineers in order to be heard clearly on a recording, that's a sure sign that in a more sonically faithful reproduction it would be inaudible -- and superfluous. Haydn had no microphones at the Esterhazy Palace.

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Re: The Harpsichord in Symphonies

Postby Philidor » Wed Sep 23, 2009 8:18 am

Entirely normal to have a harpsichord or fortepiano filling in the harmony in classical symphonies. It's one reason some modern performances of Mozart and Haydn sound so odd: they omit the keyboard and sparsely orchestrated passages sound bare and incomplete. The practice fell out of favour with the rise of the conductor. He slowly usurped the role of the concert master - the first violin - and the keyboard player.

Add to that the increasing complexity of the symphonic form - both in terms of the forces required and the size of the scores - and it became necessary for practical reasons to have a single, dedicated, non-performing 'leader' to keep the show on the road. But for smaller scale Mozart and Haydn symphonies a conductor simply isn't needed. Everything can be done spontaneously by the players, with the occasional nudge from the concert master and keyboard player.


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