In spite of the difficulties presented by the orchestration, in the end – if you work at it – it does work!
“At the performance I spoke with the audience from podium before we started to play, and one of the things I said was that it was very likely that none of the audience had ever heard the work before. It’s not widely known within orchestral circles that Joachim’s orchestration of Schubert’s Grand Duo piano duet exists. The work is not published in a set with the other symphonies and it’s quite a challenge just to locate the parts. So I think this difficulty in finding the parts has something to do with why the piece isn’t often played.
Another reason is that the orchestration, as we discovered, is frankly rather strange! It’s fascinating, but it’s not really like a Schubert symphony – because of the way it’s orchestrated.
Schubert wrote this large scale piano duet (four movements, forty minutes long) in 1824 for two pupils at a time when he was not able to play because he was ill. After Schubert died, Schumann thought that this piano duet was either a reduction, or sketches for ‘the lost symphony’ and encouraged Joachim, who was only 24 at the time and already a very famous violinist and part time composer, to orchestrate it. Schumann wanted Joachim to reconstruct this Schubert symphony that had apparently been lost. So in 1855, thirty-one years after the duet was written, that’s what Joachim did.
I don’t know what Schumann thought of the result. Certainly it’s not orchestrated in the way Schubert would have done. A lot had changed in the twenty-seven years since his death. In 1855, when Joachim made the arrangement, Wagner was already at work on The Ring. It’s already a completely different musical landscape. Of course Joachim was more aligned with Schumann and Brahms than he was with Wagner, but the orchestration isn’t particularly Brahmsian either.
It’s quite densely orchestrated. One of the most striking things is that Joachim worked through with a kind of impatience; either with a quest to do something different or because he didn’t quite have the confidence in his decisions. He’s very reluctant to let one instrumental group take a melody, or an accompaniment figure, from the beginning to the end. In most symphonic repertoire, at least in the way that themes are first presented, you can talk of ‘the violin melody’ or ‘the clarinet melody’ or the ‘flute melody’, but in this orchestration it’s almost impossible to do that because no melody really belongs fully in one instrumental group before he passes it to another, even in the first presentation. That’s very unusual!
A harsh judgement would be that it’s slightly incompetent. And maybe that’s an attitude that people take and that’s a reason it’s not performed very often. But from a twenty-first century point of view, with the whole history of the first part of the twentieth century, with neo-classicism and particularly with composers such as Stravinsky who deconstructed earlier music, it’s very interesting to hear that in the mid-nineteenth century, there is an orchestration that uses similar principles. For example, in the last movement, sometimes only two or three notes of a tune are played by one instrumental group before the tune is then passed on to another group, and then to another group, and so on.
It’s quite disorienting to listen to – in Pulcinella, Stravinsky does something similar, but he also tweaks other elements of the music so we immediately recognise that there are inverted commas around the source material, But with Joachim it’s not the case – the material is literally Schubert’s music from the duet, it’s just the way it’s arranged. And that is very odd.
In conducting the work there are a lot more basic problems to solve than there would be in a symphony of that era because you have to balance these melodies, you have to dovetail things. But firstly, the players have to understand what role they play in the texture and when you have quite dense textures with counterpointed two melodies, plus an accompaniment figure, plus a bass line … even if it were orchestrated in such a way that people had longer to get into the zone of what they were doing, you have to clarify those lines. And when those lines are not carried through within an instrumental group, each section has to really understand who they’re passing the melody to, where they’re getting it from, how you balance between very different instrumental tone colours in such a way that in the audience, you hear a through-line.
At the first rehearsal, there was no problem with accuracy, but the music itself sounded very disjointed; everything was constantly changing in terms of the tone colour and dynamic level. But you just have to work quite painstakingly. The moment the players understand what the main melody is and what their component part of that melody is, then those things kind of solve themselves because they know what they’re listening to.
From my experience of being a viola player you get a very valuable perspective from sitting right in the middle of the orchestra. But it does mean that can get lost in the middle if you’re not quite sure if whether what you’re playing is a countermelody, or the main melody, or an accompaniment figure. Until you understand that, you really don’t know how to play a work. And so it took a little more time than it might have done until clarity emerged, which I hope it did at the end.
Afterwards, backstage the players were thrilled. It had been a challenging process and I don’t think anyone expected it would be as difficult as it was. But when you surmount the challenge and achieve it in the end, yes, I think everyone was really delighted!
In spite of the difficulties presented by the orchestration, in the end – if you work at it – it does work! And with a figure as important as Joachim in 19th century music, as a performer, to have this extensive document of how he thought of the orchestra as a medium is wonderful. We know how Joachim played from what was written about him, but there is only a small amount of recorded material of him playing from the earliest years of sound recording. What we do have from him is this document of what he thought about the orchestra and that’s an invaluable resource.” (Geoffrey Paterson was speaking with Markson Pianos Composer in Residence, Lola Perrin)
Postscript: Kenneth Woods, who programmed the concert conducted by Geoffrey Paterson, adds:
“My interest in Joachim’s orchestration of the Grand Duo came about through my friendship with the great composer John McCabe, whose loss last year continues to leave an open wound in the hearts of many a musician across the UK. John was a great devotee of this arrangement. As a pianist, he’d played the Duo many times and found it sonically problematic in spite of the fact that it was glorious music. It’s unusual, if not impossible, for an arrangement of a work to improve on the original, but there are arrangements such as Ravel’s orchestration of Pictures at and Exhibition which, even if they’re not an actual improvement, offer an easier way into the piece for the listener. John also felt that as arranged by Joachim, it offered a wonderful addition to the limited number of mature orchestral works by Schubert, standing alongside the Unfinished and the Great C Major symphonies. Of course, many musicians, not least Robert Schumann, have suspected that Schubert always intended the work to be a symphony.” (Kenneth Woods)
Connect with Geoffrey Paterson
Geoffrey Paterson’s current season includes multiple projects with the London Sinfonietta, Die Entführung aus dem Serail with Glyndebourne on Tour, The Nutcracker with the Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen and Aarhus and his debut at the Holland Festival with a revival of The Corridor and The Cure. He studied at Cambridge University, the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, took composition lessons with Alexander Goehr, participated in conducting masterclasses with Pierre Boulez, and trained as a repetiteur at the National Opera Studio. He won First Prize at the 2009 Leeds Conductors Competition, also winning the audience prize. He works regularly at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, where he was a member of the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme.