Saturday, February 12, 2011

woodwind nerd tangent

A funny thing happened at the Philharmonie last weekend. A few minutes into the fourth movement of Mahler's Third Symphony, the hushed O Mensch lied, principal oboist Albrecht Mayer assumed a desperately pained expression and played what sounded like a terrible reed disaster in slow motion--a glissando between two notes laying somewhere between the sound of a dying goat and the sound of a goat being born. I assumed that something had gone wrong, but when the English hornist echoed him in glissando agony only moments later, I realized it was not a mistake. I've only heard Mahler Three once before live, with the Chicago Symphony under Haitink, but I could not for the life of me remember ever hearing glissandos in these double-reed solos.

I went home and checked out my Mahler 3 recordings--New York with Boulez and Bernstein and San Francisco with MTT (okay, I don't have that many Mahler 3 recordings; sue me)--and none have the glissandos; the two notes are just played slurred together as one phrase. Poking around on the internet, I turned up this post, where you can listen to what the glissando sounds like. Apparently Mahler wrote for the Viennese oboe, capable of glissing, but the modern French oboe "lacks" this ability. As a woodwind player, though, I'm familiar with the insistence that various techniques on various instruments are "impossible." Usually, they're impossible until someone ends up actually doing them, and then all the naysayers look a little silly.

I turned up this article by Teng-Leong Chew, which goes into further detail on Mahler's glissandi methods. Mahler's instructions--hinaufziehen, pull up--suggests a gliss, but he doesn't write a line between the D and F, as glisses are traditionally notated.
This repeating two-note motif is also labeled Der Vogel der Nacht, and Chew's article, after research by Constantin Floros, suggests that the night bird is answering the alto's question, "Was spricht die tiefe Mitternacht?" (What does the deep midnight say?). The oddity of the glissando sound would mesh with the eerie mood of the music, representing the bird call itself.

Not all conductors have caught on to this, but apparently Abbado, Chailly, Rattle, Benjamin Zander, and, possibly, recently Boulez (anyone have his Vienna recording to check?) have recorded the gliss. Zander, in a zany blog post, documents how he got his English hornist to match his oboist's gliss by dismantling an instrument and plugging its holes with plasticine. I don't know what Mayer or the Berlin English horn player did.

So why isn't this being done in America? It might have something to do with differences between American and German reeds. For such a small gesture, it might not seem that relevant. But with such a considerable, and very hearable, difference, and one that theoretically is in line with Mahler's original intent, it seems like the Chicago Symphony should step up to the plate.

Double-reeders, feel free to chime in with any information or speculation.


  1. This may be my favorite post I've read on Seated Ovation so far. I would love to find future woodwind nerd tangents here, esp. if they all could find a way to work in the phrase: "the Chicago Symphony should step up to the plate."

  2. This glissando can also be heard on Rattle's recording of Mahler's third with CBSO on EMI.


  3. Mahler wrote many glissandos -- are any others in his oeuvre indicated with "hinaufziehen" and no line? This sounds like a thesis project to me.

    Boulez regularly asks oboists to omit the glissando instruction in Varèse's "Intégrales," so it surprises me that he would advocate for this effect in Mahler. These glissandos have clear endpoints, at least. Those in Varèse are unclear things spanning over an octave: unidiomatic no matter what oboe or reed is being used to played them.

    American oboe players play on equipment about as conducive to glissandos as the average piano would be.
    Pitch bends are absolutely easier on: 1.) Viennese style oboes (still produced today by the Yamaha corporation and other firms); 2.) European (short scrape) reeds.

  4. Thanks Andy! That article I linked to goes into the glissando stuff fairly extensively and covers the line thing as well.
    I'm not 100% if Boulez does it in his latest recordings, I just read that somewhere and don't have them to check.
    That's what I figured regarding the reed stuff too.