The first time I see an excerpt I have never played before the first thing I do is look into the composer and work. I look for specific details that will help inform how the excerpt should be performed, here is a very basic outline of what I research:
- WHEN the composer was alive (What musical era and style were they studying)?
- WHERE the composer lived or frequently traveled (Regions play a large role in performance style, so this will directly play into the “when” through a better understanding of the era and style).
- WHO the composer listened to, worked for, or was close to (Who influenced this composer)?
- WHAT were this composer’s notable works (Is the excerpt being requested well-known and/or frequently heard)?
You can look at the wikipedia page for a preliminary search, however, I STRONGLY recommend looking for reputable sources to verify any claims. Academic journals like JSTOR, Google Scholar, EBSCO, ProQuest, or your own school’s library can be used if you are not familiar with music history or have resources on hand to verify what you see on the wiki page.
After researching the context, I will collect recordings and gradually sift through them to determine which ones reflect either my own or one of the faculty’s preferred interpretations. I listen for things like:
- Tempo – this is a big one, you want to get your goal tempo in your ears if you are listening to 2 very different recordings (one that takes the minimum and one that is pushing the max) it will make it more difficult for your to internalize the pulse.
- Balance/ensemble – how clearly can I heard the solo in my excerpt AS WELL AS the accompanying voices. Or rephrasing that: can I determine my own role in relationship to the other instruments?
- Tone/intonation/quality – is the recording something I want to emulate? Does it sound good?
Finally, I will start to analyze the score (similar to how I was critically listening to the recordings) and determine my role in the excerpt. Having an understanding of music history (and the theory concepts that were used during that era) help immensely.
Peter and the Wolf
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) was a Russian pianist, conductor and composer. At this time, the music produced was heavily restricted/moderated by the government. Prokofiev wrote for a wide array of music genres: Ballets and Operas, Symphonies, Concertos, Piano Sonatas, etc. And some of his most known works include “The Love for Three Oranges”, “Lieutenant Kijé”, “Romeo and Juliet”, and “Peter and the Wolf”.
Peter and the Wolf was commissioned in 1936 to be a musical symphony for children. In this work, the flute plays the role of a bird; the other instruments take on the role of Peter and the other animals. The REH. 2-4 excerpt the first time the bird is featured, and is frequently requested in auditions. The narrator says, “”All is quiet,” chirped the bird…”
Below the flute solo is highlighted in yellow while the reduction (violas and oboe) is on a grand staff.
The 4 measure, opening bird call is completely alone. The solo repeats from REH. 2-3 to 3-4 with only one small difference in the flute part, but the real change happens in the accompaniment. The chords and tonicization aren’t of major emphasis in this solo, however, Prokofiev does ends each section of the solo with a prolonged G Major 7th chord. The G Major chord is reinforced by the accompaniment which places G on the stronger beats (1 and 3) while adding chromatic neighboring tones such as Ab and F# to lead back to the note G.
Leonore Overture No. 3
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was a German composer and pianist. When talking about Beethoven, scholars refer to his music and life within the boundaries of 3 distinct periods shaped by life events and can be tracked through Beethoven’s compositions. The years are estimated, but have been though to be as follows: Early Period (ending 1802), Middle Period (1802-1812), and Late Period (1812-1827). Beethoven was an influential Classical composer, however, as he matured be began pushing the boundaries for his time (for example, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was not well received by early audiences – particularly for the use of the choir in the final movement). And the year of his dead informally marked the switch between the Classical and Romantic eras.
The Leonore Overture No. 3 was composed c. 1805 for his only opera, Fidelio which had 4 overtures (3 Leonore overtures and 1 Fidelio). The Overture No. 3 is placed before the curtain rises, overshadowing the plot before the final scene. This work fits into Beethoven’s middle period which is also referred to as his “Eroica” or heroic period as referenced in his 3rd (Eroica) Symphony. In Leonore Overture No, 3, the flute has 2 commonly requested excerpts in this one being the opening while the other is m. 328-360.
The first 4 bars of the overture are tutti – it is essential to be aware of the context since intonation, dynamics, and control are on full display here.
Skipping ahead to the 2nd excerpt, the use of tonic (G Major) versus dominant (D) is on full display – which was common during the Classical period to use the I to V/ V to I progression. The flute solo is highlighted in yellow while the response/answer from the bassoon is highlighted in purple.
Leading up to the flute solo, Beethoven creates tension with tutti Major 2nd (C to D) before the flute ascends with eighth notes from D4 to G5. The pedal D from m. 324-329 (as seen by the Ds placed on beat 1 and 3) switches to the “tonic” G pedal from m. 330-339.
Briefly, m. 340-341, the pedal goes back to the dominant as flute restates m. 336-337 up a Perfect 5th. Then, returns to G pedal as the solo line transitions to the triplet section. Similar to the Peter and the Wolf excerpt, Beethoven uses neighbor tones to lead up and down to the tonic and 3rd (G and B).
To end the solo the flute has to hold D6 for 8 measures – whilst maintaining good intonation, tone, pp, and minimal vibrato. The line highlighted in purple, are predominantly strings which take over the melody as the flute tapers off the solo.
How do you approach orchestral excerpts? What are your favorite excerpts to study or play? Share in the comment section below!