The Forest Through the Trees (or, Just How Loud Is That?)

brahms3I’ve enjoyed seeing a question come up, on ubiquitous Facebook of course, about one of the orchestra excerpts I’ve posted for next month’s orchestra auditions. The question demonstrates how we notice a detail, but cannot always deduce a satisfying answer, no matter how rational the conclusion. This happens all the time in music (and life).

Here’s the excerpt:

sotto voce

Perplexed, the student asked good questions. Excellent questions, in fact. Here’s the question:

 * “Music friends! I have a dynamic question (that is, if you consider sotto voce a dynamic instruction). In the last movement of Brahms’ third symphony, the really soft opening figure returns a few times, but the dynamic is slightly different each time. Here for example, the opening figure is piano e sotto voce but the next time it appears the dynamic is just a pianissimo. Am I to assume that the figure is always sotto voce–which would make the second appearance softer than the opening–or is pianissimo just Brahms’ short way of writing piano e sotto voce again?”

Here’s a link to the movement on You Tube. Listen for yourself and make up your own mind. This is where interpretation meets function:

Now, even if you don’t read music, I’ll try to make the issue clear. The examples in the question are outlined with a rectangle. The initial “p (piano) e sotto voce” indication is contrasted with the later pp (pianissimo) indication for basically the same material. Roughly, the first indication translates as “soft and in a soft voice”; the second, as “very soft.”

The responses to this student’s question included insights, and a little humor, from professional orchestra musicians, conductors and other students.

The initial indication almost seems redundant: why wouldn’t you play something soft with a soft voice? Unless, you consider “sotto voce” to be a color. Ah, now we are getting somewhere. At least that’s what one astute professional musician suggested. String players can get all sorts of colors by placing the bow over the fingerboard, varying bow speeds, and using more or less vibrato, etc. This must be the solution!

Well, not entirely. I will agree that this is an excellent approach to get the right sound. But Brahms could have simply used the Italian designations for those techniques (sul tasto, non vibrato, etc.). So. it was not merely a certain technique he was after. But a color or timbre may indeed be on the right track.

Another comment suggested the later pianissimo designation (which could be interpreted as twice as soft as the initial dynamic marking) was employed to contrast the loud dynamic of letter B, and then prepare the intense crescendo only two measures later. Again, this is an excellent point, and a very utilitarian explanation. An entire orchestra of 90+ musicians will need a lot of road signs to negotiate this within six measures. And a conductor will need to monitor and guide it.

All good points, but sometimes music’s answers are not only found on the surface. The student had a very good logical process and was trying to get a clear answer. In an audition you want to do the right thing, of course. But the need to play louder/softer/faster/slower/higher/lower only scratches the surface. We really must get to the reason why this distinction exits. Understanding the “why” requires we dig deeper. And from this deeper understanding you have a chance to play it both correctly and with meaning.

In my opinion, listening beyond the notes provides the answer. This requires analysis as well as aural imagination.   It also requires the study of music history, essentially understanding how Brahms wrote music. Specifically in this case, it is discovering what the initial “snaky motive” is really all about. Brahms, like Beethoven, was fond of using material with numerous possibilities. Intervals, rhythms, fragments…all with amazing potential. So while on the surface Brahms wrote engaging melodies, he also wrote music that was deep, philosophical, and meaningful.

From an interpretational standpoint, I suggest we look and answering WHAT the motive might represent. How does it appear, develop and reappear? Can we make any meaningful leaps of intuition? (Be careful with that last one…)

Analysis and imaginative listening helps me conclude that the opening is actually the key to the entire movement; it becomes clear that the motive is the underpinning. This is akin to an underlying wellspring, a snippet of primordial sound from which Brahms picks out his ideas and shows us his art. A river of ideas and potential exists in a seemingly wandering collection of notes.

Now if that sounds a little too “Wagnerian” for Brahms, consider for a moment that Brahms was a composer’s composer. To understand Brahms, you must understand that he was meticulous; a perfectionist who destroyed much of what he wrote. He was also the type of composer who would sit in the coffee house and jot down ideas as they came to him, sometimes on whatever was available, even a napkin. The music must have been constantly revolving and evolving in his mind.

This motive is running constantly throughout the movement. In fact, I’ll posit that it is going on at letter B, just not audible until all the racket of the forte dynamic dies away.

When we walk in the forest, or journey through a score, we often only see the things in our immediate awareness—trees and rocks; dynamics and articulation. But when we stop to contemplate, the entire universe opens up before us. The underpinnings become apparent. If we consider that if this type of music contains multiple potentialities, then it is like an underground stream—something constantly running underneath the surface, bubbling up at times to reveal itself as the pure source, at other times as nourishment for the roots of plants (themes) or brilliant crystalized mineral deposits that catch our attention. (dynamics and orchestration).

So, in my humble opinion, that piano e sotto voce, is the underlying current of the 4th movement. The pianissimo represents awareness that it is still there as the music becomes defined through the form. Exactly how loud and soft is the wrong question, unless you consider the relationship to the whole.

So, er….what does this mean for the solo bass auditionee?

Take a chance–Play the second one softer!

But you’ll do it more convincingly from the point of awareness. Now let’s move on to those confusing accent/dynamic/stress markings in measures 5-6…


*This question was from an incoming Freshman who will soon discover that Brahms writes this way all the time, also easily seen in the Finale of the 2nd Symphony, and through the use of Passacaglia and Variation. Welcome to college! The universe awaits you!


Copyright, 2014. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat


5 thoughts on “The Forest Through the Trees (or, Just How Loud Is That?)

  1. Fascinating! Pondering these details and their larger-scale implications is such an analytical and metaphysical adventure – thank you for prompting us to think about music in this way.

  2. I am not much of a music head, which is the reason why I was nearly intimidated away from the post upon looking at that music, but the ideas you posited and analyzed were absolutely stunning. I was shocked in the depth in which you could grasp concept of the piece. I don’t think I can ever look at orchestra the same again.

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