Brahms Opus 36 practice question

Edited: January 31, 2018, 12:23 PM · I've been invited to play the first violin part of the Brahms Opus 36 sextet in a *very* informal chamber music evening next week with some friendly adult amateur musicians. This is about as low-stress as it could get but it's a technical stretch for me in places so I'm trying to brush up on the parts that cause me to audibly swear or say "whoops!"

One of those is the awkward (for me) slurred octave string crossing section in the last movement.

Question, for those familiar with this work: in what part of the bow do you recommend playing this? Any good practicing tips for getting this even/up to speed?

I'm using a metronome (which is revealing to me all the places I'm wont to rush–yay!) and using dotted rhythms. What else might I try?

FWIW, we'll be playing this quite slowly compared to typical performance tempos (probably no more than 60 bpm if you're counting in 3).

Thanks!

Replies (12)

January 31, 2018, 12:30 PM · To play the slurred octaves, I'd say middle to upper half, along with keeping your movements small and precise, and relaxation, are key.
January 31, 2018, 6:46 PM · Just to be really helpful: Try playing it with the hair.
February 1, 2018, 10:23 AM · Do you mean the passages with the As and Ds with the open A string in the middle of the three-note slur? I'd play in the upper half, and as they're marked forte, I'd use a good stretch of bow. That's how I've seen it played, and when I fussed around with it last night, it seemed to work okay for me. That last separated 16th in each group gave me a little trouble.

If you mean the descending octaves, I'd probably be closer to the middle of the bow.

February 1, 2018, 5:19 PM · Yes, the former. And the last 16th is throwing me off because it means you are pattern-switching each time. I watched a video of Noah Bendix-Balgley and he used a lot of bow in that section–I couldn't quite figure out how he managed the 16ths. Need to watch it on slo-mo. Descending octaves are fine.

Thanks!

February 1, 2018, 5:40 PM · If you're having trouble with slurs over string crossings, try practicing with articulation under the slurs. Example: a downbow slur over four notes is played down-down-down-down instead of with a slur.
February 1, 2018, 5:49 PM · The reversed bowing with each group is annoying! I did a little bit of bowing open strings, just to get the feel of the pattern, and that helped. But that last 16th is hard. Maybe it should feel like a pick up note leading into the next group?
February 1, 2018, 6:08 PM · At the tip, then at the frog.... then with the bow upside down, holding it at the tip. Once you master it, playing on the middle will be a piece of cake.
Seriously, master the left hand first. It it can run on auto-pilot, the right hand will be way easier to manage. 2 cents, Canadian, worthless.
February 1, 2018, 6:20 PM · Scott, I played with the idea of tagging it onto the up-bow closer to the frog instead of using a separate bow and quickly rejected this. Just watched the video again at half-speed and observed that the trick was using a lot more bow (obv. light bow) on the 16th note to get back where you need to be for the next slur.

Rocky, good advice but how do I eat the cake if it's all the way in the middle of the bow? ;-)

Mary Ellen, thanks! I will try this technique in multiple places. This Brahms is full of slurred string crossings and I kind of suck at playing them evenly.

February 2, 2018, 8:52 AM · Katie, Scott, about the reversed bowing with each group, I personally would not play it like that, I would play that last separated 16th note in the same upbow as the preceding three notes.
February 2, 2018, 9:04 AM · Jean, I tried that and it's super tricky to do it at speed and still articulate it. I agree that if I had the skill, it would serve the music better (because it's hard to make up the bow on the single 16th without overemphasizing it).
February 2, 2018, 9:53 AM · I tried it that way, too, but I kept getting an accent I didn't want. The passage probably just wants a better player than me.
Edited: February 5, 2018, 2:51 PM · Congratulations. If this is your first exposure to Op. 36, wow, it's a life-changing piece of music.

Every violinist obsesses on this passage because of its difficulty but it's not worth obsessing over.

1) The cello has the melody, a lovely melody, so your No. 1 job at that stage is to get out of the way. You're providing rhythmic texture and harmonic support at that moment. If you have to drop a few notes, no one will notice. If you can master that passage, great but don't broadcast it, keep it light and play one full stop lower than what is marked. Listen to a great recording of this sextet (Nash Ensemble) and the 1st violin is very much in the background for this section.

2) String crossing problem: play mid-bow, light pressure, raise your elbow and use a little wrist/hand action. Play it like you'd play Mozart or Beethoven -- but the nice thing is, it's not exposed like Mozart. Does that take some of the pressure off?

3) Now the actual technique -- my advice would be, don't overanalyze it, just try it and let your arm figure out how to do it. It's a little like that intricate 3-string section of the Bach E major Partita. I spent years trying to analyze it and master it through brute force, and the thing that got me over the hump was Nathan Cole, who said there isn't really a secret to it, eventually your arm just figures out how to play it. I think it's true with this Brahms section. Though note that the second time it comes around, it's a different string crossing pattern...

Good luck and have fun. Op 36 is one of my very favorite pieces of chamber music. You need good musicians on every part; it can flummox amateurs. Don't be surprised if people have to stop a lot. But if you have a group with the chops, it is such a joy. Brahms' quintets, sextets and of course clarinet quintet are all at the pinnacle of 19th century chamber music.

PS if you're playing first, I'd recommend spending some time thinking about the left hand problems in the third movement, which to me is the emotional heart of this piece. Harder than it looks and VERY exposed.

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