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Why Practicing Berg's Opera Wozzeck is Like Painting the Golden Gate Bridge

Brad Howland

Brad Howland

Practicing the trombone part to Berg's 20th century masterpiece Wozzeck is a huge, ongoing maintenance job, just like painting the Golden Gate Bridge. Here are four sample licks from a virtuoso trombone part, with advice on how to prepare them.

Misconceptions abound regarding how often the Golden Gate Bridge is painted. Rumour has it that they go from one end to the other, and when finished immediately start over again at the beginning. In fact, the last major repainting took 27 years and was completed in 1995, however, ongoing touch ups on corroded areas are indeed a never ending task.

"Wozzeck, a man whose thinking is derailed by horrific fantasies, is surrounded by people who hardly think at all. Has Berg given us a portrait of 19th century military life in Germany or a general statement about life's savagery? It almost doesn't matter, because the music, on the cusp between Mahlerian chromaticism and burgeoning atonality, is compelling throughout."
… Peter Bates

The incredible trombone part to Berg's 20th century masterpiece Wozzeck also qualifies as a huge, ongoing maintenance job. Our little opera company, Pacific Opera Victoria, took on the task of producing Canadian composer John Rea's orchestral reduction of Berg's massive score (sanctioned by the Berg family), which combines all five trombone and tuba parts into one. Much as I hate to admit it, the reduction works well and made it possible for us to play a work that we otherwise could not attempt.

It's a virtuoso trombone part, with range extending from pedal F# to high E. There are 39 pages of almost constant playing, 1½ hours of sheer concentration. Oddly enough the part isn't too bad to practice – there are just as many low notes as there are high notes. The real challenge lies in getting the rhythms and melodies into your ear. It took me six months to accomplish this task, and with one performance left of our two week run I was still working on some slightly "corroded" passages!

Sample Lick 1 – Rhythm

As conductor Timothy Vernon pointed out at opening rehearsal, the most important thing is to play the rhythms right. In fact, Berg apparently sketched out all of the work's rhythms in advance, before composing a single note. So it's very important to sit down with this music, take a pencil, and do the math.

Sample Lick 1 - Rhythm

I must have spent at least two hours on this lick alone! Luckily it's conducted in eight, which makes it a little easier to visualize. First, I used my pencil to draw all the 32nd notes of each bar on a piece of paper. Then I drew above the 32nd notes the actual rhythms. This process helped me figure out where the notes fit on top of the underlying pulse. Finally, I went to the part and drew little slashes above every eighth note, a little trick that many musicians use to help subdivide music while playing.

Sample Lick 2 – Atonality

Berg was one of those famous, twelve-tone composers of the twentieth century (along with Schoenberg and Webern) who eschewed traditional, diatonic harmony. You can see that in this lick, which has nothing resembling a normal scale or key, except perhaps the chromatic bit at the end. You have to put in quite a few repetitions of this lick just to get it into your ear. Unfortunately, it's high and loud, and bashing away at it all day long would be really bad for your chops. The solution (pointed out by Gordon Cherry in The Art of Practicing) is to play it down the octave – lots.

Sample Lick 2 - Atonality

While learning this lick, I conscientiously played it down the octave at least four times for every one time up. This takes a lot of discipline if you chip a note during the up-octave take. It's a universal tendency among brass players to want to try it just one more time. Resist that impulse! Take a break, go back and do your four easy takes, then have another go.

Sample Lick 3 – Lyricism

Despite it's atonality, Berg's music is not as jarring as one might expect. In fact, this opera has surprising beauty and lyricism, some of which is evident in this solo lick for trombone. Basically, what happens here is that the rest of the orchestra shuts down and the trombone and tenor play/sing together – a very exposed moment!

Sample Lick 3 - Lyricism

Once again, the best approach is to play this lick many times down the octave, until you get the "melody" in your ear. When the time comes to play it for real, try to stay as relaxed as possible. You should have no more tension in your body than you would playing a Bordogni Melodious Etude. Also, I admit that I switched to a smaller mouthpiece for this lick.

Sample Lick 4 – Range

This lick is a bit ridiculous, and possibly a mistake by the arranger.

Sample Lick 4 - Range

Although I managed the pedal notes in other spots throughout the opera, in this instance I found it too unsettling to get the mute out within two beats, then get set for the upcoming high Eb. The pedal notes are doubled by the Contra-Bassoon, so I left them out and came in on the grace note F after the rest.

I'm really proud of what our orchestra accomplished in this "brush" with a work normally reserved for the major opera companies. When the show closed, you can bet we were ready to "paint" the town red!

About Brad

Brad Howland is the Principal Trombonist of the Victoria Symphony Orchestra.

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