Saturday, October 20, 2018

A Study Guide to Leo Brouwer's Elogio de la Danza

I haven't done too many posts on the practical aspects of guitar-playing lately; this might fill the gap. I studied in Spain in the mid-70s just when Leo Brouwer was starting to become known as an outstanding composer for guitar in a modern idiom. Not a lot of players were learning his music yet and his important compositions, like Elogio de la Danza, were just beginning to be published. That piece was written in 1964 and was published by Schott in 1972. I purchased a copy from Union Musical Española in Madrid in 1974 and I still have that copy.

I first learned the piece in 1976 when I was a student at McGill University. I didn't study it when I was a student of José Tomás in Spain because it seemed too avant-garde at the time. All the students in the international group gathered in Alicante under his tutelage were studying the more conventional repertoire, especially pieces that he had either edited, like the Lute Suite No. 1 by Bach, or ones he or Segovia had edited and fingered by composers such as Moreno Torroba, Joaquin Rodrigo, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Tansman and so on. The most modernist music I recall playing for Tomás was a couple of studies by Stephen Dodgson. So I didn't take up the Elogio until I was an undergraduate at McGill. In fact, I recorded it and the first three movements of the Lute Suite No. 4 by Bach for Radio Canada (CBC) in 1977. Sadly, I don't have a copy of that recording as I would love to hear how I was approaching the piece back then. I had the opportunity on a couple of occasions, once in Montreal and once in Toronto, to play for Brouwer in a master class and I think I played this piece for him in one of them, probably in Montreal.

So that's the background, on to the music. The piece, while largely conventional from a technical point of view, has some interesting musical challenges. What I love about the piece, apart from its cellular sort of structure, is the unique timbres he wrests from the guitar and that starts with the very first harmony:

I have a couple of suggestions before we start. As the printed edition lacks measure numbers I suggest you mark them for reference. Put the measure number at the beginning of each line, counting carefully. All marks on the score, measure numbers, fingerings, etc. should be in pencil only, never pen. You will inevitably want to change them at some point!

For guitarists in the 70s this was a unique and remarkable new kind of sound--remember we had mostly developed our technique with endless scales, slurs and arpeggios and a lot of studies by Sor, Giuliani and Aguado. Our repertoire extended from Bach to Moreno Torroba with just a touch of Rodrigo. This was a whole other world of sound. This is actually pretty tricky to execute. That little grace-note arpeggio has to be handled just right or the notes won't balance. You have to get all four notes to come out evenly with the stress on the high C#. The shape of the chord is unusual so you have to be careful that each string vibrates freely. I use a little different fingering than the one given: piaia instead of pimpa, but you should use whatever gives you the best balance in the chord. You will notice that I have penciled in a different, slower, metronome marking. This comes from the Cuban edition of the music which I had access to at one point. This opening motif is repeated with rhythmic variation and then a new motif is introduced:

This is a written-out accelerando, so the poco accel. is really not necessary. Perhaps he added that to make sure you got the point. I always found the added indication distracting. It makes you tend to lose control in the third little group of notes! So I choose to understand this as meaning that you should not over-emphasize the different subdivisions, but execute the whole gesture smoothly. When you are learning the passage, it is good to be quite strict with the rhythm at first, feel each subdivision. You will notice "f g g flat" penciled in. This is because I think that there is a misprint here. The motif, which appears later on, is always tone, semitone, moving from the first through the second and third strings. F A flat, G is minor third, semitone and does not fit. The whole piece uses symmetrical patterns moving across strings, so I am pretty sure this is a misprint. Play F G G flat instead. One other thing, don't let the low B flat ring, but cut it off as soon as you play the A.

The next new idea, along with a tempo change not indicated in the Schott edition comes in mm 7:

Click to enlarge

The previous section ends with those open Bs, first as harmonics and then the open string. This echoes the open low Es of the beginning and transitions us into the next section. There is no tempo change in the Schott edition, but the Cuban edition says piu mosso with the dotted quarter at 84. This is correct, of course. For Brouwer things like dynamics and timbre are structural so you need to make sudden, crisp contrasts between the f sub and the p stacc. That means "suddenly forte," that is, without any foreshadowing, and he also asks for metálico, meaning with a very bright sound achieved by plucking near the bridge, and then suddenly piano and staccato. The kind of staccato used here is what I call "thumb staccato" which you execute by using the flesh of your thumb to damp the sound as soon as you pluck. This is contrasted with the accented notes played forte which are played just with the nail, quite forcefully.

The sextuplet is a bit tricky so it and all the fast passages need to be practiced many times very slowly and very evenly. If you click on the example you should be able to read my penciled in fingerings. The second time you play the sextuplet, the printed fingering asks you to suddenly shift to third position for the last C in the group. Don't do it! It is needlessly difficult. Instead shift to third position after the F# on the next line. That gives you lots of time to make the shift instead of while you are playing that tricky sextuplet. Next the rubato sextuplet from before is played twice, the second time sul tasto, which means you pluck over the fingerboard to get a very dark sound. Remember, these timbral contrasts are structural, so make them very stark.

The next motif recalls the rhythm of measure 4 with a syncopated figure followed by a triplet. This time, however, it is with a tone cluster:

The notation is just a tad deceptive. This kind of motif Brouwer always wants to ring: laissez vibrar. That little breath mark ordinarily means you would cut the sound, but not in his music. He generally likes chords to ring as long as possible. This motif is then repeated with the stopped notes a semitone higher, heightening the tension and preparing for the next section, the Allegro moderato. Let's stop here and continue with that section in a future post.

For an envoi, let's listen to a performance of the piece. This is Mabel Millán playing in a competition in Bilbao:

There are a few problems with the performance. She simply plays the notes of the grace-note arpeggio across the strings instead of the order as written. She plays the accelerating motif with the printed notes, which I am pretty sure are a misprint. She ignores the staccato and tenuto marks on the repeated G notes in mm 7. Her sextuplet is a bit sloppy, but she uses the fingering I suggest for the shift to third position. Anyway, enough nit-picking!

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