Practicing the new/old 1855 Triebert systeme 3 oboe which I picked up in Paris a month ago has led to some rather interesting thoughts and feelings.
First of all, my right hand hurts again, which I haven’t felt since I sold my Royaloboe about 10 years ago. No, the Triebert isn’t heavy at all (in fact, it’s light as a feather). I forgot how reliant we become on the thumb rest: now that I have one again, my posture is worse and I’m allowing the weight of the instrument, however little it is, to put a lot of pressure on my hand and wrist.
Second, I decided it would be fun to practice some 19th c. oboe etudes to get my technique in shape on this thing. Back “then”, it never even occurred to me that these etudes were written over a hundred years ago, when the modern oboe didn’t even exist as we know it. The etudes were written with specific a musical language and fingering systems in mind, which are not exactly like what we have today. The first thing I grabbed was Ferling’s 48 etudes, which of course hadn’t seen the light of day since probably 2004 at CalArts.
Immediately I was bothered by the fact that the title page announced being “revised” by some “J. Andraud” character, but who knows when, and who knows why. Flipping through, I saw the familiar nightmarish metronome markings in parentheses. Suspicion! Intrigue!
I mused. What else did Ferling write, and what kinds of markings did he use? Was there an earlier edition of the etudes? How much did Andraud change? Should I care?
Franz Willhelm Ferling was born, much to my surprise, in 1794. This man was of the 18th century! The same 18th century which produced the music of Rameau, Bach, Mozart, and Haydn! Suddenly the music began to take on a new meaning. Dance rhythms and rhetorical gestures were still deeply part of the musical language which Ferling was born into. If one takes a tempo too fast or too slow to express the underlying meaning, or affect, the music is lost. Andraud’s markings specify eighth-note values for all slow movements, regardless of style or meter. This is ridiculous when one views the music from a big-beat mentality, rooted in the dance rhythms and affects of the 18th century. How can a flowing largo in 6/8 time be reduced to slogging through at eighth=92? The music is clearly in 2, and makes perfect musical sense that way.
Another clue to Ferling’s musical past is his 144 Preludes and Etudes, first printed in 1833 according to imslp. Each key area is treated with 2 short preludes followed by a technical passage. Not surprisingly, no metronome markings are given. The preludes are definitely within late classical style as far as phrasing, but the entire idea of “preluding” in a key, or, exploring a key area in an un-measured or improvisatorial manner, is definitely of a previous generation. It simply shows us that Ferling, while a 19th c. composer, had an eye and an earon the 18th century.
Ferling was composing a lot of music, but all in the same style as the etudes. There are pretty melodies contrasting with faster technical movements, all very light and sort of pleasant. I was excited to find an oboe-and-strings piece; glancing over it, I understood why I had never heard of it. It’s basically a very long-winded version of the etudes with some string back-up. Anyway, it was informative. This music was indeed meant to be played, performed, and enjoyed.
So, back to the etudes. The metronome markings by Andraud are insane. The allegros are all at break-neck speed, useful not for musical exploration but for mind-numbing audition-circus-hopping tricks. The slow tempos are often so slow that one cannot discern a single musical or rhetorical gesture in the entire movement, making playing with the metronome absolutely necessary, since they make no actual musical sense. Without the tempo markings, the player is able to make their own musical decision rather than make a fool of themselves.
I say, oboists of today and of the future! Put down J. Andraud’s superfluous tempo markings! Restore your etudes to their original form: to music!
-the reed lizard