Guilmant: Morceau Symphonique

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While the David Concertino is a signature piece for advanced trombonists, Guilmant’s Morceau Symphonique is at least as ubiquitous for younger players. Nearly every trombonist plays this piece either in high school or the first couple years of college — which is a particularly formative period in the educational process. Because of the singularly important place this piece occupies in our repertoire, I thought I’d offer some of my ideas on preparing it.

Guilmant was the organ professor at the Paris Conservatory at the turn of the 20th century. From this small factoid, we can learn a lot about about his Morceau Symphonique for trombone. The most important thing to consider is the date: this piece was written before the artistic revolution that began in the early 20th century. Fifteen years later, Paris would be known for its hotbed of artistic exploration – but when Guilmant wrote this piece, Paris was still seen primarily as a seat of artistic excellence in a more conservative tradition. While it is in fact French, this piece should not be played in the “French style” that comes to mind when we think of the great French composers Ravel and Debussy, nor the style appropriate for the famous French trombone works by Bozza, Defaye, Dutilleux, or Tomasi. Instead, this piece is a contemporary of Saint-Saëns, with his lush French Romantic style. Attempt to play it with as much expression as possible. Remember that the amount of dynamic contrast we feel like we’re playing is far less than the amount that reaches the audience, and capitalize on any opportunity to make a statement.

The first note is always a conundrum. Slurring from that first B flat to G flat is very difficult because of the two partials in between the notes. Some people try to sneak some tongue in between to clean it up, but I am very opposed to this. With tongue in between, those two notes always sound separate and unrelated, not connected and beautiful. When I learned this piece, my teacher told me to practice it with the first B flat in 5th position,  to train my embouchure. With only one partial between the notes at that point, the slur is much easier — the difficult part is getting the first note in tune. So, after figuring out the slur in 5th, I put the B flat back in 1st and got it as clean as I could by replicating the embouchure I used in 5th. I was reminded of this process years later when I was learning the Ropartz Piece in E flat Minor. The first two notes are again B flat and G flat, but the G flat is an octave lower. That makes a tongued slur from a 1st position B flat required, and a glissy mess inevitable. I sucked it up and put the B flat in 5th position, but never felt good, and I am convinced I never got it in tune. Fast forward several more years, and I stumbled on Ian Bousfield’s demonstration of the “Tuba Mirum” from Mozart’s Requiem. He puts a B flat in 5th to set up a great slur all the way to the high A flat. It hit me that 5th position should never be “unusual” or “difficult.” After all, we play G flats and D flats in 5th; should they suffer just because we don’t like that position? The harmonic series sets up certain inherent problems we have to work around, but slide positions are in our control. With enough practice, we can play anywhere on the slide, and if we want to be great at what we do, it’s on us to develop that facility. If the slur is inherently better playing the B flat in 5th, I think it’s our responsibility to develop the arm control necessary to perform it that way rather than accepting a lower quality product just to preserve some momentary comfort of keeping our hand closer to the mouthpiece.

In the seventh measure, no slurs are written, but the music is still very warm and flowing. It is important to preserve this character without succumbing to adding unmarked slurs. Think of music like language. In order to make yourself understood, you must use consonants. These do break up the sound of your voice, but you can still speak with delicacy and continuity. Articulations in music should be the same. It is very possible to articulate cleanly in a lyrical passage, to define the placement of notes without breaking the musical phrase. Practice this by playing one note with a metronome. Articulate every other click, while ensuring that your articulation point is exactly in time, and that you do not leave a big gap of silence before the note. Record yourself doing this and look at the wave form on a screen. You might be amazed how much space you’re creating that you weren’t aware of. Once you can minimize this space before your articulations, you can then incorporate that style articulation into this piece and maintain a beautiful, flowing phrase.

Look for opportunities to create beautiful sounds with alternate positions. The D flat at the end of the 11th measure is a perfect example. A messy tongued gliss from 4th to 2nd position and back is what everyone expects to hear, but a simple lip slur with a one-position shift out to 5th and back makes a lovely effect and really is much easier to play.

Take the con anima direction fairly seriously the 18th measure. Because the melody here is just a scale, it can sound dull if taken too slowly. A lively tempo and crisp articulations leading to a snappy dotted eighth in bar 20 will keep this feeling fresh and exciting. Keep the line moving forward at all times – that means a long dotted eighth in bar 20, and no breath after the A flat in 21. There will be a huge temptation to end the phrase and take a big breath after the high B flat in 23, but don’t let it happen. That phrase continues through the octave transposition and into the chord change in the following measure. Feel like you’re making a small crescendo all the way from the high B flat to the accented D in the 24th measure. The crescendo written at the end of this phrase is ineffective without enough sound coming out of the horn to support the intensity of the statement. The sixteenth notes are too fast to provide much sound, so the phrase must be carried by the dotted eighths. Play them long and full, and punctuate them with the articulation of the sixteenths.

I personally like to relax into the tranquillamente starting with my entrance three bars prior, in measure 28. I allow the tempo and the tone to relax for six measures, and finally reach a sense of calm on the upper G flat beginning measure 34.

The cadenza is not particularly interesting as a melody. It consists only of scalar passages, intended to set up the major key of the following section. Because it’s just a B flat major scale, intonation and clarity is essential. The audience has nothing else to listen for, so make it pristine. The only interesting melodic motion in the entire cadenza is when the A naturals turn into A flats. Make sure your phrasing design allows the audience to hear this development, and then make sure you play it accurately enough to make the point. In terms of tempo, I recommend making dramatic changes. Straight sixteenth note scales belong in the practice room, not on stage. Start slow, let the tempo and intensity build all the way up to the top. There are any number of effective ways to come back down to the low B flat, but make whatever you decide feel natural, almost inevitable.

In the second section, do not go faster than you can play cleanly. It is much more impressive to release a string of beautifully centered, in-tune notes with identical articulations at a slower tempo than it is to fly through a generally ascending line of mud in no particular tonal universe. This piece contains scales in E flat, B flat, D, and F. Practice them separately from the music, with a tuner, a drone, and a metronome. Be very careful about sixth partial notes (like the E flat at the top of the first scale), as they will be sharp and require lower slide position. Record yourself, and be patient as you build speed. Always strive for brilliance and clarity at whatever tempo you’re going, and never go so fast that you can’t achieve that goal.

There are recordings of well-regarded professional trombonists playing this piece who slur from D to F in the second bar of the fast theme. When you’re as famous as they are, you can play slurs wherever you like. Until then, play the ink. The two notes are marked identically (or rather, both notes are unmarked), so play them identically. Both are eighth notes without any indication to alter their length or articulation. So, tongue them, play them full value, and move on with your life. Resist the urge to accent or shorten the upper note. The accent comes next, on the B flat. Keep it where it’s marked.

The accented quarter notes on the downbeats in this theme are all non chord tones (suspensions and retardations) that delay the chord change to the second beat of the measure. Lean on them, and let the accent come from your air stream more than the tongue. Then back away and relax into the chord change on the half note, and let the piano’s moving line carry the energy through of the rest of the bar.

There are two descending scales down to a low F, both marked with a decrease in volume. This is dangerous, because decreasing the air flow will lead to an unfocused sound quality, and probably a flat pitch. Keep your embouchure firm and your air moving quickly as you descend. The diminuendo will take care of itself, because lower notes carry less kinetic energy in their sound waves. So long as you don’t crescendo on your way down and get bright, the audience will perceive the written dynamic shift.

After the con calma, there is quantized dynamic step up from pp to p, but then no crescendo to the forte D. The dynamic shift is intended to be sudden. It’s a linear key change, from D flat major to D major, and it should be surprising. However, the tone color of the D must remain warm and beautiful, with no hint of edge. That note must also make its statement from the beginning of the note, with no swell or balloon effect throughout the duration of the note. To achieve this, I try to spread the back of my tongue as wide and flat as I can, and blow a warm, fat airstream against the embouchure. I also let the note resonate just a hair beyond its marked duration, almost like a bell ringing.

The Andante sostenuto section before the end is, in my opinion, what has made this piece so successful. There are lots of binary form slow-fast pieces designed to show off basic technique, including scales, slurs, articulations, and the like. This one is special because it reprises the slow theme in the middle of the fast movement, and does it in a surprising way. The theme is transposed down a step, and shifted into the major mode. This makes it almost unrecognizable; the mournful melody at the beginning is now tender, almost nostalgic. Give it plenty of wide, romantic vibrato and let it sing. The same advice applies – use appropriate diction to define the notes; it won’t interrupt your phrase if you do it well.

The high C sharp catches every trombonist’s attention. Not only is it a relatively high note, it’s loud and comes after a big leap, which makes it harder to control. I always breathe between the two quarter note Es to make sure I have plenty of fuel. Then I set my embouchure for the C sharp before I play the second E, and play it at the full ff volume. I trampoline off of the E, and the energy of that note carries my through the C sharp. I don’t have to play the C sharp as loud because the volume of the E has already made the phrase. I also don’t like to linger on the C sharp — I play it right in time and continue down the arpeggio so that I have plenty of air and energy left to get down to the bottom. I don’t breathe again until after the low C sharp in the next bar, between the first and second beats.

If the C sharp is not something you feel comfortable putting on stage, you don’t have to resort to repeating the E as marked. I recommend playing a half note high A in that place, and then proceeding down the arpeggio on beat 3. This gives the dramatic effect of the powerful high note without pushing the upper tessitura quite as far.

In the più mosso section at the end, it is tempting to let the tempo really burn. However, the sixteenth note scale up to the high B flat can derail the energy of the whole section if it is not clean. Whether it’s single tongued or double tongued, it has to be just as precise and brilliant as the scales earlier in the piece. Otherwise, all the excitement of the coda is undermined, and the audience is left underwhelmed. For that reason, my tempo for this section is a click or two slower than I might prefer, just to make sure my tongue can keep up. In order to maintain the intensity, I put a faux accelerando on the triplet passages. I start each one a little slow and then push the tempo as I descend, arriving at the bottom with the metronome.

The trill at the end is perplexing. While it is possible to create this trill using the F attachment, that’s usually ineffective. Most F attachment valves are too slow or too noisy to facilitate a trill. I need to do more research into the kind of F attachments that Guilmant would have been familiar with, but it’s hard to imagine that his technology was any better. I have to believe this was intended to be a lip trill, but there is nowhere on the trombone where a lip trill from D to E flat is possible. I use the power of suggestion to try and fool the audience into thinking they heard such a thing, though. Before the trill, I put an eighth note E flat to get that note into their ears. Then, I start the trill a bit slowly, and for the first oscillation or two, I move my slide out to third position to get a true E flat. Thereafter, I just trill up to the first position F, and trust that people will think they’re hearing an E flat, since that’s where the trill started. While not as clean as Guilmant might have played it on the organ where such a trill is trivial, I think it gives a good effect.

In the second to last measure, make sure to lower the sixth partial E flat. It’s such a prominent note on top of such a strong chord in the piano that playing it sharp will make everyone cringe. Again, practice with a drone to make lowering this note a habit.

For the final note, I am sometimes tempted to change the octave. I feel that the third partial E flat just isn’t that exciting of a note, especially compared to the sixth partial E flat that precedes it. However, it’s almost always best to resist this temptation. Since everyone knows this piece, it’s usually better to do what’s written well rather than to play with it and risk someone not liking your changes. In any adjudicated environment, making this kind of change is absolutely verboten. If you feel like you’re playing in a context that warrants a change, I recommend the low trigger E flat for the final note. Going up for the very high top E flat loses a lot of power (for most players), and repeating the sixth partial E flat is redundant. The trigger E flat has plenty of bite to it, can be articulated with clarity, and sustained with vigor.

Please note that my approach to Guilmant’s Morceau Symphonique is not the only way to do it. One of the great things about art and music is the discussion of interpretation. I’m sure there are many very excellent performers and teachers who have different perspectives than mine. If you or your teacher take issue with anything I’ve said here, by all means do it however makes the most sense to you!