Sibelius: Symphony no. 7

This article was originally written for the ITA Journal.

After a recent performance of the Sibelius Symphony no. 7 that I did with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a violist (wouldn’t you know) came up to me and said, “Just where was the trombone solo in that piece?” That was a pretty accurate description of the type of solo it is. We think of it as a big solo and the rest of the music world hears it as a kind of background sound.

We have to be content with making a warm and fuzzy musical blanket to keep the Northern winds out. That means not playing like the Mahler 3rd solo. However, those two excerpts do share one thing in common: the type of articulation they both require. It is the type of attack I call “neither fish nor fowl” articulation. If I had to spell it out, it would be TDAUW or DTAUW (take your choice). Notice, I said “TDAUW” and not “TDAH”. Adding an UW opens the back of the mouth giving a larger resonance chamber for a better sound. The single “a” in TDAH giveds a slightly nasal tinge, narrowing the palette, resulting in a less resonant sound. The “auw” syllable is a combination of “aah” and “oooh”. which seems to work well for basic sound quality.

When I say TDAUW, notice it is not the dreaded “DWA” which so many players have adopted as their favorite articulation. The TD or DT beginning of a note gives you the right combination of an articulated legato to start each note which I believe is appropriate in these two excerpts.

There are very few others which require this articulation. However, the worldwide epidemic of soggy attacks in the misguided attempt at being more musical (or less unmusical as it were), is making the trombone seem less of a “solo” instrument than it deserves. The longer I play and teach, the more I realize that the way a note starts is the most important factor in determining the characteristic, or quality of that note. A bad start, meaning anything but instant 100% resonance, condemns that note no matter how good the middle and end of it are. I spend an inordinate amount of time on articulation (and of course, legato), with virtually everyone who plays for me. The Mahler and Sibelius excerpts are two fo the only excerpts that require a more quasi legato articulation. Hopefully, however, not as smooth as a real legato, and not as clear as an articulated note.

A good dynamic for the Sibelius solo is poco forte. Brahms usually marked his big tunes with this dynamic. I think he was thinking of a big rich mezzo forte without a trace of hardness in the sound. If I was recording this symphony with an orchestra, I would use two players (Ormandy always asked for two), to avoid hearing breaths and projecting the sound more efficiently. Of course, the players would have to sound like one – a challenging task.

I use vibrato to project the sound, but the kind that colors the sound without calling attention to itself. Many times when conducting I have said to the string players, “Use vibrato, but don’t let me hear it.” The notes above the staff should have a firm articulation with no space before the next note for maximum projection in poco forte.

Making clear attacks with no space inbetween is a lost art these days. How many times have you heard someone play a recital and the only clear articulation you hear is the first note of each piece!

The C Major arpeggio down to low G and up again should be as legato as possible while still being softly articulated as described in the beginning of this article. The most important thing to remember is not to have one generic articulation for everything you play. I want a beautifully smooth legato, a pristine, clean, clear instantaneous attack and very occasionally a combination of both, such as in the Sibelius Seventh Symphony solo.