You Fell A Victim ... on your bells?
September 11, 2017 12:37 AM   Subscribe

Based on the score, is there a "right" way to end the bell part at the end of Shostakovich's 11th Symphony?

Last week at the Proms I heard a fantastic performance of Shostakovich's 11th Symphony. At the end of this performance, the bell-player fell forward onto his instrument so as to silence it completely at the same time as the rest of the orchestra. I've seen this done at least once before, and it looks and sounds pretty cool. However, some audience members complained on social media that the final bell is supposed to keep reverberating and die away naturally. And indeed, I've heard it played that way too.

"So what?" I hear you say. "Everyone has an opinion." Well, yes, but in this case we also have a score. Here's what the last few bars of the bell part look like in the Edition Sikorski pocket score. Those two rests at the end of the last bar are there for all the other instruments too.

My question for any bell-players (or anyone else who plays an instrument that reverberates) is: If you saw this at the end of a score without any further context, would you think the rests at the end meant "Don't play any more, but let your instrument keep making a sound from the last note you played?" Or would you think they meant, "Kill your sound altogether?" Or is it ambiguous, and for the player and/or conductor to decide? Is there anything the composer could have added that would have explicitly told you to do either of those things? If so, what would it be?

P.S. Personally I don't think it's always a bad thing to deviate from a published score. Shostakovich himself would sometimes tell musicians to disregard the tempi he'd written: "My metronome at home is broken." I'm just wondering: If someone were to declare that there was a "right" way to end the 11th based on the score alone, what would that right way be?

P.P.S. I'm aware of the artistic and/or political reasons why someone might favour one type of ending over the other.
posted by Perodicticus potto to Media & Arts (6 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Off the top of my head- notes the composer explicitly wants to let ring can be marked "laissez vibrer." This is also marked sometimes with a tie going off of the note that does not connect to anything else.

As a non-percussionist but a sometimes-filler-in of percussion parts in a variety of music and someone who has taken a semester-long percussion methods course, I'd instinctually dampen the sound to match the rest of the ensemble there the same way I would on, say, a timpani part at the end of a piece, but wouldn't think too much of it if the conductor asked me to do otherwise for Reasons. As someone who does conduct (youth) groups, if I saw that in a random score for my youth symphony I would ask my percussionist to dampen there if he wasn't already.

A Real Percussionist or someone with orchestration books at hand may come in with a more educated opinion; if you get one of those it's okay to believe them. If I can remember to dig up my percussion text the next time I'm near it to get you a more official answer, I will see what I can find.
posted by charmedimsure at 1:31 AM on September 11 [1 favorite]

The performance is available to listen again on the Radio 3 website for another 25 days. The 11th starts just after 1h22m. Not sure if it plays outside the UK.
posted by sagwalla at 2:03 AM on September 11 [3 favorites]

Violinist here, so not used to much reverb. In this case, looking at the score, the bars before are all written out as quarter notes, so the last note definitely looks like it should be deliberately shorter, and stop with everyone else. But without further composer markings, it's really up for interpretation. That's just how I would interpret it.
posted by easternblot at 3:25 AM on September 11 [1 favorite]

I'm a percussionist, occasionally professionally. Based on that score alone, I absolutely would play the note for a single quaver (eighth-note) and damp it with the rest of the orchestra. To be clearer, it could be marked sec or secco, or written with an articulation like a staccato dot. In some situations, marcato could be interpreted in the same way, but not commonly in orchestral music. If it were written as a minim (half-note), or (as charmedimsure notes) marked laissez vibrer or l.v., or with a tie to a rest, or maybe even with a tenuto (unlikely in this context) or fermata (unlikely in any context), I wouldn't damp it.

One of the things that surprised me when I started playing orchestral percussion was the extent to which percussion instruments are damped - a large part of playing almost any percussion instrument is learning to damp it effectively and musically on cue. Some instruments, like a vibraphone or a set of tubular bells, have built-in mechanisms or pedals for damping notes so you can use both your hands. Many, like a bass drum, clash cymbals or a tam-tam, require you to use body parts creatively (for a bass drum, you can stand behind it and jam your hand or your knee into the side; for clash cymbals you have to kind of clamp them in your armpits; a tam-tam is heavy and reverberant enough that you just have to grab it with whatever you can and hope it calms down). I'd say probably 80% of what I play in an orchestral context is damped in some way, often without being explicitly specified. Generally you begin to get a sense of context from the rest of the orchestra as to how your part fits in, as well as interpreting the specific directions in the musical text.

Different orchestrators and composers deal with writing damping differently, much like different composers for piano deal with marking pedalling differently. After a while playing you begin to get used to interpreting different styles, which range from "do exactly this at exactly this time" to "I finished copying this out at 3 a.m. and you know what I mean so deal with it". Sometimes, composers will even tell you to do something very specific that's not actually a good idea, like Leonard Bernstein writing "play timpani with maracas" in America from West Side Story. (This seems like a fun idea, but in practice sounds rubbish. Try holding a maraca and a regular timp mallet in each hand instead.)

The final thing to mention is that any performance is a collaboration between three parties: the composer, the performer, and the audience. Unless all three are the same single person, you can't ever guarantee that you're performing a piece of music "how the composer intended it". Even if the composer left very precise instructions, anything written in a natural language is open to interpretation, and meanings can change over time. The composer themselves may not even stick to consistent interpretations of a text. I can see several arguments both for and against letting the final bell ring, and I think it's dangerous to talk about the "correct" way to perform a work or what the performer is "supposed" to do. I don't think you're suggesting that there's a single "right" interpretation, but I want to be super clear in anything I write about artistic interpretation that the performer's role in a work is as important as the composer's, and overlaps in several areas.
posted by spielzebub at 3:45 AM on September 11 [29 favorites]

Another percussionist here, just agreeing with spielzebub. Based on that part as written, I would play it as an eighth note and damp afterwards unless specifically instructed otherwise by the conductor. (Though I would probably cut it even shorter if possible if it were actually marked staccato or sec?) But it wouldn't be too unusual to receive such an instruction from a conductor, either based on their personal vision for the piece or a performance tradition that has developed around the piece (which sounds like it may be the case here?)
posted by oakroom at 5:46 AM on September 11

An amateur percussionist, but the others have it. It's interesting that the bells were damped with the body instead of the pedal that I've seen even on high-end chimes, but that could be personal taste or different equipment. The only thing I'd add is that percussion parts can leave a lot unwritten or wrong, I suppose like any part. For instance, in military style music of a certain era, it was just assumed that the bass drum would have an attached cymbal that would double the drum. This isn't stated on the part, though.

That said, chimes have a lovely resonance (even just one chime) and they'd be a prime candidate for an "improvised" solo extension at the end of the piece. Also, they're so big and heavy that you can't ever really get them to stop on a dime like you could with a triangle. So if you really wanted that crisp finish, you might not be able to get it with the chime, so you'd cut everybody else off but let the chime ring.
posted by wnissen at 9:47 AM on September 11 [1 favorite]

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