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Tone Development Through Interpretation

by Bernard Goldberg A tribute to Maitre Marcel Moyse for his 80th birthday

“A beautiful flute tone is of interest only to flute players”. This startling statement was made by the incomparable artist and pedagogue Marcel Moyse, in the preface to his important volume, “Tone Development through Interpretation” published by McGinnis & Marx. The point Mr. Moyse wants to make is certainly not that a beautiful tone is unimportant, but that the musical content of the phrase played with a beautiful tone is what maintains the interest of the listener.

A tone must have variety – variety of dynamics, variety of colors, variety of infliction, variety of so-called vibrato. (Pablo Casals continually demands variety during the rehearsals of his Festival Orchestra in San Juan, Puerto Rico. “Variety is the law of Nature”, he says. “There are no two leaves anywhere exactly alike”.) Today, Mr. Moyse continues, electronic instruments can duplicate any sound, but it is only the musician who can find and successfully convey the human element in the composition of the masters who will be a success, and who will find satisfaction in being an instrumentalist in today’s technological world.

How does one go about developing this variety of expression, this armory of instrumental and physical capability? Why, form music itself! We all practice scales and arpeggios, scales in thirds, sixths, broken chords, and trills, etc., for technical ability, capped off by mountains of beautiful etudes by so many flutist-composers. But beyond the long-tone exercises, and the notable exercises in Mr. Moyse’s book, “Concerning Sonority”, what shall we do to develop the tone into an efficient vehicle for expressing the composers’ thoughts? Certainly we shall learn and practice assiduously the marvelous works of the flutist’s repertory. But we should also supplement our exercises in tone production with “etudes”, to give us style to teach us to understand the musical content of a given piece, and to help us develop the ability to convey the composers’ intent to our listeners.

It is to this intent that Mr. Moyse created the collection of songs, operatic arias, short excerpts from the orchestral literature, etc., which comprises the book, “Tone Development through Interpretation”. When I was a student of George Barrere at the Juilliard School of Music, I used to pester him at every lesson, asking what I could do to develop my tone. One day I asked if I should use this or that particular exercise. Gruffly he jumped up from the couch in his studio, rummaged in his enormous library with his one good hand (he had suffered a stroke the year before) and threw the “Romance in D-flat Major” by St. Saens onto the musical stand. “Play that musically, and your tone will develop”. This lovely composition has only two scale passages that might give the fingers a little trouble, but the musical demands in the way of sonority, color, poetry, and intonation are such that I am still practicing this piece, trying to get my lips and breath to do all that I think I discover in it. We shall see that it is possible to work more systematically than in the above anecdote.

Moyse starts in the first octave, gradually making more demands of dynamic and expressive variety. For example, the little aria from the opera “Fortunio”, by Messager, is not much more than a scale with some notes repeated, using a soft, but penetrating articulation. But how the sound improves through the use of that articulation, and what an interesting way to practice crescendo-diminuendo! (Listen to the recording Mr. Moyse made, illustrating some of the examples of the book). Now I realize that very few, if any of us, know any operas by Messager. Marcel Moyse was born May 17, 1888 and he has had the opportunity to play so much music of all kinds, giving him the kind of musical experience none of us can have – at least not for another few years. Therefore, I preface this Massager area with a similar piece called “I Got Lost”, from “Annie Get Your Gun”. When the student has mastered this little song, he can move into the more subtle style of the “Fortunio” aria in F-# major.

Once you feel you can play the piece in the key given in the book, transpose up a half-step. You will find that most of the problems, particularly of intonation, are all to be solved again. This is due to the construction of our instruments, (and each woodwind instrument has its own peculiarities). For example: try to play “Three Blind Mice” in C-Major, starting on E in the fourth space. Sing it inside your head to be sure you know exactly what it sounds like.

Can you play in on the flute so that every note matched the pitch you hear inside? Okay? Now try it in D-flat Major, starting on the fifth line F. The flute doesn’t want to play the intervals quite the same, does it? Well, keep working until you get a good compromise between D-flat and E-flat. (Above all, don’t blow too hard for the D-flat; it is a note using such a short tube.)

Now try the “Do-Re-Mi” song from “Sound of Music”. Practice it carefully until you can play it in tune and with the happy exuberance the song expresses. Do you like the songs of Stephen Foster? Try to play one, thinking of the words and the sentiment. Then try to play the same song again, starting from each note of the chromatic scale. Obviously you will play by memory by now; this way you can concentrate on creating the mood of the song and on listening to yourself to be sure you are playing in tune, no matter how big you make your crescendo or how small you taper off your diminuendo. As your musical imagination develops, your flutistic resources will develop, and you can try some of the arias from operas by Verdi, Massenet, Donizetti, and others, that Mr. Moyse has chosen. But no matter how well you think you might know one of these arias, it would be very helpful to hear one of the great singers sing it so that you know how the voice does it.

After all, the voice is the first instrument and the one nearest the heart; when we try to “sing” on our flutes, we are trying to do what comes more naturally to the singer. And find out what each aria is about. The dramatic situation in which each of them occurs will inspire you to feel, and to convey, the sentiment and emotion involved. Each piece should be practiced in two keys per day so that the lips will gain mastery of the sequences of intervals, no matter what key they might be in. I prelude each selection with “Frere Jacques”, “Three Blind Mice”, and a chord sequence of Tonic, Sub-dominant, Dominant, and Tonic, to place all the notes correctly in the key, constantly striving for greater purity of intonation. (I think it is the shrieky, out-of-tune playing one sometimes hears form large gatherings of young flutists that “turns-off” so many listeners.)

Now we gradually move into compositions making greater and greater demands, both as to expression and range. One of my favorite songs to practice is “The Last Rose of Summer”, which has several octave skips and one skip of a tenth. Many years ago this lovely song was the coloratura soprano’s great test piece for breath control and dynamic variety.

Take plenty of time for the little gruppetto and exaggerate the crescendo diminuendo in the notes with fermata. Just for fun, learn the variations on “The Last Rose of Summer” by Theobald Boehm, which can be found in the Moyse collection “The Golden Age of Flutists”. In playing a theme and variations be sure to practice the melody until you can really “sing” it; then add the variations, being sure to analyze the flutistic problems, then solve them through patient but enthusiastic practice. Remember that suppleness of the lips and lightness of the articulation are absolute requirements for playing such pieces.

What a great satisfaction it is, on a good day when the lips are in shape and everything is just right, to be able to play a lovely piece with warmth, with thoughtfulness, with the proper expression, and to have nothing between your musical thinking and the sounds that reach our listeners’ ears. This can come only after years of hard work, and proper work; that is, without undue tightness of the basic embouchure, with correct breathing and support of the tone, with freedom of the throat permitting a free flow of the air without “nanny-goats” or electronic-organ vibrato, and with smooth, light finger action that will not harm the legato. Borrowing the youthful happiness of Mozart’s “Cherubino” the poignancy of sadness, anger, and pain.

Verdi’s “Violetta”, “Rigoletto”, “Desdemona”, etc., the wistfulness of Delibes’ “Lakme”, the optimism of Rodgers’ “Nellie Forbush”, the sprightly charm of Schubert’s songs and the velvet of songs by Brahms and so on and so on – we shall not only help develop out flute playing, we shall enrich ourselves as human beings. If Shakespeare said “If music be the food of love, play on”, we shall say, “Since love is the food of music, play on we shall”.

Bernard Goldberg made his solo debut with the St. Louis Symphony when he was 16 years old. He attended the Juilliard School of Music in New York as a scholarship student of Georges Barrere and joined the Cleveland Orchestra in 1943 He accepted the position of principal flute with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 1947, a position he held until 1993, when he retired.

This article is reprinted from the Flute Forum.