Tackling the Glazunov Saxophone Quartet

by Susan Fancher, published in the Saxophone Journal Volume 25, Number 3 January/February 2001 (ASQ website posting permission granted by the Saxophone Journal) The saxophone quartet by Alexander Glazunov is certainly one of the best pieces in what we call the standard repertoire for saxophone quartet. Glazunov has an international reputation, the music is well made, and the piece is one of the few for saxophone quartet that is a large-scale work longer than twenty minutes. In this column, I'll present some suggestions for quartets tackling this beautiful, historically significant, and difficult-to-pull-off piece. When you start learning a new piece, it's always useful to find out something about the composer's life and musical style. Knowing when and where the piece was written provides important clues to inform the interpretation of the music. What composers influenced Glazunov? What performer(s) inspired the piece? Alexander Glazunov, or Glazounov, or Glazunow, or Glazounow, was born in St. Petersburg in 1865. He studied with Mily Balakirev (1837-1910) and Nicolas Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908), two of the group of Russian composers known as "the mighty handful" or "the mighty five." While he was strongly influenced by these Russian nationalist composers, Glazunov also looked toward Germany and sought to cultivate an international style. He admired Tchaikovsky's music for its mix of Russian folk music and international compositional technique. Glazunov studied the piano and began composing at an early age. His first symphony was premiered when he was only 16 years old. He and many of his colleagues were supported by the patronage of wood tycoon Mitrofan Belyayev, who made sure until his death in 1904 that these artists had no financial worries. Glazunov became a professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1899. In 1928, he emigrated to France, and he died in Paris in 1936. Glazunov wrote symphonies and chamber music, some programmatic music, but no operas. He wrote over twenty works for string quartet (many were composed for the regular Friday soirées at the home of Belyayev), seven of which are conventional string quartets. He wrote these quartets throughout his career, the first in 1879 when he was 14 years old, and the last in 1930, just two years before the saxophone quartet. The Quartet for four saxophones in Bb major, Opus 109, was composed in Paris in 1932, and is dedicated to the artists of the Quatuor des Saxophones de la Garde Républicaine, the quartet formed in 1928 by Marcel Mule and his colleagues. The famous Concerto in Eb major for alto saxophone and orchestra was written in 1934 and carries the same opus number as the quartet. Taking a look at the overall form of the piece, the first observation is that there are only three movements. The string quartet genre evolved during the classic era into a four-movement form. Most of the quartets of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven are in four movements. Glazunov was obviously well aware of the string quartet tradition and composed four-movement works for quartet, as well as many shorter works. While not the standard form, there are some important three-movement string quartets, for example Bartók's first and second string quartets from 1909 and 1917. It is interesting to notice that none of the works in what we call the standard repertoire for saxophone quartet are in four movements. Let's take a look at the individual movements. The first movement is marked allegro. The second movement is entitled Canzona variée and is made up of a theme and five variations with the variations written as separate sub-movements. The third and fourth variations carry the subtitles A la Schumann and A la Chopin, respectively. These subtitles are further hints at the international influences on Glazunov's music. A colleague has suggested the fifth variation could carry the title A la Mendelssohn. The third movement Finale is marked allegro moderato. An important performance issue for this piece concerns the time between the movements. It is necessary to move through the theme and variations quickly enough that the listener will hear them as a single movement rather than as a long string of separate movements. This is difficult, because it is tiring to play through the entire movement without breaks. It helps to take a generous break between the three main movements. Within the second movement, try leaving at most about three beats of silence between the variations. Record a rehearsal of the movement like this and listen to it. Does it sound like a theme and variations to you? You will hear where less or more time would be appropriate. If you have not already done so, I strongly encourage you to listen to recordings of string quartets with the score, not just those of Glazunov, but those of Beethoven and Bartók and any others you can find scores and recordings of. That repertoire is definitely worth learning, and it is extremely informative to consider the relationship between the written music and how it sounds when played by a good string quartet. Notice how they interpret dynamics and articulation markings, as well as tempo changes, and so on. A suggestion for solving the problem of the dynamics in the Glazunov quartet is simply to underplay the swells a bit and to look for longer phrases. Making too much of all the notated swells can break the phrases up into too many small pieces. Look for the larger phrases and then shape them using the notated swells. Let's look at a specific example. In the first movement, at rehearsal number one, where the first theme begins after the introduction, the dynamic is piano, followed by a crescendo one bar later (there is only one beat per bar in this movement), followed by a decrescendo two bars later, followed by a crescendo two bars later, followed by a decrescendo two bars later, followed by a mezzo forte one bar later, followed by a crescendo one bar later, and so on, and so on. If you look at the musical line, you see that the crescendos and decrescendos simply follow the shape of the musical line. It was the same in the scores of the string quartets I listened to. It appears that Glazunov was concerned the players would play flat dynamics unless he wrote them in. If we just sing the shape of the musical line when we play it, that is enough to achieve many of the dynamic markings. If you exaggerate the written dynamics in this piece, the rising and falling of the melodic line is overemphasized resulting in the seasick feeling I mentioned before. Using the same music as an example, look at the very straightforward musical phrase structure. There is an eight-bar phrase with two four-bar sub-phrases both basically at piano with rising and falling shapes, which the composer's dynamics remind us to follow. The next phrase is marked mezzo forte and begins with the same rhythms and shape of the previous phrase, but is then extended at the end into a nine-bar phrase, reaching a peak of forte in the eighth bar. Again, it works to just begin the second phrase at mezzo forte and let the dynamics follow the contour of the melodic line, with a push to forte towards the end of the phrase. Be careful not to overdo the mezzo forte and forte, too, since there is a very long way to go. We're only on page three in the score of a 21-page first movement! Between rehearsal number one and two there are two phrases of similar length and shape, with the second a bit louder than the first, leading up to the end of the second phrase. If you play the long phrases rather than concentrating on all the little crescendos and decrescendos, your interpretation of the piece will be much less choppy and more enjoyable for your listeners. Glazunov composed in a romantic style with roots in Russian music, and so there is reason to play dramatically and passionately, but use your ears. The saxophone is a very powerful instrument, which is one of the reasons so many of today's composers are drawn to it, but when we play music based on the string quartet tradition of the nineteenth century, we need to keep in mind the dynamic levels and articulations of the string instruments. We have been well trained to make huge differences between the various dynamic levels. That is good. It gives us a dynamic range many other instruments do not have. When we play pieces like Glazunov's quartet, we need to keep the fortes in particular from being too loud and too aggressive. On the other hand, we can certainly work to play more softly when the dynamic is piano. This is particularly challenging for a group of four saxophones. I cannot emphasize too much the value of recording your group and listening critically to your work and listening to string quartets. It is easy to over blow the dynamics, especially when your eye sees all those crescendos and decrescendos everywhere. There are some dramatic sudden dynamic changes especially in the third movement that add excitement to the piece. Do not do away with those, but do be careful about the swells and the resulting seasickness they create, especially in the first movement. —Susan Fancher