Celebrating the Vaughan Williams:
Performance Considerations in the Vaughan Williams Concerto for Bass Tuba
by Skip Gray
It has been fifty years since the Vaughan Williams Concerto for Bass Tuba was premiered by tubist Philip Catelinet with the London Symphony Orchestra. In recognizing this monumental performance and the work’s official publication in 1955, the following article, which originally appeared in the T.U.B.A. Journal in 1984 (Vol. 12:2, pp. 4*9, Jack Tilbury, Editor), has been reprinted for “new” generations of young enthusiasts. In addition, one of the Journal’s most prized articles from the past, Catelinet’s “The Truth about the Vaughan Williams Tuba Concerto” is also provided online at ITEAonline.org for the membership (reprinted in the TUBA Journal in 1991 [Vol. 18:4]).
At the time of its premiere thirty years ago, the Vaughan Williams Concerto for Bass Tuba was probably the most difficult work in the tubist’s solo repertoire. Today there are a great many works which encompass a wider overall range, contain much more strenuous technical demands, and require dynamic contrasts running the gamut from inaudible to beastlike. But the Vaughan Williams remains our first and one of few critically acclaimed masterworks featuring the solo tuba with orchestra, as well as offering a very good medium for the display of musicality and virtuosity. The work’s expanding frequency of performance is a sure sign of a growing appreciation of both its own musical value and the perception of the tuba as a solo instrument. With this increased awareness on behalf of the public and our fellow musicians, we as tubists must continue to strive for better artistic performances of the Vaughan Williams Tuba Concerto. This begins with forethought and intelligent preparation. The ideas presented here are not intended as definitive methods, but hopefully, will give deeper perspective for both preparation and performance.
One area of concern in the performance of the Vaughan Williams is on which instrument to play it. Although many nimble renderings have been given of the work on instruments ranging from euphoniums to five-quarter size B-flat tubas, there is little doubt that the composer had one of the “smaller” tubas in the mind, the E-flat or F. This can be detected from various aspects of the concerto including the overall high tessitura and the light, agile character predominant throughout. For many years American tubists have complained that they would not play the Vaughan Williams on E-flat or F tubas because quality instruments in these keys were not available. This is certainly no longer the case as today there are several brands of very high quality instruments, some even remarkably affordable. A corollary may also be drawn between performances of the Vaughan Williams Tuba Concerto and the Trumpet Concerto by Franz Josef Haydn. Although some trumpet players very successfully perform the Haydn on B-flat trumpet, many players prefer the smaller E-flat trumpet as the concerto “lies” much better on the instrument in terms of fingerings, tessitura, authenticity of sound, and the composer’s intent. These factors also hold true for the Vaughan Williams Tuba Concerto as reasons to perform it on the E-flat or F tuba.
Another area of concern in the preparation of the Vaughan Williams should be tempos which work musically. This aspect, of course, is well within the realm of personal interpretation but so often is arrived upon without due premeditation. Purists argue that Vaughan Williams obviously lived during the age of accurate metronomes, and thus, his markings must be adhered to religiously. This line of reasoning should probably carry a lot of weight when considering tempos for his work, although we must bear in mind the great technical advancement by tubists since 1954. The first movement, “Prelude,” has a marking of quarter note equaling 96 beats per minute. This feels like a good “ball park” tempo in performance. At this pulse, the musical character of the movement is dignified, almost pompous (in a non-derogatory, British sort-of-way). The current trend is to take the movement slightly faster, somewhere between 100 and 108. This tempo area seems to increase the audience perception of the performer’s technical mastery while maintaining the basic musical intent desired by the composer. A tempo exceeding the 108 mark seems to result in an uncontrolled rampage with little opportunity for artistic nuance. There are several points in the first movement where a steady pulse might be deviated. These include measure 110, where a ritard to set-up the quasi-recapitulation is desirable. The other change absent from the published solo part is a “Largamente” over the last four measures of the movement. This appears in the orchestral score and tends to contribute an air of finality.
The indication in the second movement, “Romanza,” of quarter note equaling 60 also seems like a good fundamental tempo. Performances much slower than this many times lack intensity and direction. Quicker tempi often result in hurried performances lacking the expressive lyricism inherent to the music. One marking of possible misinterpretation is the “poco agitato” at measure 27. Some performers feel that a faster tempo should be taken at this point. The indication “slightly agitated” reflects more of a mood or degree of intensity than speed. The music is also much busier in this middle section and when combined with a quicker pulse often results in a hectic, nervous quality rather than the requested agitation. An expressive addition which is very reasonably added to the second movement would be an “Ad libitum” or “a piacere” to measures 64 and 65. The accompaniment drops completely out at this spot and a large rallentando or use of rubato seems appropriate. It should also be noted that rehearsal number 7 comes about one measure earlier in the orchestral score and parts than in the solo tuba part. Throughout the “Romanza,” the performer should earnestly strive for the composer’s. explicit direction: “cantabile” –a singing expression of emotion and feeling.
The “Finale Rondo aIla Tedesca” contains several possible points of confusion with tempo as well as spots open to interpretation. The beginning tempo marking of quarter note equaling 150 (dotted half equaling 50) is a bit of an enigma. Does the composer wish for us to perform the movement in a three beat per measure feeling or in one? Practicality answers this question quickly. The music works well in a three beat per measure pattern. Also, from an ensemble vantage point, performance of the opening section in one is extremely difficult. The “poco animato” sections present a distinct change of musical character. In addition to the composer’s indication, the music itself is more comfortable at a quicker tempo and lies nicely in one beat per measure. Logic tells us that a consistent tempo should be kept in the three “poco animato” sections as well as the Allegro-Tempo I sections as the melodic material deployed is very similar in each of the three appearances. Once again, Vaughan Williams’ marking of quarter note equaling 150 seems like a good tempo for the Allegro and Tempo I sections of this movement while the “poco animato” work well at 160 or so.
In preparing the Vaughan Williams Tuba Concerto for performance, we must consider numerous wrong notes appearing in the published solo part as well as notes changed as a matter of common practice. The printed orchestral score of 1979 answers some of our questions about the propriety of these changes although offers little support to others. A detailed accounting of wrong notes and those often changed may be found in Appendix A.
The composer has left another interpretative area wide-open with the trills and tremolos in the solo tuba part. Although almost every tubist performing the work has a different conception of how these ornaments should be played, few have taken the time to substantiate or consciously plan their realizations. Let us consider the two basic reasons for use of trills and tremolos. One compositional use is for color effect, the other is as a melodic intensifier usually found at cadence points. In the first movement, Vaughan Williams uses the trill as a sort of push from one phrase to the next in measure 35 of the solo tuba part. The tremolo, located in measures 29-30, is the only one notated in the entire orchestral scoring in the first movement. One can ascertain that since these are the same two tones comprising the tremolo in the third movement, the composer notated it in this manner for a sense of overall compositional unity, if not foreshadowing. The question of proper performance still remains. The first ornament to be considered is the trill at measure 35 (seven measures before rehearsal number 3). This exact ornament is found in orchestral sections throughout the movement and should probably be kept consistent by both the soloist and accompaniment. The example below cites the usual performance style of this trill. Some players prefer a turn-type of ornament, also shown below. This practice results in a very graceful, melodic rendition, but is inconsistent to what will be played by the accompaniment at three other places in the movement and thus leads to inconsistency in the overall musical product.
The other ornament which must be considered is the tremolo, found only in the solo part in the first movement, and the solo and accompaniment in the third movement. The main compositional purpose of these is certainly color, although they also add intensity as they occur at the highpoint of phrases, except for the occurrence at the very beginning of the third movement. Once again, a lack of uniformity in realizing these tremolos between the soloist and accompanist is very common. Some performers prefer to begin the tremolo slowly and gradually accelerate. This sometimes results in a very sensitive, expressive interpretation although lacks clear-cut unity in terms of the entire musical architecture. The typical manner of performing these tremolos is shown below.
Interpretation of articulation and implied phrase markings in the solo part to the Vaughan Williams Tuba Concerto must also be considered in a well thoughtout performance. In both the first and third movements, there seems to be an abundance of staccato marks. Putting aside the differences between international performing styles, the staccato is played very differently by tubists today than thirty years ago. Possibly because of a greater melodic orientation and emphasis on producing a rich, full sound, contemporary players generally do not approach staccatos as short and dry, but rather bouncy and separated. Players should strive to produce a continuous melodic idea from all lines, including those marked with staccatos. This is accomplished by keeping the air stream steady, blowing through the phrase. Once this concept is successfully ingrained, the player can begin shaping the line with expressive devices and varied note lengths. Most important, the staccato notes in the first and third movements should not be played “pecky” or lacking full tone. The main problem within the realm of interpreting phrases in the second movement are numerous ambiguous phrase or slur markings. In general, the phrases are very long with only some of the breath marks indicated in the printed solo part. Most tubists find that additional breaths are needed to successfully perform this movement. The preface to the piano reduction indeed states that “some adjustments in phrasing may be necessary at the player’s discretion.” Intelligent placement of these extra breaths is essential to achieving the lyricism and effect of the long melodic lines while, of course, also maintaining a full sound. There are also several slur indications over sextuplets in the “poco agitato” section; the reason for their existence is somewhat vague as they do not delineate complete phrases or musical ideas. Perhaps the composer intended them as a reinforcement–to group the notes within these marks together and be sure to play them as a unit. But there are several places within the larger slur markings that the addition of a breath is not only musical but physically necessary. These spots include after the first sixteenth note in the second measure of rehearsal number 4 (example A) and after the dotted sixteenth note on beat two in the third measure of 4 (example B).
Another practical place to change the printed note grouping is with the pick-up eighth note before rehearsal number 7, at the end of the “Ad Libitum” section described earlier. The example below (C) shows both waysas found in print and the possible alteration. Modification of the phrasing here results in an easier entrance of the accompaniment after the soloist’s preceeding two measures of relative freedom with the pulse.
A remaining issue which must be contended with when preparing a performance of the Vaughan Williams Tuba Concerto is the accompaniment. There are three accompanying media available: full orchestra, the piano reduction, and a very good symphonic band arrangement by Robert Hare. The most commonly used accompaniment is piano. The piano part is a true orchestral reduction with almost all of the notes found in the full orchestral score condensed into two lines. It becomes readily apparent after looking through the piano part that it is nearly impossible for one pianist to play all of the notes because of the very wide overall range, intricate cross rhythms, and the inclusion of nearly all of the supporting chords simultaneously with accompanying melodies and countermelodies. Most intelligent accompanists will edit-out nonessential chords or countermelodies in order to render a fluent, musical performance of this very difficult piano reduction. This should be encouraged; a performance of the piano version without the elimination of any notes would certainly take much longer to prepare than the most perfect execution of the solo tuba part. An example in the first movement where the pianist might consider leaving out some notes is at rehearsal number 10 . At this point, the pianist is asked to play a triplet countermelody in both hands as well as duplet off-beat chords. A much more artistic performance will probably be realized if the off-beats are deleted. There are numerous other instances throughout the concerto where a judicious accompanist will thin-out chords or lines from within the part, one which is basically seventeen or more lines of orchestra not so neatly packed into two lines of piano score. If a tubist is fortunate enough to have the opportunity to perform the Vaughan Williams with an orchestra, there are several important considerations which must be dealt with including whether the ensemble is up to the task of this difficult accompaniment, balance, and printed dynamics, and the trouble spots which usually require extra rehearsal time. The orchestral parts to this concerto are challenging, both in terms of technique necessary for proper execution and musicality required for some of the rhythmically intricate entrances and accompanying passages. If this work is to be performed with anything less than an accomplished professional orchestra, the soloist should take it upon him or herself to make sure the conductor comprehends the formidable nature of the scoring and is willing to devote the necessary amount of rehearsal time for a polished performance. If this is not the case, one would probably be better off choosing a work with a less demanding accompaniment, remembering that each time a mediocre public presentation of a solo tuba work is given, the lower audience impression becomes with the tuba’s ability as a legitimate solo vehicle.
The orchestral accompaniment to the Concerto for Bass Tuba is abundant with thick, overly scored sections which must be played at a lesser dynamic than printed in order for the solo tubist to be heard. A briefly annotated listing of these as well as difficult sections which sometimes demand additional attention in rehearsal may be found in Appendix B. The arrangement for symphonic band works very well and results in an overall sound very similar to the orchestral version. It is, like the orchestra counterpart, quite difficult and can sonically obliterate the soloist in sections. One solution to this problem of balance is to perform the work with fewer players per part than present in a typical full symphonic band. If enough individual strength is available among the players in the accompanying ensemble, a performance with a smallersized wind ensemble is usually very successful in both musical output and the alleviation of balance problems.
Just as no two painters treat the same subject in an exactly similar fashion, no two musicians approach and perform a composition in an identical manner. This is artistic interpretation, something which must be worked out by every individual in physical, cerebral, and emotional spheres. By truly understanding and dealing with the mechanical, conscious aspects imposed by a piece of music, the performer is then free to allow his or her emotions and innate musicality to engage to produce a complete expression of the soul–the ultimate goal of true art. It is hoped that the ideas presented here will help cultivate and fertilize further artistically satisfying performances of the Vaughan Williams Concerto for Bass Tuba.
This is a listing of wrong notes in the original 1955 edition of the published solo part and notes which are commonly changed. Justification for these changes are given in parentheses ( ). The full score published in 1979 is the source for several corrections; more may be found in the 1982 corrected solo tuba and piano edition. Because of discrepancies in placement of rehearsal numbers in various editions, measure numbers will usually be cited.
mm. 27-28 Sixteenth notes should be changed to C, F, G-flat, B-flat. This corresponds exactly to pitches being played in the accompaniment and has become a commonpractice.
m. 55 Add flat accidental to note B on 4th eighth note. This change appears in the 1979 Orchestra Score, 1982 Corrected Edition.
m. 92 Change fourth and fifth eighth notes from F and E-flat to G-flat and F (1982 Corrected Edition).
m. 116 Change note C on the and of beat two to an E-flat (1979 Orchestra Score, 1982 Corrected Edition).
m. 122 Make entire beat two into a triplet with notes descending C, B-flat, G-flat. This is a common performance practice and corresponds exactly to lines played coincidentally by clarinets and bassoon.
m. 126 Change last note in the measure from C-flat to B-flat (1979 Orchestra Score, Corrected Edition Cadenza The 1982 Corrected Edition presents a cadenza somewhat different from the original publication. The piano accompaniment to the correct edition indicates the source of this cadenza as the manuscript. Generally, the new cadenza has a much stronger Phyrigian flavor than the original. There are several changes which are often performed as a matter of common practice in the originally published version. These include at line 3, second note, high E-flat is often changed to a high A-flat. Line 3, twentieth note, E-flat is often changed to D-flat.
m. 44 Notes in triplet on the and of beat two are changed from G, A, D to A, B, D (1982 Corrected Edition)
m. 57 Change forte dynamic to piano with a crescendo to measure 60 (1979 Orchestra Score, 1981 Corrected Edition
m. 47 Change the sixth note in the measure from B-flat to G (1979 Orchestra Score, 1982 Corrected Edition).
m. 64 Change the second note in the measure from F to G (1979 Orchestra Score, 1982 Corrected Edition).
m. 127 Second note in measure should be B-natural, not B-flat (1979 Orchestra Score, 1982 Corrected Edition).
m. 129 Second note in measure should be G-flat, not G-natural (1979 Orchestra Score).
Appendix B This is a listing of sections which require extra rehearsal attention and also those usually problematic in terms of balance.
With Piano Accompaniment
Balance is usually not a problem when performing the Vaughan Williams with piano as the soloist can normally play as loud as necessary to be heard over the piano. Conversely, if the tuba is overpowering, the soloist can usually play softer or more piano sound can be let out by putting the lid on a longer stick.
There are several tricky ensemble spots which often take extra effort to put together in order to realize a cohesive performance. The first and second movements pretty much play themselves; some problems arise with the tempo changes in the third movement The first of these places is at measure 27, the first “Poco animato.” The pianist must set the quicker tempo here, as is the case with the other similar sections in the movement (measures 50 and 90). The soloist must listen very carefully to the moving notes on the first and second beats of the “Poco animato” and fit in their part at exactly the pulse which has been set. Obviously, the tubist and pianist must come to an agreement on a tempo for these sections, get a good feeling for how this tempo relates to the Allegro sections, and work towards consistent actuations of it in with each instance. The other major ensemble trouble spot with piano is coming-out of the “poco animato” and back to Tempo I at measure 76 ( rehearsal number 7). The piano has a descending eighth note run into the down-beat of rehearsal number 7. The original tempo can be arrived upon two ways. The pianist can ritard the two-measure descending passage into the original tempo, or the soloist can set the tempo when entering on beat three of measure 76. Whichever way is decided upon, the tubist must make certain to play the section between rehearsal numbers 7-8 with a very steady pulse or else the overall ensemble will not be together.
With Orchestra or Accompaniment
It has already been stated that because of the thick, heavy scoring of both the orchestra and band accompaniments, there are several sections at which the ensemble will need to play softer than indicated on their parts or with fewer players per part. The following is a listing of the passages which tend to overbalance the tuba soloist.
Prelude, mm. 56-70 and 80-103
During these sections the solo part is almost always marked piano. Although the accompanying instruments are also marked piano, they are in exactly the same range as the tuba. Thus, the soloist is often obscured. The solution to the problem at this point is for the tubist to play one or two dynamic notches higher than written and to make sure the accompaniment is playing at their indicated volume or less.
Prelude, mm. 107-128
Here, the solo tuba assumes a nearly ripieno role, playing the introductory theme in octaves with the woodwinds against the first solo theme in the strings. The music is rather busy and the full orchestra is playing. The tuba is also marked piano and, once again, becomes lost in the texture. Later, the tuba plays an altered version of the first theme canonically against the orchestra. This is one spot where the heavy hand of the conductor must keep the orchestra playing softly in order for the solo tuba to be heard.
Overall, this movement is very thickly scored and the solo tuba part is usually marked piano or less. This will simply not work. The soloist usually has to play at least two volume levels higher throughout to be heard.
Romanza, mm. 21-26
This is a perfect example of a passage in which the tuba is directed to play pianissimo while almost all of the instruments in the accompanying ensemble are also playing. The tubist needs to play louder and the accompaniment as soft as musically possible.
Romanza, mm. 35-42 (tuba entrance after “poco agitato”)
Although this is a beautifully scored section with the strings playing fragments of the opening melody and a rhythmic ostinato in the lower winds and brass, it is the busiest music the solo tuba has in the movement and can easily be covered. This is an emotionally exciting section with a lush, full instrumentation and the ensemble can easily forget their purpose, which is to support a soloist.
Romanza, mm. 60-4
This is the climax of the movement. The full ensemble is pounding away at double forte. The tubist must play very loud and passionately here, and the ensemble should temper their fortissimo down to an accompanying forte.
Romanza, mm. 69-73
Here the accompaniment is marked double piano, but almost all of the instruments are playing and there is a lot of activity in the parts. Tubists are accustomed to sneaking in on this entrance almost inaudibly when performing the Vaughan Williams with piano, but this approach will result in not being heard when playing with a band or orchestra.
Finale Rondo alla Tedesca, mm. 12-18
The accompanying players sometimes become overanxious here as most of them are cal1ed upon to play on off beats 2 and 3 and thus overcompensate for the somewhat difficult rhythm by playing too loud, covering the tuba.
Finale Rondo alla Tedesca, mm. 27-6 (poco animato)
This passage creates problems in both musical and balance realms. Some conductors and/or ensembles find it difficult to achieve the proper tempo together here, making the solo entrance in the new tempo troublesome. These points of tempo transition must be rehearsed by the accompanying ensemble to become solidified. This section, like the “poco agitato” in the “Romanza” has the tuba flitting-out quick gestures, which are easily covered. The ensemble must adhere to their indicated dynamic of double piano.
Finale Rondo alla Tedesca, mm. 50-66 (poco animato)
Another passage which must be rehearsed by the ensemble. The solo tuba is the only instrument playing on the downbeat which sometimes creates a problem for the accompaniment as they cannot always hear it. The conductor must be alert and in control. This “poco animato” is orchestrated a bit more sensibly than the previous one, and the balance is not a major consideration with the possible exception of the oboe part beginning in measure 54 (rehearsal number 5). The oboe is scored at the octave with the solo tuba and is sometimes lost.
Finale Rondo alla Tedesca, mm. 76-83 (Tempo I)
This is the most difficult part of the accompaniment to make work effectively. The ensemble writing is strenuous and awkward with fragmented triplets being passed between various instrumental sections. Against this the tuba is required to render sixteenth notes in a duple framework. Anxiety once again sets in on the accompanying players, and they usually play their parts, marked piano, too loud. This section must be rehearsed very carefully for a successful performance to be realized.
Finale Rondo alla Tedesca, mm. 90-94 (Poco animato)
This is the least troublesome of the “poco animato” sections. One should be cautious that the tempo does not push ahead too much during the excitement between measures 76 and 89. There is a strong tendency to rush there, thus setting up a virtual rampage during this final “poco animato,” which should have a tempo consistent with the preceding two occurrences.