THOSE FOUR NOTES - Tchaikovsky Symphony No.6
the bassoonist's nightmare
by Roger Birnstingl
is very puzzlinIt g why Tchaikovsky didn’t put those four notes on the bass clarinet, an instrument he used quite a lot, particularly in his ballet music, the Manfred Symphony and more. There must have been some technical reason why he chose the bassoon and this we shall never know. It is the only occasion that I have seen a bassoon part of any work with four pppp, so he must have known that he was asking a lot.
He conducted the first performance himelf, shortly before his death. It's impossible to know whether the bassoonist played this passage on that occasion. My guess is that he did, and it was a disaster so that from then on it was played on the bass clarinet. Interestingly it remains in the bassoon part and in the printed score.
I have only had to play this bit on two occasions. The first was at the RFH with Markevitch conducting the LSO. I had got through the opening solo and was feeling relieved that the worst was over. Jack Brymer was in the middle of his long solo when I became aware that the bass clarinettist was looking at me with a desperate expression indicating that his instrument was not working. No choice for me but to play the notes for him, and with the reed I had on which was not the one I had used for the opening.
Jack, being a real pro, made a subtle crescendo towards my entry so that I could play fairly comfortably thinking ‘better too loud than not at all’. Amazingly, Markevitch gave me a bow at the end although I am sure that most of the audience had no idea why he had got me to stand up.
The other time was when the bass clarinettist of the Suisse Romande, a friend of mine, asked me to do this because he would have had a completely free week and wanted to go away. This concert was right in the middle so of course I agreed and worked out some tricks with a duster in the bell and the Bb key closed with a rubber band.
Roger Birnstingl started playing the bassoon at age 14. He was educated at Bedales School and later studied with Archie Camden at the Royal College of Music in London.
He has served as principal bassoonist of the London Philharmonic (1956–1958), the Royal Philharmonic (1961–1964) and the London Symphony Orchestra (1964–1977). He later served as principal bassoonist with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande until his retirement in 1997. He is currently professor of bassoon at the Geneva Conservatoire. He is also a joint president of the British Double Reed Society.