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Elegy for Mippy II

May 3, 2010

My newest favorite blog because its 1) clever 2) references Bernstein 3) has more words than pictures, which helps my tiny brain.

If anyone ever asks me why Leonard Bernstein’s a genius, I could point to his conducting or his most famous works, but I wouldn’t.  I’d open up Elegy for Mippy II. I’ve actually been working on the little ditty when I have a moment or two to actually play.

What’s so great about it?  There’s a few reasons.  First, the piece has a lot of important notes that don’t fall on the beat.  The first line alone has something like 947 gestures that begin off the beat (depending on how finely you want to slice a “gesture,” somewhere between 4 and 8, actually).  At a slow tempo, its possible that the listener wouldn’t be able to hear all of these upbeats, or (just as likely) the performer would just bastardize the feel to the point of obliv-rhythm.

Even the greatest trombonist in the world can’t fully convey this rhythmic energy, so Bernstein drives the feeling home by asking the performer to loudly tap the downbeats.  He asks the trombonist to accompany him/herself with a 4 to the floor rhythm, which locks in all the rhythmic nuance that this 90 second masterpiece contains.

The toe tapping is also a stylistic idea that is more attention grabbing than any standard piano accompaniment could ever be.  It gives the work a certain flair that is so very Bernstein-like.  Another Bernsteinism: A casual listen would cause you to think the piece is fairly comfortable in its pitch center.  A casual glance at the score gives the impression, what with all the sharps and flats flying about the page, that the piece is as tonally centered as a Jenga tower.  The key changes are so smooth and subtle, you almost think Bernstein was picking his accidentals out of a hat or trying to confuse the poor trombonist.  It doesn’t take much to confuse us, after all.

Lastly, the work has been subjected to fairly different interpretations.  Marked 72, its often played a good deal slower, allowing the trombonist to make the most of each melodic idea.  You’ll also find a variety of approaches towards the sixteenth notes.  Some players swing all of them, some none, and some only during the B section, and only some of the time.  These options could only be provided by a conductor/composer who relishes in the variables presented in a score that will allow the performers to make the music their own.

Definitely float around the Internet for a handful of performances.  Each performance is its own beast, which is how it should be.  If everyone plays a piece exactly the same way, why listen to different people playing it?  You can also pick up Joe Alessi’s performance of the piece, which while being excellent, is a little heavier than I imagine a perfect performance to be.

….I should probably get back to practicing.

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