Recently, I heard a superb recorded live performance of Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer played by Steven Mead. Usually, when I hear those Mahler songs played on a brass instrument, even when played beautifully, I feel it falls quite short without the text, until I heard Steven Mead’s performance. I’m not sure to what extent Steven followed the text of the Mahler songs but I do know, whatever his thinking process, it worked splendidly.
Many purists have spoken out against instrumentalist playing songs arguing that the songs simply couldn’t be as successful as they would be when sung with the text. While many players go to great lengths trying to follow the text, this can lead to problems because many texts have been translated to various languages. For example, if the original text is Russian, the version we study could be in German, French, Italian or English.
Text is a powerful element in songs, but it is not essential, as we could hear in Mr. Mead's Mahler. It can also be confusing to an instrumentalist, depending in the language of the text, which can change the rhythm. For example, a quarter note in one language might very well be 2 eighth notes in another, a triplet in another or any number of other possibilities. In the abstract language of music without words, this requires a decision.
Linguists say there are between 110 and 120 consonants in world languages. Consonants translate to instrumental language as articulation; certainly, we have a wide verity of articulations with an instrument, but trying to simulate the consonants of some linguistic text would result in confusion and distraction of a performance.
Another consideration is the vowels, which in music would be timbre and tone coloration. Considering all the vowels there are with the diphthongs, triphthongs etc., that’s a lot of tone colors, certainly thousands.
Clearly, Steven Mead did a thorough study of the meaning behind Mahler’s poignant poetry. The appropriate mood was evident, and it was clearly performed in the eloquent language of a superb euphoniumist.
Successfully playing a song, which has words, is far more than just a vocalise sung on a single vowel. It must convey the mood of the text, albeit, in the abstract language of a single line instrument.
Thank you Steven Mead for this great example of how it’s done.
September 16, 2014, Tlahuitoltapec, Mexico