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Playing composers' slurs: From Mozart to the nineteenth century


In recent decades, scholars and publishers have reproduced composers' original notations in so-called Urtext editions. In these scholarly editions and facsimiles of composers' autographs, pianists will notice two slurring patterns—slurs obviously cutting off a phrase or a melody, or a slur ending before the bar line when the end of the phrase or melodic line actually goes across the bar line.

A good example of this is in Mendelssohn's Song Without Words, Op. 30, No. 3, written in 1833-34. Rather than drawing attention to the melodic line with a long cross-bar phrasing slur, Mendelssohn divided the first phrase with slurs (see Example 1, measures 3-5). In the second phrase his slur stops before the bar line, before the last note of the phrase (see Example 1, measures 6-7). These were typical slurrings in many eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century notation practices. And, throughout the rest of the nineteenth century they were still commonly used, appearing alongside many composers' other slurring practices. 

Excerpt 1: Song Without Words, Op. 30, No. 3, by Felix Mendelssohn, mm. 3-7.

Introduced by several treatise authors in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the use of the slur served as a guide to performing techniques for strings, wind instruments, and keyboards. Although the precise meaning and extending functions of the slur sign may have varied among composers and periods, the most basic and widely recognized functions of the sign in instrumental music include bowing (strings), tonguing (wind instruments), legato touch, and articulation indications. Some composers decided not to include slurs as a guide to performance, but those who had a habit of including many slurs relied on these slurs to clarify the minute details of their music and to give technical guidance. Close examination of the drafts and autographs of Mozart, Mendelssohn, Chopin, and many others reveal that these composers would not consciously mistake longer cross-beat or cross-bar slurs for separate shorter slurs. Both were existing practices in Mozart's time and in the nineteenth century. Sometimes these practices even appear within the same piano piece. Examples can be found in the third movement of Mozart's Sonata, K. 280, composed in 1775),1 and in Chopin's Nocturne, Op. 9, No. 2, composed in 1830-32.2 (See Excerpts 2-5). 

Excerpt 2: Sonata in F Major, K. 280, Mvt. 3, by W. A. Mozart, mm. 120-122.
Excerpt 3: Sonata in F Major, K. 280, Mvt. 3, by W. A. Mozart, mm. 140-142.
Excerpt 4: Nocturne in E-Flat Major, Op. 9, No. 2, by Frédéric Chopin, m. 4.
Excerpt 5: Nocturne in E-Flat Major, Op. 9, No. 2, by Frédéric Chopin, m. 8.

Eighteenth-century slurs in performance and Mozart

In the eighteenth century, a common performance practice in orchestral and keyboard music was to give a gentle emphasis on the first note of a slur and a legato touch for all the notes under the slur. C.P.E. Bach affirmed this in Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen, one of the most influential keyboard-instrument treatises in the second half of the eighteenth century: "When notes are slurred, these notes under a slur should be held for their full length. In addition, the first note of a slur is given a strengthened pressure."3 

When Bach wrote this in 1753, the most common keyboard instruments were harpsichord-type keyboards and clavichords, but during the last quarter of the century the improved early pianos (fortepianos) quickly became popular concert instruments. Mozart, for example, was in his mid-twenties when he received his first piano, probably made in 1782, from the maker Anton Walter and gave concerts on this piano with its light action and rapidly decaying sound. Beethoven told Czerny that Mozart's touch on the fortepiano tended to be choppy, perhaps due to Mozart's spinet (harpsichord) technique. In fact, there were some changes of Mozart's slurring in the 1780s. Mozart attempted to extend the length of his slurs with a series of adjoining ties and slurs in alternation, which went across several bars. However, cutting-phrase and cutting-beat slurs were still his main slurring devices, despite his new slur practices. Influenced by his father Leopold, Mozart was one of the few composers at the time who tended to mark almost every slur he wanted (mainly from the middle of the 1770s onwards) to show detailed articulation, including inconsistent slurrings, double slurrings, and plenty of consistent cutting-phrase slurs. On several occasions, Mozart corrected his own slurring by prolonging or shortening it. It mattered to him whether a slur was a note longer or shorter.  

Due to the mechanical nature of fortepianos and the period's detached piano touch, Daniel Gottlob Türk suggested in his 1789 Klavierschule that when notes were slurred, the finger should remain on the key during the length of each note, and one should give a scarcely noticeable accent on the first note of a slur.4 Since the normal touch of early pianos was between non-legato and a slight détaché, the notes which were not particularly slurred during playing would not naturally sound legato. That means, the last note of a slur would not automatically sound connected to its following note when the performer applied a normal touch. This practice, however, can be foreign to modernpiano players because the normal touch of modern pianos can sound somewhat legato unless the pianist shortens or releases the last note of a slur slightly.

A reason that some composers were fastidious about where a slur started and ended could be that the slurs affected the general practice of metrical accentuation. Since metrical accentuation was an important part of music making, Leopold Mozart used the down-bow stroke to draw attention to main beats in his Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule (1756), and Türk described varying degrees of unnotated metrical accents in his Klavierschule. Apparently, the appearance of the slur helps to inform performers where and how they can alter this routine practice of metrical accentuation. The slur can let pianists know to emphasize places where composers would like to keep the sense of original metrical accentuation.

Nineteenth-century slurs in performance

The nineteenth century was an era when multiple piano action mechanisms and various sound characteristics of early pianos were undergoing dramatic development. Composers' desired effects influenced the changes in pianos, and composers' favored pianos had a profound impact on their individual pianism, style, and technique. A few well-known cases include that of Chopin, whose favored French Pleyel pianos were mirrored in his sentimental singing tone, Liszt, whose preference for French Erards was reflected in his virtuosic and dramatic writings, and Brahms, whose fondness for Viennese-action Streichers resulted in the richness of his texture and sonority. Meanwhile, as pianos and piano music developed, notational indications flourished as well. Many composers were eager to notate their subtle and unique performing guidance in great detail. Whether their slurs were short or long, cutting phrases, or in response to the phrasing, these slurs indicated composers' musical intent.

The basic function of the slur sign was still defined as a guide for legato playing. Gustav Schilling called it Schleifbogen (1835). Hermann Mendel and Hugo Riemann used the term Legatobogen (1872 and 1882 respectively). Both terms meant the same thing—legato curved line. In addition, cutting-phrase slurs were still commonly used by most composers.

Clementi (1752-1832) and Beethoven (1770-1827) were among the composers who advocated legato playing as a general style of pianism. Clementi even introduced finger substitution to facilitate good legato playing. This, however, does not mean that the pianos at the time had achieved a standard on which a normal touch was fully sustained. Instead, early-nineteenth-century Viennese-action pianos and even Chopin's favored Pleyel pianos still had a fairly light and delicate sound, and the normal touch of these instruments was slightly detached. Therefore, a legato line had to be produced by the pianist.

In 1811, Muzio Clementi commented in his Appendix to the fifth Edition of Introduction to the Art of Playing on the Piano Forte that "the notes marked thus [a slur] called Legato, in Italian, must be played in a smooth and close manner, which is done by keeping down the first key, till the next is struck by which means, the strings vibrate sweetly into one another, and imitate the best style of singing." Several authors also emphasized repeatedly how the note under or above a slur should be connected to achieve a smooth legato effect. 

While legato playing was gradually becoming a stylistic fashion, composers such as Clementi, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Chopin, and Ignaz Moscheles frequently marked unusually long cross-bar slurs over a long phrase or a thematic line. This was to indicate a legato touch throughout the long line or phrase. Meanwhile, cutting-phrase and short slurs were still these composers' common slurrings. These slurs obviously guided the practices which were different from composers' long cross-bar slurs.

In his Instructions for the Piano Forte (1812), a few slurs were added to assist Cramer's explanation of musical accents, showing that the first note of a slur was an accented one and the last note of a slur an unaccented one (see Excerpt 6). This was in response to the meaning of the slur from the previous century—the first note of a slur was to be slightly accented. Although not specifically mentioned, the last note of a slur was not supposed to be smoothly connected to the following note. Later, in Henschel's edition of Moscheles's Studies for the Piano Forte, as Finishing Lessons for Advanced Performers, there is a clear description on how a two-, three-, or four-note slur was supposed to be played. It indicated that the first note of a slur was to be slightly accented and the last note of the slur was to be shortened. 

Excerpt 6: Accented and unaccented notes in two-note slurs in Cramer’s Instruction for the Piano Forte, p. 43.

Evidently, composers' cutting-phrase and cutting-beat slurs provided subtle performing guidance to deviate from their more legato lines. It is, therefore, the pianist's task to decide how much emphasis the first note receives and the length of the last note, taking into account the musical context and the specific characteristics of the piano being played.

Many pianists today, professionals included, tend to link or extend some seemingly musically unrealizable slurs into a smoother and longer legato line. Perhaps it is time to reconsider how to relate past composers' unusual articulations to modern grand pianos. Claudio Arrau's (1903-1991) beautiful and fairly faithful rendition of Chopin's detailed slurring in the Nocturne, Op. 9, No. 2, proved that there is potential that past composers' slurrings can work well on today's instruments. 

1 Biblioteka Jagiellonska [PL-Kj] . (2005). W. A. Mozart 279-284, 330, 455. Kraków: Biblioteka Jagiellonska [PL-Kj] .

2 Chopin, F. (1880). Nocturne, Op. 9 No. 2. Leipzig, Breitkopf und Härtel.

3 Bach, C. P. E. (1753). Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen. (William Mitchell, Trans.) Berlin: pp. 125-126.

4 Türk, Daniel Gottlob. (1789). Klavierschule. (Beth P. Chen, Trans.) 

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