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The Swan

by Camille Saint-Saens

Eileen Gilligan and Alex Raineri -The Swan

The Swan is number 48  in the Tone Development Through Interpretation book by Moyse and a must to play and work on.

There are quite a few things to think about and I may have some suggestions also to help. A picture to get you in the mood.

Firstly, what story are we telling and can we communicate a visual to the audience . This is the challenge. The piano part to me is the swans’ little feet paddling through the water . They sometimes lift one leg up and rest it on their body and paddle with the other leg. Alex did a fantastic job creating this paddling underneath me. The flute is the beautiful elegant white swan gliding through the water on a sunny day, the breeze blowing gently, families picnicking on the shore, couples walking hand in hand in the waterside gardens. Elegance is the Key word here. This is just an example of a visualisation one can have when playing this melody. It can help to create mood, explore colours and project a strong musical idea across.

Secondly, tone ,musical line and expression are crucial. This is a hard little thing. Made so much easier if you know how to hold a musical line and blow through. Rampal was always a big advocate of always reaching for the top and where are you going musically. Moyse in all of his 24 little studies gets the player to continually think about where are they going and what are they trying to say. My favourites in the book would have to be 1,2,3 6, 8, 11, 13, 14, 19 ,22,24, but I love them all and have them from memory. This is where the player builds the foundations to tackle The Swan. The 24 little studies are “the Bible” and the way forward for solid flute playing and musicianship.

When I was studying these , it took a year to get through them, lessons were intense and more often than not I came out with stars in front of my eyes from the intensity of the work and wondered if I would ever be able to play a piece again. That was the best year of my life. I have never looked back and will continue not to look back. Put the work into these little things and they will reward you big time.

To sum it all up,  this piece has to have a beautiful tone, expressive phrasing and tapered ends to phrases- melodious study number 1. It has to have an overall shape and climax .The story and piece has to taper away to the swan gliding off into the distance and the flute tapering away to nothing but still being beautiful. The piano continuing with the little feet paddling into the distance.  It’s a tall order worth working at.

I think breathing also is a big part of this and anything we do musically. If you are playing the Swan, then you know how to breathe and we all have our own ideas on breathing- the mechanism of it that is. There is quote , one of many from the interview I did with Stephen Preston . This one is about breathing and so relevant to The Swan.

“Breathing, it’s about how we flow in and out of a breath”. I have the quotes on my music stand. I like to think about them and mull them over.

The other aspect I would like to cover is soft expressive fingering. This is keeping your fingers very close to the keys and when you put a key down making sure the touch is soft and expressive . The difference in the tone is noticeable. Foundation tools , the little studies , tone development and vocalisations are excellent ways to embed this into your playing and of course when you want to put the accelerator on full speed the passages come out so much easier and musically expressed.

Listening inspirations for you.

https://youtu.be/xEwxIkW9SWo   One of my absolute favourite musicians Steven Isserlis. His Caesar Franck sonata is mind blowing.

https://youtu.be/3qrKjywjo7Q Yo Yo Ma -the swan.

https://youtu.be/FKHR4hocW5k Joshua Bell ,I adore his playing .I sink into a warm meditative state. It is sublime.

https://youtu.be/W93fk2P0MIU Jascha Heiftz

https://youtu.be/aDMeCju9O00  Jacqueline du Pre

https://youtu.be/uoo4-sxiONQ Mischa Maisky , goosebumps.

https://youtu.be/IouIrF4NZVo  Wouldn’t be complete without Marcel Moyse playing The Swan

https://youtu.be/pep328-E9wA Jeanne Baxtresser. So musical and expressive, very beautiful. This could open up a thought process as to the use of vibrato and does it add or detract from the overall musical story.

https://youtu.be/89f2vStYXbM Gazzelloni. This is must to listen to.

I could go on forever , notice the examples are mostly string players. So important we strive to sound like other instruments particularly the strings. They have an intensity of expression and  depth of emotion which is captivating .

There is a difference in all the tempos chosen. I think you have to go with what your instinct tells you and make it work for you. The strings don’t have to breathe so they can take all day to express a phrase, lucky things.