Willson Osborne's Rhapsody for Bassoon

by Terry B. Ewell
Morgantown, West Virginia

I. Construction of the Rhapsody
II. Performance Suggestions
III. Osborne's Compositional Output
End Notes
About the Writer

The Osborne Rhapsody for Bassoon is one of the most widely performed solo works for the bassoon. Despite this fact, however, little has been written about the work or its composer. This article provides a brief analysis of the construction of the Rhapsody, offers performance suggestions for the work, and lastly documents the compositional output of Willson Osborne.

Sol Schoenbach recounts the genesis of the work in his article titled "The Story Behind the Composing of the Osborne Rhapsody".[1] Osborne wrote the first version of the work for broadcast by the New York City radio station WNCY in the fall of 1952. The work, originally titled "Study for Bassoon:" was dedicated to Sol Schoenbach. The original score of the "Study" is reprinted in Schoenbach's article.

The published edition of the work under the tide Rhapsody for Bassoon (C.F. Peters, 1958) differs at several points from the original score. Some of these differences will be discussed later. Measure numbers refer to the Peters edition unless otherwise specified. Please refer to the Peters edition when reading this paper because it is not possible to give examples for everything discussed. Pitch identification will be made "bassoonist-friendly" by referring to the range of the instrument (i. e. low E, open F, high C). In addition, the pitch classification system developed by the Accoustical Society of America[2] will be given in parentheses.

I. Construction of the Rhapsody

Performers of the Rhapsody no doubt are aware of the "tonal" feel the work has. Indeed the Rhapsody does operate within a diatonic system: the Phrygian scale (Fig. 1). This scale has some peculiar properties which are exploited by Osborne throughout the work. Unlike the major scale which ascends to the first scale degree by means of a halfstep from the leading-tone, the Phrygian scale ascends to its first scale degree by a whole step. In the Rhapsody an ascent by a half-step does not indicate the first scale degree; in fact it is a descent by a half-step that is many times used to signal the first scale degree. It should be mentioned that a Phrygian scale contains the same pitches[3] as the natural minor scale on its fourth scale degree. For instance, Bb Phrygian and Eb natural minor hold the same pitches in common.

Figure 1. Phrygian Scale on Bb.

The first phrase (Fig. 2) contains several features which are exploited in the work. The phrase begins and ends with long notes on Bb below open F (Bb2). In a similar manner, many other phrases in the work (for example mm. 19-24) are bracketed by the first scale degree of the Phrygian scale in use. The first scale degree is emphasized not only by its prominence at the beginning and ends of phrases, but also by longer note values and metric placement within the phrase. Sometimes the stressed first scale degree is preceded by an upward run.

Figure 2. Osborne Rhapsody, mm. 1-5.

Three pitches receive longer note values in the first phrase - Eb, Bb and F It is significant that these three pitches are involved in the bracketing of four out of five of the first phrases. B flats are used in measures 1-5 and the beginning of measure 6 to the start of measure 9 as brackets. Eb is used from measures 10 to 15. F is used in measure 20 to the beginning of measure 24. The order in which these three pitches are introduced in the first phrase and their succession as phrase brackets is the same. Osborne may have viewed the movement from Bb Phrygian to Eb and F Phrygian like modulations to nearly related keys.

Figure 3. Structure of the Osborne Rhapsody.

Figure 3 shows how the Rhapsody can be divided into roughly four sections. Phrase brackets are indicated in the figure by opennote heads. The slurs signify phrases and broken slurs signal the absence of one of the "brackets" (For instance, in measure 15 there is no single pitch which clearly receives stress at the beginning of the fourth phrase.) Each of the four sections end with a descent into the lower octave. All of them but the second section begin below open F (F3) and feature an ascent to the upper octave somewhere in the middle of the section (the fourth section moves up in measure 57). Since the demarcation between the third and fourth section is somewhat ambiguous, the low Db (Db2) and D natural (D2) is used as the boundary. These notes in measure 56 are structurally significant not only because they may indicate the section boundary, but also due to the fact that they form a chromatic ascent from the lowest pitch of the piece in measure 40 to the final note of the movement (see the lower portion of Figure 3). This chromatic ascent balances the two chromatic descents in the low register in measures 17-19 and measures 36-40.

II. Performance Suggestions

Dynamics are one notable difference between the "Study" and the Rhapsody. The Rhapsody contains about twice the number of dynamic markings as does the "Study." The performer of the Rhapsody is also encouraged to vary the tempo more often than the "Study." For instance, measures 14, 27, and 53 contain comments in the Peters edition which are not present in the "Study."

The term "a tempo" and "con prima" are used in a consistent fashion by Osborne. The "con prima" given in measure 43 relates to the opening tempo. This, however, is not the meaning of "a tempo" In two instances in the Peters edition, the term "a tempo" is linked with a metronomic marking in parentheses (measures 9 and 51). The "Study" includes these two clarifications of "a tempo" given in the Rhapsody plus one other interesting tempo marking. Measure 40 of the Rhapsody contains an "a tempo" but no metronomic marking. The corresponding measure in the "Study" has no "a tempo" refers back to the last metronomic marking given. For this reason the "a tempo" of measures 36, 37, and 40 refers to quarternote = 92 as it is given in measure 34.

In a number of instances in the Rhapsody, it is important for the performer to use the flick keys. A smooth Ab - Eb slur in measure 15 can be attained by using the A flick key (figure 4), not the whisper key. The slur down to Eb (Eb4) from high Gb (Gb4) can be added by flicking the C# key (figure 4). The rest of the work follows common flicking technique.[4] One exception can be found in measure 53: flicking to C (C4) does not help due to the downward slur.

Figures 4 and 5.  Flick Keys and Harmonic Eb fingering.

Many a performer has failed to produce the last slur in the piece. Even the accomplished Sol. Schoenbach recounts missing the slur in his article.[5] A solution to this difficulty is to use a harmonic fingering for the forked Eb (Eb3) and then slur down to the low Eb (Eb2) using the normal low Eb fingering. Figure 5 gives the harmonic fingering for the forked Eb. It is essentially a low D fingering with a half-hole (or the first hole completely open). Care must be taken to lip this harmonic fingering down so that it is not too sharp in pitch. Timbral differences also remain a problem to be dealt with. The ease with which the low Eb is approached, however, make these shortcomings bearable.

[Please also see Joe Thornburg's Eb harmonic fingering, which he discovered after this article. His fingering is even better than the one I recommended here. TBE]

III. Osborne's Compositional Output

The following list is compiled from the records of the United States Copyright Office in the Library of Congress. The date given is the date the copyright was issued. The copyright registration number follows the date.

Two Ricicari for Brass Instruments. North Easton, MA: Music for Brass, 01 November 1948. EP50193.

Sonatina; for piano. New York: Arrow Music Press, 31 December 1948. EP88606.

Prelude, for Brass Instruments. North Easton, MA: Music for Brass, l6 January 1952. (Music for Brass no. 60) EP60071.

"Contrasts," from Six Pieces for the Young Pianist, Bryn Maur: Theodore Presser Co., 20 July 1954. EP82008.

"Evening Fields:' from Six Pieces for the Young Pianist. Bryn Maur: Theodore Presser Co., 20 July 1954, EP82011.

"Fairy Tale," from Six Pieces for the Young Pianist. Bryn Maur: Theodore Presser Co., 20 July 1954. EP82010.

"Lullaby," from Six Pieces for the Young Pianist, Bryn Maur: Theodore Presser Co., 20 July 1954. EP82012.

"Puppet Dance," from Six Pieces for the Young Pianist. Bryn Maur: Theodore Presser Co., 20 July 1954. EP82013.

"Walking:" from Six Pieces for the Young Pianist. Bryn Maur: Theodore Presser Co., 20 July 1954. EP82009.

Come, 0 Come, My Life's Delight. SSATB a cappella. Words by Thomas Campion. Bryn Maur: Theodore Presser, 12 April 1955. EP89011.

I Sing of a Maiden: SATB a cappella, anon. 15th century text. Bryn Maur: Theodore Presser (Choir loft choral series, 312-40342), 08 April 1957. EP107655.

Four Fanfares; based on 18th century French hunting calls, for 3-part brass choir with timpani, Ist ed. R. King (Music for Brass, no. 86), 24 February 1958. EP116797.

Rhapsody; for bassoon. New York: Peters (no. 6005), 24 November 1958. EP229347.

Rhapsody; for clarinet. New York: Peters (no. 6006), 24 November 1958. EP229348.

Alamand and Saraband. Music by Nicolas Lanier. Transcribed for brass ensemble by Willson Osborne. Campion Press, 13 July 1961. EP156507.

"Early One Morning I Arose," French folk song no. 1 from Two Noels. Translated, adapted, and harmonized by Willson Osborne. Mixed voices. Peters Edition (no.6241), 11 December 1961. EP228728.

"On Christmas Eve at Midnight," French folk song no. 2 from Two Noels for mixed voices. Translated and adapted by Willson Osborne. New York: Peters (no. 6242), 11 December 1961. EP228725.

Folk Dance, Lydian mode on C, a piano solo. Bryn Maur: Theodore Presser, 12 October 1964. EP193499.

Two Quiet Sons; a piano solo. Bryn Maur: Theodore Presser, 04 January 1965. EPI96530.

Fantasy in Six Parts. Transposed and edited by Willson Osborne. Campion Press, 04 November 1968. EP483202.

Soliloquy. C. Willson Osborne, (unpublished) 12 December 1972. EU372094.

Fantasy; for unaccompanied flute. c. Willson Osborne, (unpublished) 12 December 1972. EU372095.

0 Mistress Mine, Where Are You Roaming? for four part men's chorus a cappella. Words by William Shakespeare. c. Willson Osborne, (unpublished) 30 July 1973. EU427831.

End Notes

1. The Journal of the International Double Reed Society 11 (June 1983): 10-13.

2. Briefly this system works as follows: Middle C on the piano is C4. The C# above it is C#4, the B natural below it is B3. A minor tenth below C4 is A2.

3. In this paper I often use the term "pitch" to mean "pitch class" unless I specify a certain tone like low E (E2).

4. For further information on the flicking technique see: William Dietz, "The Flicking Technique of the Bassoon:" The National Association of College Wind and Percussion Journal 37/3 (Spring 1989):21-26. James Thornton, "Bassoon Wing Keys," The Instrumentalist 1315 (January 1959): 51. William Spencer, The Art of Bassoon Playing (Evanston: Summy-Birchard Company, 1958): pp. 57-58.

5. Schoenbach, "The Story behind...," p. 10.

About the Writer...

Terry B. Ewell is Assistant Professor of bassoon and music theory at West Virginia University. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in music theory at the University of Washington.

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