In a second-hand bookstore last week I came across the cello part of Beethoven’s late string quartets. Just the cello part – the other parts were missing. It was cheap, and I bought it out of curiosity.
Looking through it when I got home, I was struck by how impossible it is to guess, from the cello part alone, what else is happening in the music, let alone how monumental it is. The single bass part looked simple and straightforward, almost dull (see photo). Yet of course in context it is nothing of the kind.
I know these quartets by ear, so in some places I could supply the rest in my imagination. But what if you had never heard the quartet performed? Having only a single part would keep you totally in the dark. You’d be dumbfounded when you heard the other parts leap into life in all their complexity.
I started to wonder whether I could think of any other art form where the performer has so little information when they begin learning their own part. Actors have the whole script of the play when they start learning their lines, don’t they? But Bob told me it wasn’t always so: in Shakespeare’s day, actors were often handed just their own part. Until rehearsals began, they had no notion of anyone else’s lines. The rehearsal process must have been a continuous source of surprise for actors as they realised the significance of what they had to say. That’s the only analogy we could think of for the single parts which many musicians still use today.
The situation is different for pianists, who by tradition have everyone else’s parts printed in small font in the piano score. Right from the beginning the pianist can see the full picture – though it’s true that sometimes, when rehearsals begin, the actual sound still comes as a surprise in some indefinable way.