Clavier Companion - May/June 2017 - 48
Playing composers' slurs
Playing composers' slurs: From
Mozart to the nineteenth century
by Beth P. Chen
n 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-nineteenthcentury notation practices. And, throughout the rest
of the nineteenth century they were still commonly
used, appearing alongside many composers' other
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 1: Song Without Words, Op. 30, No. 3, by Felix
Mendelssohn, mm. 3-7.
Excerpt 3: Sonata in F Major, K. 280, Mvt. 3, by
W. A. Mozart, mm. 140-142.
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