Flexaton / Musical saw in Shostakovich's opera "The nose" - Katharina Micada | Singende Säge

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About the
flexaton (Musical saw)
part in Shostakovich's
opera "The nose"
READ MORE about the flexaton part in Khachaturian's
Piano concerto
The expression "flexaton(e)" means "to flex a tone".
It has a double meaning and is used for
- the instrument Musical saw (between ca 1920 and 1965)
- the instrument Flexatone (since ca 1923 (patents 1922 and 1924))
In compositions from that period it is necessary to figure out, which instrument is meant. A closer look at the score/libretto and a research about the surroundings is useful.
In general the Flexatone is noted with tremolo and is used for short effects, the Musical saw is noted without tremolo and is used for melodies.
In "The nose" it is probable, that Shostakovich wanted to have the sound of a Musical saw (more below).
Here you can listen to recordings of the flexaton part with Musical saw and with Flexatone.
1a. newspaper office with Musical saw
1b. newspaper office with Flexatone
2a. Ivan's song with Musical saw
2b. Ivan's song with Flexatone
3b. Finale - last bars of the opera with Flexatone
3a. Finale - last bars of the opera with Musical saw

The following composers (and maybe more) used the term "flexaton" for the Musical saw and noted "flexaton" in the score:
- Arthur Honegger (Antigone, 1924/1927)
> see recording of the opera with musical saw from 27'23.
- Erwin Schulhoff (Symphonie Nr. 1, 1925), there is no tremolo noted in the flexaton part and the sound of the Musical saw makes musically much more sense than the Flexatone, have a look at the flexaton part
- Ernst Krenek (Opera "Jonny spielt auf", 1927), who used the special sound of Harlem Jazzbands in the 1920ies, where musical saws were used as well as washboards and other domestic instruments. In this excerpt of a recording you can listen to the musical saw from 2'30, from 2'54 and from 3'48
- Aram Khachaturian (Piano concerto, 1936)
> see article about the musical saw in this concerto
- Giacinto Scelsi (Quattro pezzi per orchestra, 1959) - he noted "Sega o Flessatono", which can't be meant alternatively because of the very diverging sound character of both instruments
- Hans Werner Henze (opera "Elegy for young lovers", 1961) , to whom I spoke personally, when I played the "flexaton"-part on the Musical saw in his opera "Elegy for young lovers" in Bilbao 2009. He told me, that there were always confusion with the double meaning of "flexaton". Secondary here is a report of the premiere (in German), where the musical saw is mentioned.

Why Shostakovich wanted to have a Musical saw and no Flexatone in the opera "The nose":

In the 1920ies, Shostakovich was inspired by modern musical elements like Jazz, Waltz, film and variety music and also new instruments like the musical saw. So were his colleagues Arthur Honegger, Erwin Schulhoff and Ernst Krenek.
The Flexatone didn't play a role in modern contemporary music in this period. Only Arnold Schönberg used it in his "Orchestervariationen Op. 31" (1928) for short effects, not for melodies.

The Musical saw is a traditional Russian folk instrument.
( > Ivan's "popular" song, together with 2 Balalaikas)  
> see report of a performance of the opera in 2004 in St.Petersburg, where is mentioned the duet between balalaika and musical saw.

The Flexatone is no traditional instrument.

The Flexatone needs to be played with tremolo (sound production with two little mellets) and normally the tremolo is specially noted as for example in the flexaton part in Schönberg's Orchestervariationen Op.31. But there is no tremolo noted in the flexaton part of "The nose".

Sound character:
The Flexatone sounds just funny and strange.
The Musical saw sounds "singing", and therefore it can imitate a singer or put a grotesque note on the singing voice. Additional the sound has a melancholic touch. This special mélange is also in Shostakovich's music.

It is nearly impossible to play a diminuendo and a "morendo" on a Flexatone (Finale - last bars of the opera, listen to 3b), but it is the natural end of the sound of a Musical saw.
With diminuendo and morendo the music wants to say, that something is disappearing, whatever this might be. The end of the opera is not just grotesque, but can also be read with a melancholic touch, even a little bit fatalistic. Kovaljov has back his nose, but is he really happy now? This special emotion can't be expressed with the alarming doorbell-like sound of the Flexatone. Why an alarm at this point? And why should an alarm disappear? This atmosphere can be expressed much more adequate with the more subtle and "lonely" sound of a Musical saw, which really ends "morendo" (listen to 3a).

Shostakovich used the flexaton (Musical saw) - also in other compositions -  to caricature people and to imitate human voices (for example in the film music to "The new Babylon" (ironic valse and kiss scene, where the tragical ending of the film is anticipated) and in his opera "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" ). This is quite well possible with the Musical saw, because the saw already sounds like a human voice. The saw can easily "babble", "yowl", "yell" or "bluster", like in the scene of "The new babylon" of drinking and laughing people.
In the scene of "The nose" in the newspaper office, the flexaton goes along with the officer's lyrics "But it turned out to be libelous, that poodle was actually a runaway treasurer. I can't remember from which organisation", where he is jeering at Kovaljov and suggesting, that he is a lier. Means, that the flexaton should support this intention. It goes unisono with the voice and - if played with Musical saw- gives a malicious character to the voice (listen to 1a.).  
In the scene with Kovaljov's servant Ivan it's also obvious. Ivan sings a folk love song, which is accompanied by a Balalaika. The instrumental sequence at the end of the song with Balalaika and Flexaton illustrates the lyrical mood and folk atmosphere. A Flexatone with the doorbell sound disturbs the lyrical character of this song (listen to 2a and 2b).

Shostakovich could have come in touch with the Musical saw in Russian folk music and as a silent movie pianist in the 1920ies, when this instrument was very popular.

The Swiss conductor Jürg Henneberger used a Musical saw for the Flexaton-part in the production of "The nose" in Bale /Switzerland in 2004.

Michael Güttler, chief conductor of the Finnish National Opera decided to take a Musical saw for the production of "The nose" at the Finnish National Opera in 2015.

In the production of "The nose" at the Komische Oper Berlin in 2018, the conductor  Ainārs Rubiķis also took the Musical saw for the Flexaton-part.

Vladimir Jurowski, musical director of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich decided to take a musical saw in the production of "The nose" in fall 2021.

Katharina Micada
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