Using harmonics in Britten’s Six Metamorphoses After Ovid: V. Narcissus

Every oboist knows the Metamorphoses and probably a large proportion of your audience will too, but it’s worth bearing in mind that there will be people listening who are not familiar with the piece and by the time you get to Narcissus they’ve already sat still for four movements played by a solo oboe and some of your listeners will be getting a bit fidgety…so you have to make it interesting for them.

Luckily, Narcissus can be made extremely interesting if you use harmonics to represent the second voice in the piece, that of Narcissus’ reflection. This voice is heard for the first time in bar 11 here:

Narcissus introduction of echo voice

…and the * in my edition (Boosey & Hawkes) points you to an explanatory note:

From this point the notes with upward stems represent the reflected image of Narcissus, and those with downward stems Narcissus himself.

Great! Now, my teacher is always urging me to use harmonics sparingly, because the sound is rather too different and you can’t get away with it in many pieces, but here you’ve got the perfect excuse to mess around with them. Harmonics can be used almost every time the notes with upward stems appear, and if you can keep these notes really quiet and very still (absolutely no vibrato), the effect is striking. Think of cold, still water and picture the reflected image of Narcissus, his voice coming from the chilly depths. And then, when you’re playing the actual voice of Narcissus bits, really go for it – try to remember the burning torture that goes with unrequited love and give it a bit of welly. Anguished yearning in the vibrato, and all the rest of it – you know.

You can go for gold in this passage here, emphasising as much as possible the impassioned fortes and the unearthly piano:

Narcissus unearthly and impassioned

And try to keep each phrase moving through, so the echo almost merges with the phrase that’s gone before. Practise moving from the last note of the Narcissus voice into the first harmonic note of his echo, so you can make a smooth transition from loud note to soft harmonic.

Narcissus loud to soft

A word of caution, however: I don’t know about your oboe, but with mine, to make the harmonics work nicely, there really can’t be any water at all in the octave box. Mop out first. And the top Bs and Cs in harmonic form are quite difficult, so if you think you’re going to have trouble, it’s better to avoid this by playing the note in the normal way and trying to mimic the sound of a harmonic as best you can. Easier said than done…

Just a couple of other points to make: the Metamorphoses are written for a solo instrument, yes, but they still have to be rhythmical. Get the speed of Narcissus in your head before you start, because the first bar needs to be as long as the second (et cetera), and remember that the group of 4 in bar 6 really isn’t that fast:

Narcissus tempo with words

Finally, the last bar is very tricky because Narcissus is a flower by now and the echoed voice has gone; however, the final phrase still needs to be very controlled and quiet. The dynamic is dim. from pp. (tch!) and the notes are all over the break (Cs and Ds) so it’s very difficult to keep it all even and still.


What you don’t want is for one particular note to be sticking out, so it’s a question of experimenting with conservatoire Cs, using the trill key for the D, or even playing the Cs as a harmonic. But the latter defeats the point of using harmonics in the first place – they were there to represent the echo, which has vanished now – so on the whole, I favour using conservatoire Cs. This phrase needs work though. Ooo, and this is definitely the final point, go through the whole piece and work out where you’re going to breathe. You really do need to be absolutely in control with this one.

(PS. Sorry the photos are so dark. I’ll keep working on it.)

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