Stanley Myers’ “Cavatina” has become one of the staples of the classical guitar in recent years ever since its appearance in the 1978 film “The Deer Hunter”.
Here, we’ll dive deeper into the Cavatina from "The Deer Hunter and take you through each aspect of performance, and show you how to refine your classical guitar practice and expression.
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Stanley Myers originally wrote Cavatina for the movie The Walking Stick (1970), but it was popularized for The Deer Hunter in 1978. Myers first wrote it for the piano, but John Williams transcribed it for classical guitar, recording it in 1969.
The New Oxford American Dictionary defines a cavatina as a short, operatic aria in simple style without repeated sections. It came to be applied to any simple melodic piece of music.
On the classical guitar, Cavatina is actually quite difficult to play beautifully! It’s challenging to play smooth and lyrically like a song, since we’re playing both melody and accompaniment.
One of the key challenges is dealing with the tension produced by the left-hand barres in the piece. A beautiful tone with the right hand is also among the key considerations! We’ll want to practice the voices separately, as well, so we have a clear sense of phrasing with each.
Playing the voices separately
Play the melody on its own and try to obtain the most beautiful sound possible.
Imagine that you’re playing a duet with an accompanist. It isn’t imperative that you use the same fingerings as when the entire arrangement is put back together – the goal is to create an image of sound that we can translate to the full rendition.
Xuefei Fei, internationally acclaimed classical guitarist, also uses rest strokes for the single-line melody. We might not be able to do this all the time when we add back in the accompaniment, but this creates an ideal which we can try to imitate.
Now, think how you’d play the accompaniment if it was a duet with someone else. Fei would play “harp-like, dream-like,” with shape, and every note ringing.
Shifting and color in measures 3-5
We don’t have to put down every finger at the same time for measure 3. Think about the left-hand movement like a spider; put down each note in measures 2 and 3 in a sequence. It actually sounds a bit more bland if we don’t do it this way.
Your guitar should have lower action for this piece, otherwise it can get very tiring in the upper register.
Don’t use your energy equally on every string for the barre; focus your weight on the melody note. Don’t think of grabbing the string (ie., bringing the thumb and index fingers together). Borrow energy from the palm and front of the arm.
You don’t have to play the accompaniment very loud, either! This helps reduce the needed energy on the barre.
Wait until the last moment to add the second and third fingers in measure five. Always prioritize the melody if you’re feeling tension or having difficulty.
The listener might not hear a dull note if it’s in the accompaniment, although it’s ideal for every note to ring.
Be sure to find time to relax the hand between shifts, even if just for a brief moment. In measures 5-6, Fei focuses her energy on the C♯ in the melody and the B in the bass to ensure these are strong.
Even though we have frets, the intonation can sometimes change in unwanted ways.
You might want to use the third bar to tune the guitar, since this is a key spot where intonation can waver.
Additionally, if you’re pressing too hard on the string, this can actually stretch the string and change the intonation. Fei tends to mix free stroke and rest stroke in this opening passage.
Working on each voice individually allows us to figure out how to create the nicest tone possible in every instance.
Once we’ve plucked a long melody note, there is no way to control the sound. The C♯ in m. 3 has to ring two whole bars.
One way is to use a rest stroke to make the note a bit fatter, and another way is to use a bit of vibrato to prolong the sustain.
If we can shape the accompaniment carefully, this can create the illusion of a shaped melody.
It’s best not to use open strings for the bass notes so that they don’t ring longer than they’re supposed to and the harmony is clear. It’s also impossible to use vibrato on open strings.
It’s quite easy to play the accompaniment too loudly on a piece like this, where the melody is full of sustained notes.
Give special attention to the melody note in measure 17 – it’s the highest note so far, the tonic, and the end of a phrase.
Fei slows down in the few notes right before and emphasizes it slightly.
Think about how we play in a chamber music setting; it isn’t possible to always be exactly together, so as long as we’re focused on playing beautifully, this is acceptable.
Resonance and smoothness
It’s important to know the tendencies of different notes to ring on our instrument.
Especially for key melody notes, like the B, C♯, and high E, work out the ideal place to pluck with the right hand to get the most resonant sound.
Always remember to have an image of a beautiful sound in your head so you have something to aim for.
The shift from m. 21 to 22 is worth special attention.
Don’t lift your finger completely or the sound will be chopped. Move as quick as you can, reaching the melody note first so the music is smooth.
The progression starting in m. 26 is interesting harmonically; make sure the bass notes ring for the full duration of the bar. The sound should be consistent for each bar, despite the number of strings we play across. In measure 30, don’t play the open string E or we have to release the melody note.
Hold the chord in m. 31 as long as possible, prioritizing the length of the bass note.
Melody in the bass and fingerings
The melody is in the bass range, often crossing the accompaniment, starting in m. 36.
Identify carefully which notes are the melody and play it isolated. The accompaniment should be much lighter so the melody stands out. Fei tries to use rest strokes for melody notes in the bass whenever possible.
For the solo at m. 31, imagine the round sound of a cello; this is most effectively executed with a rest stroke.
To play the F in m. 39 and the B♭ in m. 41, use the index finger but try to get the same sound you’d have with the thumb. We can play the melody note with the third string in m. 42 if the stretch is a bit too uncomfortable.
Up to m. 31, the piece is very peaceful and calm.
Fei uses some rubato there to help the music move a bit more. The important notes should ring out, such as the A♯ in m. 36, and the melody (B) in m. 42.
Don’t pluck the open B in m. 44 too quickly, or the tone is too percussive.
Play it a bit stickier. Be sure the accompaniment doesn’t cover the melody!
We can play m. 47 on the third string for a bit more smoothness, but Fei prefers the sound of the fourth string.
In mm. 48-50, the melody is once again a bit obscured amidst the accompaniment (the notes with upward beams belong to the melody). Give each voice a different-sized tone; melody notes can be bigger and rounder than the lighter, slightly brighter accompaniment.
Return to the A section
The return to the A section should be different than the first time; perhaps a bit more reflective and quiet this time, and with a bit more rubato.
We can take more time for extra vibrato in mm. 18-19 now. Fei also uses an open B at the end of bar 19 so the shift is smoother.
Experiment with a little glissando at the end of m. 20 going into m. 21 (this is an expressive character unique to the guitar!)
A bit of glissando at the very end (between the final two chords) also allows the guitar’s natural strengths to shine
It’s a dream-like, peaceful, calm section. Slowly, it’s hard to sustain melody/hold barre.
It’s important to take the feel of the piece and real tempo into balance, depending on the acoustics of the venue. It can go slower if in a wet venue, and faster/with a bit more flow in a dryer venue.
Beautiful tone is the key attraction to classical guitar. Think of it like a duet between 2 players.
Now that we’ve covered these points, you should be on your way to performing Stanley Myers’ Cavatina like a master of the classical guitar
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