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The Orchestral Musician

Changing attitude to the status of musicians. In the early 20th century two strands of employment start to emerge. Playing in an orchestra – satisfaction and frustration – how different sections of the orchestra are affected. Ever higher standards of technique.

In 1900 the majority of professional musicians were working in theatres, restaurants or for dancing. It was only with the formation of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1930 and then in 1946 with the re-opening of the Royal Opera House that Britain had its first full-time symphony orchestra and opera house. Until then very few musicians earned their living wholly as ‘orchestral musicians’.

The problems Sir Henry Wood was still experiencing in 1904 were caused to a considerable extent by the fact that nearly all of the musicians in the Queen’s Hall Orchestra were playing in the many London theatres, where they could put in deputies. It was largely from this considerable number of musicians that the Royal Philharmonic Society recruited the musicians for its orchestra (not to be confused with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra that Sir Thomas created in 1946). The musicians in the orchestra Sir Henry put together for the first series of Proms in 1895 which became the Queen’s Hall Orchestra, were mainly theatre musicians who expected to treat their relationship with that orchestra as they did their theatre contracts.

At the beginning of the 20th century two strands of musical employment begin to emerge. Until then there had just been music. The same composer might well write sacred music, ‘art-music’ and ‘popular music’. Art-music more precisely describes what is now always referred to as classical, or sometimes as serious music. Neither of these terms is really accurate: art-music does not have to be Classical (as distinct from Romantic or Contemporary) nor does it need to be ‘serious’

From about 1910, when a new style of dance music started to be favoured by dancers, a new and different style of playing was also required and by around 1920, when a large number of what came to be called dance bands had been formed, those who played that music began to be referred to as ‘dance’ musicians (and, by some of the older musicians like my father, as ‘Jazzers). In the latter half of the 1950s these musicians were increasingly replaced by the arrival of the pop and rock groups. For the past 80 years, with only a very few exceptions, musicians who have provided music for dancing have not played in orchestras. However, for those orchestral musicians who have been employed in providing ‘backing’ for the myriad forms of contemporary popular music on recordings and TV, it has usually been extremely rewarding financially. On TV the producers of programmes featuring a pop singer or group have increasingly favoured young and attractive women musicians when a small string section is on view.

Increasingly, since about 1955, when ‘popular music’ in its very many forms replaced jazz orientated dance music as the music enjoyed by the majority of young people, jazz has become more and more respectable until, since the 1990s, it has been regularly played on BBC Radio 3 alongside symphonic music, while pop music has its own channel, 1. Students at the music colleges and conservatoires in Britain and the USA can take Jazz as their main study and many of the leading jazz musicians are now extremely musically educated. The extent to which attitudes to popular culture have changed since the 1960s can be gauged by the fact that at that time, when a number of distinguished jazz musicians and I met representatives of the BBC on behalf of the musicians broadcasting jazz and improvised music, jazz was still classed as ‘entertainment’ and not ‘music’.

In contrast to a good many other countries where permanent symphony orchestras had already been established during the 19th century, it was not until well into the 20th that one was created in Britain. A musician’s casual and insecure way of life and income continued to make this seem an unsuitable career for the children of most middle-class families. Perhaps, if they had a very great talent as a pianist or violinist and a solo career was possible, or they wished to become music teachers, it might be considered. Most fathers would definitely not have thought that an orchestral musician would make a suitable husband for one of their daughters. One of my colleagues told me, many years after the event, that even in 1947 when he went to ask his prospective father-in-law for his daughter’s hand in marriage this gentleman, who I believe was a bank manager, said, ‘My daughter tells me you are a musician. Where do you play?’ ‘I am the principal trumpet in the Royal Opera House Orchestra’, my friend replied. ‘What do you do during the day-time?’ he was then asked. The prospective father-in-law clearly did not think of music as a full-time occupation and thought that symphony concerts and performances of opera arrived from out of thin air without any preparation. Another colleague, a distinguished principal wind player in the RPO in 1955, formerly a principal in the BBC Symphony Orchestra since the 1930s, told me that even while he was in the BBC Orchestra if he was asked what his occupation was he would claim to be ‘in insurance’, rather than admit that he played in an orchestra.

With the formation in 1930 of the BBC Symphony and the creation in 1932 of the London Philharmonic Orchestra by Sir Thomas Beecham, a number of musicians could then really be said to be orchestral musicians, in that they earned the whole or the bulk of their income from playing in an orchestra. They no longer needed to play in theatres, restaurants, or do summer seasons playing on municipal bandstands. In addition to the BBC Symphony Orchestra, during the 1930s the BBC created several other orchestras: the BBC Northern (now BBC Philharmonic), the BBC Scottish and Welsh Orchestras and the BBC Theatre Orchestra (now the BBC Concert Orchestra). The increased demand for art-music from 1940, led by 1946 to the formation of two more orchestras in London, the Philharmonia and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and together with the members of the London Symphony Orchestra and London Philharmonic Orchestra being fully engaged. It was not only in London that there were many more orchestral musicians. Bournemouth, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow all by then had full time orchestras, each employing at least 70 musicians. There were also full-time orchestras at the Royal Opera House and Sadler’s Wells, later to become the English National Opera, as well as a far greater amount of employment for freelance orchestral musicians in recording, broadcasting, playing for films and in the smaller part-time orchestras that had been formed in London and around the country.

Attitudes had also changed. A number of musicians of my generation, coming into the profession around the end of the war in 1945, had been to Public Schools (for my American readers that means Private Schools). Previously very few of those who had been to a public school or university had entered the profession as orchestral musicians. Musicians in the major orchestras in London, by working very hard, could earn enough to satisfy the most hard-hearted of prospective fathers-in-law, though those in the Regional orchestras were still comparatively poorly paid. To say that you were in one of these orchestras or even a member of the London Philharmonic or the Philharmonia meant nothing to the general public in Britain. I was struck when I went with the Philharmonia to Vienna in the 1960s how, when I was on a tram and other passengers saw the name Philharmonia on my
Click for larger picture
instrument case, they looked at me with interest. In shop windows photographs of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and their conductors were used to advertise various goods. It seemed that in Vienna musicians were regarded with as much respect as footballers were in Britain.

Playing in an Orchestra

Symphony and opera orchestras, the true home of the orchestral musician, are highly complex hierarchical organisations, and to a greater or lesser extent this is true in all orchestras, large or small.

In 1900, musicians, like nearly everyone else, ‘knew their place’, accepted their position in society, and though they might be ambitious to better themselves the idea that every one was equal had not yet generally taken root. Accepting being told what to do and doing it without questioning was for most employees still the order of the day. Rules were obeyed, children did not ‘answer back’, those in authority were called Sir.

In an orchestra authority stems, as elsewhere, from the management, but is wielded by the conductor, who through the power invested in him by the management had the ability to hire and fire musicians. There is no doubt that in the past some conductors did behave like tyrants, as the bandmaster of an army band might. Although they could not send a player to the guardroom or consign him to barracks, they could terrorise and humiliate him, make his life a misery, destroy his ability to play and, ultimately, sack him, with or without good reason. Happily this state of affairs is no longer tolerated but, as I wrote in a previous chapter, many musicians still feel oppressed by conductors, especially when it is one for whom they have little or no respect.

Remnants of the old style of tyranny were still in evidence when I joined the profession in 1942. Individual members of the string sections, usually someone towards the back of the section, would be singled out to play a particularly difficult passage on their own, in front of the whole orchestra. Though an adequate member of the section, he would be unused to playing alone like a soloist and now, extremely nervous, he makes a poor showing and is humiliated in front of his colleagues. After WW2 changes in society and the education system greatly changed attitudes toward authority and this form of oppression is now extremely rare. But a conductor can still pursue and distress a player by constant criticism until he is no longer able to play adequately. It is now unlikely that individual members of a string section will be affected by a conductor in this way, though I have seen a whole violin section brought to the point of desperation at being unable to satisfy a conductor’s unreasonable demands. The best conductors have no need to behave like this, because they are able to indicate what they want by their gestures and are experienced enough to know what an individual player or section is capable of. It is members of the woodwind, brass and percussion sections who are obviously the most vulnerable to criticism when they have solo or exposed music to play.

Every member of an orchestra, whether the leader (or concertmaster in the USA), principal horn, or the violinist at the back of the second violin section has to give up some of her or his individuality, but some have to do so much more than others. String players have to give up most: they are always playing the same notes as a number of other players. From time to time I believe every one of them will experience a real feeling of frustration. Nearly all of them at some time will have had dreams of becoming a soloist or of playing in a string quartet, or at least in a chamber orchestra.

As a clarinettist I never had to experience the frustration of playing the same notes as a number of other players while playing in an orchestra, but I think I can understand how they must feel. Gilbert Vinter, a bassoonist (I remember that when I was a child he came to our house to rehearse a Mozart trio for two clarinets and bassoon with Pauline Juler and my father), and later a successful composer and conductor, persuaded the BBC to form a very large wind band for a series of broadcasts. It was a quite a remarkable band in that it was made up of many of the woodwind and brass players from all the orchestras in London – the symphony and opera orchestras, the BBC orchestras, plus the best free lance players.

There were about 14 or 16 clarinets (in a wind band the clarinet take on a similar role to the violins in an orchestra). At one time or another I played in every position in the clarinet section in that band, from principal (leader) to the player on the last stand. Even though the standard of all the players was so good, having to play the same notes as a lot of other people was a new experience for me. Everyone else seemed to be playing all the notes in the difficult passages except me and however loudly I played I could not really hear myself. I would not want that experience every day all through my life. The violin is a softer sounding and more subtle instrument than the clarinet, but even so I think I would find it difficult to bear.

Players, other than some of the string principals who are seated very near the conductor start with a major disadvantage: the majority of conductors never seem able to hear or understand whatever is said to them. Conversation with the conductor from one’s seat in the orchestra always seems to be what an exasperated colleague called ‘one-way traffic’. Conductors expect everyone, however far away from them, to hear and understand what they say, quite often fairly quietly and with a foreign accent, though the players on the back desks of the strings and the percussion, and even the woodwind and brass in a large orchestra, can be a considerable distance from them. When a member of the orchestra asks a question many conductors either don’t hear them or understand what is being asked. I learned that to get their attention it was necessary to wait until there was absolute silence, speak very loudly (with some it helped to stand up) and very clearly. It takes a fair amount of self-confidence, some might say ‘hard-neck’, to do that.

The phrase ‘hard-boiled musicians’, so beloved by critics, could not be further from the truth. Musicians, like all performers, however distinguished or famous, are extremely sensitive and aware of their own weaknesses and shortcomings as artists. Their confidence can be easily shaken. Actors, dancers and musicians have to take a great deal of criticism from directors and conductors as well as the self-criticism they constantly have to apply if they are to be any good. Quite a number of those going to music college, when faced with the demands of their teachers, who will often be a soloist or a professional orchestral player, and especially when they start doing a few orchestral engagements, find that they are temperamentally unsuited to the harsh reality of professional life. They give up and go into teaching or some other less demanding occupation.

It not easy, when one is trying one’s utmost to respond to the demands being made on one, to be told one is too loud or too soft, too sharp or too flat, too early or too late, not making enough crescendo or too much, too much attack or not enough – the list is endless. All these comments come most often from the least able conductors, those who cannot achieve what they want by their gestures. Something that, after working with so many conductors, I still cannot explain is why it is that even good intonation is achieved by the very finest conductors without any obvious action or comment on their part. Perhaps the sense of security they engender by the certainty of rhythm, tempo and the balance they achieve just makes it easier to hear and play more accurately.

Attitudes within the orchestra itself have also changed a great deal over the last 30 or 40 years. Older players used to take a very decided ‘who do you think you are, young man’ attitude to young players. Joseph Casteldini, a fine bassoon player, told me how when he was a young man he went to deputise at a show at one of the West End theatres. He found that he was sitting next to the famous clarinettist Charles Draper, then quite elderly and at the end of his career. At the interval, intending to be friendly, Joe said ‘Can I get you a cup of tea, Charlie? Draper responded with some asperity, ‘Mr Draper’, and did not speak to him again. I found when I joined the LPO in 1943 as a very callow youth that a few of the older players behaved in this way to me. When I complained to my colleague, the bass-clarinettist Richard Temple-Savage, by then one of the middle-aged members of the orchestra, he recounted his own experience when he had joined the orchestra in 1934. He said that for the first six months he was in the orchestra Reginald Kell, the then principal clarinet, did not speak to him at all. Nowadays, if an older player were to say ‘I’ve had 40 years experience’, as I remember being told a number of times when I was young and had only been in the profession for a couple of years, a young player would think (and might even say) ‘isn’t it time you made way for someone younger?’

As well as accepting the authority of the conductor, members of all the string sections also have to accept decisions made by the principal of their own section often directed by the leader. Many conductors will leave decisions about bowing to the Leader who will usually consult with the principals of the other sections. Decisions about bowing, which part of the bow, whether a passage should start with an up-bow or a down-bow, whether a series of detached notes should be played ‘on the string’ or ‘off’ and many other sophisticated questions have to be decided. There can be very decided opinions on these questions and doing something one way or another can make some passages much more difficult for some players. The leader may be a very fine player but have idiosyncratic ideas regarding bowing. Paul Beard, a very fine violinist and a fine leader highly respected by conductors (he was also Beecham’s leader of the LPO for a time), upset some of his section when he was leader of the BBC Symphony Orchestra because of his unusual views on bowing. It seems he was unwilling to listen to the complaints of a number of members of the first violin section, causing a degree of discontent. In contrast, when David McCallum was Leader of the RPO, not all the violinists in his section were of the highest calibre, but because of his easy authority and understanding of each player’s capacity he got the very best out of them and created a first-class section.

In the same way that musicians will accept a conductor’s wishes, even when their own feelings about the music differ from his, especially if there is finally a rewarding performance, so the members of every section, strings, woodwind, brass and percussion must at times accept the decisions of their principal. When appointing players, regard to their temperament and ability to co-operate in the position to which they are to be appointed is extremely important. Two players, perhaps equally good oboists, may have very different personalities. One might make an excellent principal oboe but be quite unsuited to being a second oboe, being unable to subordinate his own style and musical feelings sufficiently. The other player, equally good, might find the responsibility of being principal and ‘in the firing line’ all the time too demanding. He might be more suited to the less demanding principal position as the cor anglais player. In that position he will have important solos to play but they occur much less frequently. Or he or she might be ideal as a second oboist, delighting in supporting their principal when there are duets or unison passages, adapting to and matching his principal’s style and tone. The worst situation is when a second player believes he should be occupying the position of his principal, or if a string player feels dissatisfied, believing he should be sitting further forward in the section, perhaps right at the front. A player like that can be extremely harmful to the whole section.

Even the relationship between principals can sometimes be difficult. As Chairman of the Philharmonia I sometimes had to deal with this problem Perhaps the principal double bass and principal cello may have very different ideas as to how some passages the cellos and basses have to play together in octaves should be bowed. After a time, the relationship between the two of them gradually becomes strained and the whole of each section get involved. Or, perhaps the trumpets feel that the trombones always interpret the dynamic marking, whether piano or forte, too loudly, forcing them to play louder than they want to. Sometimes a very good woodwind or brass player can irritate some of his colleagues, who admire him, but find he is inclined to be rather over assertive, perhaps because he has a strong soloistic temperament. In solo passages his playing is very personal and exciting and at times an inspiration to others in the orchestra, but whenever others have to play in unison with him or when he doesn’t have the most important part in ensemble passages he always seems to dominate. The test for a really fine orchestral woodwind and brass player is whether he or she has the ability to switch from being a soloist one moment to a chamber music player the next, and then a moment or two later, when there is a melodic line in their part that they would like to play out, play as quietly as possible so that more important parts can be heard.

When I meet ex-colleagues of my own generation or older who in their day were considered very good players, there is general agreement that we would be lucky to get into the profession now with the skills we had when we started many years ago. Improved teaching methods and the many improvements that have been made in the manufacture of woodwind and brass instruments in the last 30 years or so have been important elements in making technical virtuosity relatively commonplace. But most important has been the example set by the extraordinary level of technical performance young aspiring musicians have come to accept as normal. The recordings made over many years, using the techniques I described earlier and that includes piecing together a number of ‘takes’ to create a performance without any blemish, have been an inspiration and the spur to achieve a similar or even a better performance.

Each year, starting in 1979, the National Centre for Orchestral Studies (NCOS) formed a symphony orchestra following the audition of students who had been at music college or university and now wished to become orchestral musicians. As the Director I sat in on the auditions for every instrument and was impressed by the generally high standard of technical skill. The oboe auditions are a good example. Before attending the audition every applicant was required to prepare a number of extracts from the orchestral repertoire that we had selected for their instrument. One of the extracts the oboists were sent was from the Overture to La scala di seta (The Silken Ladder) by Rossini. This overture contains a famous solo for the oboe that in my experience even the best players considered difficult. I remember that Terence MacDonagh, Leon Goossens and Evelyn Rothwell, three of the most outstanding players of their generation, would do some extra practice if they knew it was going to be on the programme. I had heard it imperfectly played by lesser players on a number of occasions. At the auditions for the NCOS from 1979 until 1989 I must have listened to about 300 young oboists. Though the technical performance of this difficult passage was generally very good only a handful played it with any real musical understanding.

Not surprisingly, the number of players able to respond to and interpret the content of the music and express it in their playing had not increased at the same time as their instrumental dexterity. In fact, musicians of my generation and those even older feel that a considerable number of concert performances have for some time lacked the expressive qualities we had heard in the past from the best principal players when they had solo and ensemble passages. In the last chapter I have written: When I was first involved in playing for recording, from 1944, we tried to recreate in the studio as nearly as possible what took place at a concert performance. As record sales increased it was not long before the concert performance began to try to recreate what could be heard on recordings Inevitably, listening to playbacks, editing short sections, when the primary concern of record producers had become whether the balance, tuning, ensemble or any other technical element was as near perfect as possible, resulted in performers becoming increasingly concerned about these aspects of their performance as well. Musicians brought up on a diet of recordings have naturally been as influenced by the interpretative elements they have heard as the technical.

Now that there are so many accomplished players there are a very large number of applicants whenever auditions are held for one of the orchestras. It is likely that 40 or more players will apply if the position of second clarinet in one of the BBC Orchestras becomes available. There may be two or three who the orchestra think might be suitable. As a rule each of them will then be given a trial period in the orchestra. As well as being a good player there are other qualities that are extremely important. How will they fit into the section musically and personally? How will they respond to conductors, and they to him? As well as being a good player, getting on well with colleagues and satisfying conductors, how consistent a player will they prove to be? Sadly, if there is only one job, two very good players are going to be disappointed

It is generally known that symphony orchestras everywhere have for some time been experiencing increasing financial problems and that the amount of employment for musicians has reduced, especially the number of recording sessions that the major orchestras in Britain had come to rely on to a considerable extent. Yet the number of young musicians seeking entry to the specialist music schools and the music colleges has not decreased. A good many of them will be hoping for a solo or chamber music career and though there are now many more opportunities for a local career in those fields, the majority of students leaving the music colleges wishing to follow a career as a performer will find they will be playing in an orchestra of some kind. The popularity of musicals, many of which have very long runs in London, a few for as long as 20 years, now provide employment for quite a few musicians. A few may be fortunate enough to obtain a position in one of the symphony orchestras. Many more will free-lance, a field of employment now sadly much reduced, and make up their income by teaching. It is vitally important that anyone contemplating a career as a professional musician should remember that many of those setting out with this intention are disappointed with the type of employment they find they are obliged to undertake for a good deal of their lives. This is true for all performers, actors, dancers, singers and musicians. There are just too few opportunities available for all those who wish to spend their lives doing what they enjoy most.

When talking to other orchestral musicians, including some who also had solo and chamber music careers and were fortunate enough, as I was, to have experienced the enormous satisfaction of taking part in a wonderful performance in a very good orchestra conducted by a great conductor, they have all agreed that notwithstanding the fact that one has to give up one’s freedom of expression and accept the discipline of being part of a large ensemble, nothing surpasses the satisfaction of taking part in a performance of this kind. It is an extraordinary paradox.

Over and above everything else the fact that as an orchestral musician one spends one’s whole working life in the company of men of genius one is very rarely, indeed ever, going to meet in person. One is constantly refreshed and enriched by the thoughts, feelings and imagination of the great composers of the past and present as expressed in their music. Because over the years one takes part in a good many different interpretations of the compositions of Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Debussy, Stravinsky, Britten, Shostakovich and other composers, one is privileged to gain an understanding and insight that is extremely rewarding.

For me there was another continuing pleasure, that of working with outstanding solo artists. Whether the orchestra is good or not so good, or the conductor is great, good or just so-so, to accompany a great artist is always a delight. I was fortunate to take part in performances of a great deal of the piano, violin and cello repertoire with many of them. As well as that pleasure there was always the enjoyment of working with colleagues whose playing delighted and sometimes inspired. This element of the life of an orchestral musician deserves a chapter of its own.

Chapter 16


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