In recent years there has been a growing interest in
antiques, not just on the part of devoted collectors, but by the public
at large. Such interests are many: furniture, Jewellery, silver—ware,
pottery, models and toys, family heirlooms of every imaginable kind.
Along with such small personal possessions we display an admiration
for old buildings: castles, stately houses, ancient monuments, fortifications,
industrial archaeology, exquisite formal gardens.
Perhaps being over-awed by modern technology: the digital
watch, computers, air-travel, television, sky-scrapers, washing machines,
mobile phones, e-mails, internet shopping, DVDs, microwaves, fast foods
and the multifarious other facets of twenty-first century living, we
seek same kind of temporary refuge in things from a more elegant and
seemingly less stressful age. Not that an earlier age could really be
looked on as all that less stressful - for most people daily life was
grim indeed - dirty, unhealthy, dangerous, dark, cold, burdensome and
inequitable in every conceivable way. But with hindsight it now seems
to us that there were aspects of it that make it seem more elegant and
appealing to our present more robotic times.
Music from the great classical times, contemporary
with the building of imposing country houses, portrait painting, literature,
craftsmanship of every kind, reflected the Age of Enlightenment as it
has been called. To perform such music required the deft skills and
inventive craftsmanship of instrument makers. The family of strings
instruments had reached its zenith long beforehand with the Italian
masters of the 1600’s and those who followed their example. However,
with the rise of romanticism composers began to be more demanding of
their performers. Not only string instruments but wind instrumentalists
too were required to satisfy the increasingly imaginative demands of
composers such as Berlioz and Wagner, to say nothing of the even greater
exhortations made to them by composers as the century progressed.
The past hundred years has seen the art of music change
out of all recognition. However, like the connoisseurs of elegant eighteenth
or nineteenth century furniture, we still like to hear music from
that same period. Although we appreciate the convenient artefacts
of our own age, to a large extent we prefer the music of an age earlier
than our own. Modern performance, with its almost obsessive concern
for technical perfection, reflecting our similar attitudes to all other
modern technological things, has tended to regard even the performance
of older music in this same clinically sterile way. The advent of such
perfection in recording has forced upon musicians this necessity, for
otherwise the human faults inherent in virtually every live performance,
which in earlier times would just disappear for ever once the immediacy
of the live perfornce was over, would remain to be heard in perpetuity,
a lasting embarrassment and indictment of the performer. Modern orchestral
players are realists; like craftsmen in any other vocation they choose
the best and most up-to-date tools for the Job. Despite this, the odd
thing is that string players prefer the finest of old instruments if,
(like the antique collector), they can afford them. They have always
realised that these antique instruments (for such they are) are far
better crafted than anything made in more recent times.
They have matured with the centuries and are said to be incomparable.
However, the opposite is generally true of wind instruments. The
wooden flute has now been almost universally replaced by a more steely-toned
metal one; the oboe, while still of wood, has been ‘improved’
in several technical ways, as have also the clarinet and bassoon, especially
with regard to the key-work which has made some of the formidably difficult
or impossible passges of a hundred or so years ago now seem relatively
undaunting. But it is with brass instruments that the most drastic evolution
has taken place. Without here going into overly complex technicalities,
it is merely necessary to say that before the mid-nineteenth century
the brass of the orchestra, compared with the strings and wood—wind,
was severely limited in what it could do. With the advent of mechanisation
the horn, and the trumpet in particular, underwent a sea-change in technical
abilities. The invention of the valve revolutionised not only the trumpet
but, except for the trombone, all the other nearly-related brass instruments.
This was reflected in the manner composers were from then onwards able
to write for the orchestra, and of course the wind band itself.
If the latter part of the nineteenth
century saw the evolution of the brass, the later part of the twentieth
century witnessed an even more overwhelming emancipation of the percussion
from every musical culture in the world. If it is not too politically
incorrect to suggest, it might even be likened to to a kind of musical
illegal immigration!. To the aristocratic lineage of the classical timpani
and its almost as venerable associates: the bass drum, cymbals and triangle,
there continue to be added an almost unending accretion of exotic percussion
sounds. These can be intriguing and colourful, but to many listeners
they bring a multitude of aural impressions that often seem crude, inexpressive
and brash, and their effect can quickly pall. The old saying is still
fundamentally true: that the effectiveness of percussion is in inverse
ratio to the amount it is used. The great masters knew this and were
exceedingly sparing in their employment of it. Perhaps one of the most
telling examples being the single, isolated tam-tam stroke in the last
movement of Tschaikowsky s "Pathetic Symphony. The instrument is
used just this once in the whole work, but its effect is awe-inspiring.
It was suggested at the outset that
there has, of late years, been an increasing interest in antiquarian
pursuits along with support of organisations such as the National Trust,
and English Heritage. It is hardly surprising that as a reaction against
some of the very highly-polished aspects of musical performance now
to be heard universally, there has arisen a similar interest, and often
a preference for what might be termed an "English Heritage"
of orchestral playing. Notwithstanding the personal idiosyncracies,
said to be insistently and dominantly imprinted by arrogant, world-class
Jet-setting conductors on all the orchestras they visit, orchestral
sound the world over now tends to be much the same whether it be in
Chicago, Prague, Paris, Tokyo, London, Munich or Helsinki. One notable
exception could be the Vienna Philharmonic where they still play on
"Zuleger" oboes, Oehler" clarinets, and the brass has
a round, mellow warmth.
To the present generation of orchestral
players, inevitably bound by the threatening demands of their performance
being held on permanent record
(a musical police-file, one might say, and thus potentially
held against them in future), everything needs to be as safe and blameless
as can possibly be managed, it often makes for performances lacking
in human emotion and a sense of spontaneity; but who can blame them?
It was not always so, and within a period of this writer’s
orchestral life a marked change came about. Along with the decline of
the wooden flute, it became rare to see or hear the characteristic french
"Buffet" bassoon now replaced by the ubiquitous "Heckel"
and other German makes following this pattern. Most noticeable of all
has been the virtually total demise of the true "french horn, that
romantic, poetic, unpredictable and hazardous of all wind instruments
which has been replaced by the safe, sonorous but rather dumpy sound
of the modern ‘double’ horn. As for the even earlier classical ‘natural’
horns and trumpets, preferred by Brahms even at the end of his life,
it was long thought that the technique of playing these instruments
had been lost; the modern valved instruments seemed to lose a new generation
of players the ability to play the older, classic natural horns and
trumpets. But in recent years this has happily proved not to have been
lost at all. Very recent performances (summer 2002) have demonstrated
that the natural trumpet of Bach’s day can still be very efficiently
and floridly handled by those willing to explore its dazzling baroque
style. Similarly hand-horn technique has certainly not been lost in
performing Mozart and even the later Brahms.
The trombones, of antiquarian lineage, have become
wider-bored. This is fine for some things (Bruckner, for example), but
in the fiery brilliance of French music, especially Berlioz, they sound
far too ponderous.
The percussion has already been remarked on; suffice
to add that the timpani though mechanised as early as 1900, remained
for a long time basically hand-tuned instruments, whose character even
now, for all its facile capability to retune in an instant, is essentially
one of the fundamental tonic-dominant harmonies. Those cunning melodic
passages it is required to play in Nielsen, or the slick glissandi in
Bartok, are still not quite the real nature of the timpani. Beethoven
is still one of the finest models for effective timpani writing (the
‘Choral’ Symphony or Violin Concerto, for example).
Apart from metal strings, the family of string
instruments remains virtually the same as it has from baroque and early
From the reaction to an overly sterile sound, and the
often automaton-like rhythmically obsessive approach by a younger generation
of conductors there has arisen a number of organisations devoted to
recreating or preserving an older and more individual way of performing
music from times past. This may not be appropriate for Copland, Bernstein,
Shostakovich, Takemitsu or Lutoslawski, but it can be more in keeping
with much music from even the relatively recent past: Strauss,
Debussy, Sibelius or Elgar, and certainly many of the British composers
from the period Just before the Second World Var.
Apart from having in recent times reverted to Handel’
s original scoring of ‘Messiah’ (rather than the inept and totally unnecessary
"additional accompaniments" by Mozart) there have arisen several
organisations devoted to rediscovering earlier orchestral styles. Two
British orchestras have made a special note of this in their titles:
"The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment"
and the "Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique".
"The New Queen’s Hall Orchestra" revives the name of a once
very well-known London orchestra and makes a particular point of recapturing
the manner of playing characteristic of the late nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries. To achieve this it uses many of the actual instruments
then in use: wooden flutes, french horns, narrow-bored brass, hand-tuned
timpani. The performances have a vitality and endearing human quality
that, sadly, so frequently can be lacking from other too-clinically
"correct", but often emotionally-dead performances.