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Unusual instruments in the orchestra


Arthur Butterworth

It has become almost de rigueur for young composers to write for a massive percussion section in their snazzy, very up-to-date orchestral scores. There is even a feint suspicion that one of the requirements of those generous commissioning fees is that the score shall be "modern", not fuddy-duddy and old-fashioned. This seems to imply that the more complex the percussion element is the better the work will be received by the musical intellectuals: those who promote the concert, conductors, impresarios, agents, funding bodies, arts associations and such like. For the most part professional critics generally go along with this fashionable requirement as well, not wanting to be found behind the times by their peers. However, something Richter remarked about a century ago, when Wagner, Liszt and the then "new music" of those days was all the rage, is worth remembering: "The greater the number of staves the fewer the ideas". There was then, probably in a parallel way to today, the rivalry of opinions concerning style: the new versus the old. The new, dashing romantic style of Liszt and Wagner with its advanced and colourful harmonies and the exuberant modern notions of exploiting what the orchestra could achieve technically to impress and over-awe the listener - and of course the blasé, bored critics.

Some high points were reached in the wake of Wagner: Strauss, and Mahler, obviously, and indeed a host of others, not necessarily all Teutonic. In the UK Elgar was not left behind in the ways of sophisticated, dashing orchestration. Parry and Stanford must indeed have seemed rather pale by comparison. However, there was something of a reaction brought about by the severe conditions after the First World War; the huge gargantuan scores gave way to more slimmed-down things. The out-size orchestra of around 1910 perhaps became less de rigueur, just like fashions in other things: clothes, furnishings, architecture and the arts in general. But taste and fashion cannot stay the same for ever; change is inevitable. One of these changes has certainly come about in the present-day outlook on the orchestra - let us not use the word "contemporary" for that has often come to imply a rather too narrow and very specific meaning which perhaps it ought not really to possess.

With the ever ongoing research and exploration of what musical instruments might be expected to do; abetted by instrument makers bringing out newer, more efficient models, it has been inevitable that composers have taken advantage in every way that fertile imagination has led them. Whatever the later nineteenth century brought about in the field of wind and brass instruments, the past hundred years or so has now done for percussion. There just could be something of a cultural dilemma here - how "musical" can percussion instruments really be? However, this is no place to get involved in such an emotive question. Maybe some other time, or some other person to investigate, but certainly not this writer just now! For the moment perhaps it ought to suffice to remember what Richter said about staves and ideas.

The number of exotic percussion sounds - not to mention the visible display created at the back of the concert platform - can often make for a thrilling experience, so the question might be asked: "What happened to all those exotic new-fangled wind instruments that seemed to spring up like toadstools on the lawn in a wet autumn?"

Note though, that strings - being so perfect a means of musical expression - have not been improved on since baroque times, and are still with us as ever they were.

It is worth considering some of them: There have been a variety of flutes, and indeed there still are, although only two of them are looked upon as in any way 'standard' - the concert flute and the piccolo. These were newcomers way back in Bach's time when the then standard flute was what we now call the 'recorder'. So why did the modern flute - almost invariably of metal instead of wood - oust the recorder? The answer might be simple enough: in the growing sonority of a large ensemble of players - the orchestra - the older recorder was far too gentle and could hardly make itself heard against the rest of the wind band. The flute however, has other family members: the alto flute - earlier in the 20th century wrongly labelled "bass" flute - and the true bass-flute. The alto flute does appear from time to time, more especially in French scores than perhaps anywhere else; but it has to be acknowledged that its sound is all-too-readily submerged, so that when its colour is sought by composers, allowance has to be made for its small and delicate voice. The bass flute proper gives the impression of being even more liable to being covered up in ensemble. It seems then, that apart from devotees who cherish these two lower-pitched flutes especially in chamber music, there might really - let's face it - be little call for them in fulsome orchestral situations.

The oboes of course have some bigger relations too: the cor anglais, familiar and enormously useful, its plaintive voice quite powerful enough to hold its own. The oboe d'amore mid-way in pitch between oboe and cor anglais was, in Bach's day a most treasured woodwind voice, but, apart more or less, from a handful of romantic French scores - Debussy especially - it has been neglected. Deeper still, the bass-oboe and its very close German counterpart the heckelphone - its inventor being Heckel the great German bassoon maker of the late nineteenth century. This is a true bass to the oboe, being precisely an octave lower.

The clarinets have had a whole brood of related instruments: apart from the standard pair of Bb and A clarinets - absolutely essential in the modern orchestra. There is the bass clarinet, also a standard instrument; the Eb clarinet a higher-pitched version of the standard Bb instrument. But there are and have been others - for example the basset-horn, familiar to Mozart, and the even deeper contra-bass clarinet an instrument of sepulchral depths and capable of a sense of melodramatic menace - for example in horror films. Some of these instruments originated in France - the real home of wood-wind evolution - and a few from Germany - the inventions of Heckel just mentioned.

One other deserves consideration: the Sarrusophone, sometimes confused with the Sousaphone. The Sarrusophone was the invention of a French army bandmaster - Sarrus - who devised this metal instrument on the lines of a bassoon, but of course, made of metal instead of the traditional wood. The Sousaphone is something entirely different: in reality an American invention - J.P. Sousa, the march king - really a brass tuba built in different, more blatant, format. There have been many other variations of brass instruments since the coming of mechanisation in the multifarious valve systems.

Why is it then, that some of these imaginative developments have not been more effectively exploited by composers? The contra-bass clarinet is a case in point. Even more so is the sarrusophone, which Ravel at least, must have considered superior to the contra-bassoon; and this writer can vouch for this. The contra-bassoon, such an imposing, even fearsome-looking instrument, implying immense bass sound and power, is often a disappointment. Oh! If only it had the powerful bass sound that its looks suggest, but alas, it can be surprisingly weak at times when it ought to be really weighty.

On the other hand the sarrusophone, perhaps because it is metal and has a rather broader reed really does fulfil a rich and sonorous double bass line - for example in "Rapsodie Espagnole" or "Daphnis & Chloe" (Ravel) - and very tellingly in Bax's First Symphony.

So why have many of these extraordinary instruments fallen by the wayside? It has been suggested that some of them do not fulfil a useful role because they lack sonority and cannot compete with the rest of the large modern orchestra. In this category must fall the alto and even more so the true bass flute. Perhaps also the bass-oboe or heckelphone come into this way of thinking, although some solo and chamber works for these instruments are coming to be known. But the sarrusophone could surely be a most worthwhile addition to the full orchestral wind band.

The most impressive wind-band this writer ever heard was the Band of the Garde Républicaine on its visit to London in 1989 (200th anniversary of the French Revolution) playing a programme of French revolutionary music - ending with Berlioz. It included representatives of all these unusual wind instruments.

Could the same happen at some future time, to some of the now fashionable - but how effective or not? - percussion instruments which so many ardent young whiz kid composers regard as "absolutely the last word" and essential for their modern scores. On the other hand will the time come when the real heart of musical expression, at least in the imperishable mid-European classical tradition, is acknowledged once again to lie in classicism and the flawless beauty of the basic string orchestra when we grow tired of all the empty razzamatazz of funky percussion?

Arthur Butterworth

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