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The Youth Orchestra in Reverse by Arthur Butterworth

It is now more than sixty years since the founding of the National Youth Orchestra. Of course, even before 1948 young people learned to play orchestral instruments and in the more advantaged schools, usually those from wealthier parts of the country or where fee-paying schools abounded, the school orchestra was already a cultural asset. Gustav Holst had charge of one of the more well-known of these at St Paulís School, Hammersmith; where the girls played not only the then conventional string instruments but quite a number of wind instruments too. Other schools - especially boarding schools - up and down the country encouraged orchestral music-making too, but many such school orchestras tended to be puny affairs on the whole. This could have been for a variety of obvious reasons: the cost of instruments, the lack of adequate teachers, and perhaps not least the attitude in education generally that such things as sophisticated music-making were not for most young people who needed to be taught the basic essentials of life rather than being provided with social graces. This certainly was the view of many school heads who tended to frown on such activities as a waste of time, especially since the statutory school leaving age was around fourteen. In a relatively short school life, children would have no time for such frills as intensive music-making. Whatever music-making there was concentrated almost wholly on class singing, which undoubtedly reached a high standard and eventually contributed to the general enthusiasm for local choral societies and the church or chapel choir.

This writer attended a splendid north of England boysí grammar school, which had the services of a music master on only three days per week - but he was the only member of the staff to possess a doctorate, for all that. This influential person was of course a choral man: a fine church organist and choir trainer who maintained a first-rate school choir. Around 1937 or 1938 he decided to try to establish a school orchestra. Already there was perhaps a handful of boys who played the violin, two played the clarinet and this writer played the cornet. There were no flautists, and certainly no oboists or bassoonists. The "French" horn - as it then so pedantically used to be termed - was regarded as far beyond the capability of any mere school boy - so how, one wonders, did Gustav Holstís school girls manage this instrument at St Paulís School a decade or so earlier?

Early attempts to start a school orchestra were not promising, but at least it was the very first time that this writer ever took part in a "performance" (if one could call it that) of a Mozart symphony - or indeed any kind of symphony - this was the Symphony No. 39 in E-flat; the early experience being remembered vividly to this day, seventy years later. So the weekly rehearsals after school on Fridays revolved around painstakingly rehearsing this symphony: five or six violins, two clarinets, a cornet and the piano: at least it was a start.

Maybe a month or two later some toy percussion instruments - more appropriate to an infant or junior school - were acquired by this otherwise academically high-flying grammar school. Other boys eventually joined in, playing toy drums, triangles, castanets, tambourines and the like, but it was dispiriting to the few boys who had already had a brief taste of trying to play írealí music; for instead of Mozart we played the very simplest so-called school orchestra arrangements of little folk dances. These, somewhat surprisingly, included some very, very easy arrangements of dances by Beethoven.

For the most part such school orchestra music as was available at that time had been carefully arranged (or should one say much watered down) by teachers who fully appreciated the limitations of childrenís abilities not only to play their chosen instrument to the modest basic beginnerís standard, but to be able to take part in a group - in other words what passed for a school orchestra. Two or three London publishers did sterling service in making such very easy things available. There were usually parts available for flute (or recorder) oboe - ad lib, clarinets I & II in B-flat, bassoon (or trombone) - ad lib cornet in Bb (not trumpet), horn in E-flat (rather than F, meaning probably the brass band tenor horn in E-flat?), drums (whatever could that mean - certainly not in those days the proper timpani?), violin I, violin II, violin III (in lieu of unlikely viola), cello and equally unlikely bass. These simple arrangements worked well: Little extracts from classical symphonies, divertimenti, easy dances, folk tunes, familiar operatic airs, choruses from oratorio, easy marches, minuets, gigues, pavans, sarabandes, and such like. They had a charm and were invariably short and did not demand endless, frustrating rehearsal. The scores were cunningly arranged so that everything was covered by the ubiquitous piano, which in itself was easy, so that the music master or mistress might direct the group from the keyboard, half conducting (merely beating time) and playing along too.

In the later 1940s and onwards other publishers - literally - jumped on this useful and lucrative "band-wagon". Such specially arranged easy versions of the classics grew more adventurous and gave enormous satisfaction to young players, and surely contributed to the eventual possibility of youth orchestras being established. But these later developments no longer needed such naïve, watered-down and much simplified versions of the music they once tried to play: they were now more and more able to take on the proper, original score of the music they longed to perform.

Now, more than half a century later, the situation is very different indeed. Youth orchestras exist widely and in general are very competent, and do not lack the instruments once thought to be beyond either the financial means or technical abilities of young players. At least that promised to be the state of things, although, due to causes other than music, there have been inevitable signs of retraction from time to time, as resources have often shrunk.

This is not the whole story: While the emphasis has long been on young people - and indeed still is - over a number of recent years there has grown up a kind of mirror image of the youth orchestra movement. There have long been, and happily still exist, a large number of most capable and astonishingly excellent amateur orchestras throughout the country; capable of performing with distinction virtually the whole of the known orchestral repertoire from the baroque, classical, romantic and avant-garde. Performed by amateur societies furnished with every instrument specified as necessary by composers. Nothing is wanting: a set of pedal timpani (not the old battered hand-tune variety of the 1920s), flutes, oboes, cor anglais, clarinets, bass-clarinets, contrabassoon, double horns, trumpets, full brass, harps, keyboard and multifarious percussion instruments, and the supporting string orchestra to balance. All playing the original versions of a composerís score.

However, the youth orchestra idea has taken root in the opposite direction too. Now that many people appear to be living longer and have a leisure retirement that can be made use of - depending of course on a reasonable continuity of physical health and stamina, quite a number of older people are beginning to take a practical interest in what they were once at pains to encourage their children (and now their grandchildren) to take up: an orchestral instrument. While it is one thing to learn when young and full of natural vitality and physical abilities, it is often a much more challenging undertaking to take up - perhaps for the very first time in life - the demanding study of a musical instrument on retirement. But it does happen, and apparently quite widely.

However, it means that a lot of the earlier "school orchestral music" originally designed for children, is now coming into its own again; this time for grandparents. For similar, but quite opposite reasons, this music has to be easy. Whereas for children it needed to be relatively emotionally as much as physically easy (for children develop relatively quickly in their physical capabilities), with older people, they generally encounter no emotional or intellectual hurdles to their appreciation of the music (since they have heard it for a lifetime when performed by others), their problems are primarily physical; persuading recalcitrant joints and fingers to perform the complex tasks of handling a musical instrument.

In both situations a musical principle becomes involved: It concerns the nature of orchestration. In fully professional music, the composer encounters virtually no technical limitations; whatever his inventive imagination suggests can be accommodated by the player. Since classical times the complexity of music has increased enormously, although as has already been remarked, amateur players of middle years, who have reached intellectual, emotional and technical maturity differ only very slightly from the professionals. With young people they have still to reach this accomplished stage, so they need music to be put before them which they can manage to perform. In the same way - but, as already suggested - for the opposite reason, older people need to have music which their now more restricted physical limitations can handle.

As remarked, composing a professional score holds virtually no limits for the composer, but reducing such unlimited technicalities to what really amounts to basic essentials can be quite revealing, and in a sense is not so easy as might at first be imagined. For a composer, it amounts to this: what is the basic essence of what I want to convey through the music I write? Much earlier music was far simpler and yet made its point more than adequately even to us in our sophisticated modern age (think of Handel, Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven Ö). But what of Wagner, Richard Strauss, Mahler, Elgar Ö? Is it possible in some way to simplify such complex scores? It might be argued that even to try to water-down such richly-wrought music would be to desecrate it beyond all recognition. However, I do not agree with this haughty, rarefied intellectual view.

Elgarís own experience - as a young man with his very ill-balanced Powick Asylum Band - taught him some basic lessons about the nature of musicís structure, and not least the art and practical craft of orchestration. I am of opinion that probably most of the vast, complicated scores for huge orchestra can somehow be effectively reduced to their fundamental structures, and made to work; not in the richly, polished, gargantuan way we know them, but - revealingly - for what in essentials they really amount to. That many composers realise this is evident from the fact that they have often themselves for one reason or another undertaken slimming-down revisions of their originally-large conceptions. There are also numerous re-orchestrations not necessarily by the original composers, which illuminate what might be called the bare essentials of musical structure, often to its advantage.

So, while it is always dazzling to hear a huge professional orchestra play a luxurious score in all its glory, it is not necessarily a bad thing to encounter the same work in a more modest - but structurally essential - format. This is where unassuming, quite modest, as one might term them school arrangements can be, especially to the modest amateur performer - whether he or she be in the school orchestra or the older personís local University of the Third Age orchestra.

Arthur Butterworth, October 2008


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