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So, you want to write a Symphony?

Arthur Butterworth

The world does not owe the composer a living - or indeed any other kind of creative artist. However, like the painter, the poet or writer, the composer is driven by a desperate yearning for self-expression. It’s an urge to call the attention of the rest of humanity to how his or her experience of life has influenced his emotions and intellectual perception of the world we live in. Music is the most universal of all languages to communicate with others, and it can do this in countless ways. In the sophisticated cultures of western society, the most lofty, emotional and intellectual way generally acknowledged to express such personal experiences is through the symphony. This might not be true for everyone, but along with opera, chamber music and other aspects of ‘serious’ music perhaps it is.

Where small-scale chamber music - maybe three or four participants - might be likened to an intimate discussion between close friends, the symphony suggests a more public forum of debate in which all have a chance to offer an opinion and influence the ultimate outcome of the subject under discussion.

The early symphonies of Haydn or Mozart were often thought to be not unlike chamber music, such as the string quartet, but on a slightly larger scale. With Beethoven, however, a new concept quickly became evident: a larger musical canvas upon which all the instruments now regarded as fundamental to the orchestra, were given opportunity to contribute a far more public utterance. It hardly needs stating what this basic establishment of a ‘symphony’ or ‘opera’ orchestra - has come to be. However, maybe it’s worth reflecting on all the same: pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, timpani (played by a single musician) and a body of string players: violins, violas, cellos and double-basses. The numbers of strings can vary considerably, but the ideal has generally been to ensure that the total number of string players should perhaps be a few more than the total number of wind (and timpani) players.

This is how the classical symphony - of the age of Haydn and Mozart seems to have established itself. It need hardly be said that this fairly simple balance of instruments very quickly developed into something far bigger from Beethoven onwards. In the mid-nineteenth century many other, more exotic instruments - relatives of the basic families of woodwind, brass and percussion instruments - quickly came to be added. This was notably the case in the theatre where opera demanded a more colourful and outwardly expressive musical element, which perhaps the more staid and intellectual concept of ‘symphony’ did not seek.

Many young composers have the lofty ambition to express themselves through the symphony. So how does one go about this?

Most composers, or would-be composers, can play a musical instrument: the piano is still probably the one that most musicians become familiar with before any other. But the violin, clarinet, flute, trumpet or any other instrument is now almost equally likely to be a young musician’s first choice and thus main expertise. Is it necessary to play an instrument? Berlioz, one of the most imaginative and innovative of composers when it comes to the art and craft of orchestration, is said to have been a reasonably adequate performer only on the guitar and the flageolet - neither of them regular orchestral instruments. He was by no means a pianist, nor a string player.

The composing of any large-scale work: piano sonata, string quartet, concert overture, suite or whatever, and certainly a symphony, needs first of all, like a building or any other kind of structure, a ground plan or design. It is no use idly casting around in the mind for scraps of melody, and maybe a few suitable harmonies which, when strummed on the piano merely sound nice. Symphonic material needs to possess potential for development and expansion on a large time-scale. Folksong-like material is almost always self-contained and complete. Symphonic material on the other hand tends to be open-ended and capable of infinite variation, and almost limitless expansion.

Composing a song of one simple melody, taking up perhaps a page-and-a-half, and less than a minute in performance is akin to knocking together a small garden shed from a few planks of wood: simple and spontaneous in concept and execution. Writing a symphony for even a modest sized orchestra, running to a couple of hundred pages of full-score, and lasting thirty or forty minutes is like designing and building a church, castle or country mansion: it needs immense planning and fore-thought, many different materials and a well-planned structure that will not fall down. Musical material has to be strong enough for its demanding purpose.

What is “musical material”? It is the thought-process - the “inspiration” if you like - that a composer contrives to invent having recourse to contemplation, deep thought, and an indefinable imagination. How to marshal such casual thoughts is often an elusive quality of mind. Elgar said that one “just plucks music out of the air”. But this is a glib, most unsatisfactory answer. The real answer - if there can be one at all - is that it is the outcome of much mental deliberation: toying with and imagining what various combinations of sounds - pitches of notes - along with accompanying other sounds - harmonies - and elements of time and motion - rhythms that produce the music in its own basic substance: the passing of time itself. For whereas a building exists in space, music exists in the flux of passing time. All the foregoing, should, of course, be obvious to the musician. It has been said that form (that is structure or shape) and content (the different notes, harmonies and rhythms) are the same thing. But this is not an easy concept to grasp, nor indeed to explain simply. Expressed vaguely, and perhaps inadequately - and probably not very precisely in logical terms - it implies that the “shape” of a piece of music is really the essence of the themes themselves. It is however, much more than this.

Philosophically then, the concept of a symphony - it almost goes without saying - is no light undertaking. To change the metaphor it is not a matter of casually sewing together a few pretty coloured bits cloth of different texture or material and thinking that they look rather nice when casually pieced together: an unplanned patchwork. Instead this involves designing a well-proportioned tapestry or enormous carpet with an identifiable motif and a design which is seen to have specific purpose. Some young composer appear to throw odd bits of musical motifs together, imagining that the more contrasted - completely unrelated - they are, the more interesting the result will be, but this is not so.

If the basic necessity for designing a symphony is that its structure should be logical and secure - the framework rigid enough to withstand the stresses and strains of time - in the literal sense of taking ‘time’ to play, the filling-in of the skeleton framework with actual instrumental sounds is like cladding the building’s frame with panels of substances that give it actual body, decoration and colour. This is the art and craft of orchestration.

It is both these things: an art - to have the imaginative invention to think of what would be the most appropriate timbre or quality of tone: string or wind, and how they might sound in combination. At the same time the application of this ‘art’ is more basically a ‘craft’ as well. The ‘art’ might well be a whimsical, personal thing, but the ‘craft’ is a thing that can be learned.

The craft of orchestration can be learned from a book, or learned from lectures at college or university. At least this is how it would seem to be acquired, but in the last resort it is not the best way. Like any other craft - that of bricklaying, carpentry, gardening, mechanical engineering, farming, midwifery - the real practical skill is learned, as the saying goes “on the shop floor”. For the orchestral composer this - best of all - means oneself actually playing in an orchestra. Conducting is all very well, but sitting in the body of an orchestra, hour-after-hour, day-by-day, for weeks-on-end, year-in, year-out teaches one how an orchestra functions, what works, what does not work, what is awkward, what is ideal, what balances, what does not. The experience of sitting in amongst players learning and rehearsing both old and familiar and absolutely new works instils a close-up familiarity that no amount of dry academic or theoretical study can ever achieve. Academicism as taught in the universities is all very well and good for egg-heads and historians, but it is of virtually no use to the practical musician. As a parallel situation it has been truly remarked that orchestral conductors, whether in the opera house or on the concert platform are not best drawn from the ranks of university professors (or should not be) but from the ranks of the players who have themselves spent some considerable apprenticeship inside the body of an orchestra. One learns the art and craft of the orchestra more thoroughly and practically in this way than any other.

Alas! academicism and the possession of a university degree is endemic in this modern age, but it was not always so: almost all the truly great composers - and conductors - were essentially practical musicians, not pedantic theorists. Elgar had a notorious feud with the academics of his day for pouring scorn on them - but he was right.

In practical terms orchestration entails learning how to use each family of instruments effectively, appreciating what their essential character is, not employing instruments in a manner that does not suit their essential nature. It also means keeping them appropriately employed. This does not mean - as it has to be admitted many of the so-called great composers have done, even Beethoven - keeping the strings going so long that they do not have a moment’s pause for breath, or the briefest rest for the bow arm. There needs to be contrast in orchestral texture, and like a good conversation or debate, an opportunity for another voice to be heard, otherwise the sound becomes tedious and boring. 

It may seem absolute heresy to say so, but, for instance, the layout of much of the string-writing in Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony is tedious and ineffective because it is too on-going, lacks contrast and is frankly tiring and exhausting to play.

The opposite of such too dense scoring is a score that is too thin and tenuous. If you specify a particular number of wind instruments then do make use of them rather than letting them lie idle. Studying in minute detail how other composers have employed the individual instruments can be revealing, although there are many examples, even from the great composers where one wonders why they did this or that. In many cases one wonders how a later composer would have gone about the same situation; part of the answer to this must be because later instrumental technology made things possible that were not feasible in earlier times. The most obvious example of this concerns the treatment of brass instruments following the invention of the valve, making a chromatic scale possible which was not available before.

In the past century percussion instruments have come into their own, so that in many contemporary scores they threaten to overwhelm almost everything else. Fashionable, and indeed impressive though a whole battery of percussion looks on a concert platform, it still needs treating with discretion. No matter what many contemporary composers’ views may be, the saying that “percussion is effective in inverse ratio to the amount it is used” is still true. Why? Because fundamentally percussive sounds are, quite unlike string and wind sounds, so inexpressive and incapable of the subtle moulding and shaping of a phrase once the sound has been struck. So, except for the timpani (a truly musical instrument) when tempted to make a score impressive to look at by demanding all sorts of snazzy things to hit - cymbals, glockenspiels, vibraphones, tam-tams, or whatever - one should ask oneself whether such a sound is really necessary. In Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony there is but one solitary stroke of the tam-tam in the whole work, but it is awe-inspiring. Had it been used prodigally through the work it would quickly have become tedious and irritating to listen to. So, beware the percussion! Some of the most flamboyant orchestrators - Berlioz, Wagner, Richard Strauss, Mahler - treated the percussion with discretion. Some other instruments can also become wearisome if over used: especially the trumpet. What might be perfectly acceptable in a military or brass band, or even more so in rumbustious light music, is not nearly so appropriate in the more serious-natured symphony. On the other hand if you are determined to have a particular family of instruments do give them something to do, they need to have a purpose rather than sitting doing virtually nothing - very often because the composer just does not know how best to employ them.

The texture of an orchestral score is, as already remarked, not unlike the structure of a building or even something so apparently simple as a piece of cabinet-making: it needs secure “bonding” so that the various constituents will not work loose and fall apart. In woodwork this means joints need to be “dovetailed” - the interlocking joints shaped like dove tails so that they fit snugly and support each other - in brickwork or masonry it means “bonding” so that the courses of stones or bricks are interlocked with each other. In orchestration it means that one instrument or group of instruments needs - for the most part - in some way to interlock with others. Phrase endings need to over-lap the following phrases; a kind of ‘relay-race’ in which the theme or motif is connected to what follows. The score should not give the impression of disjointed bits of themes loosely stuck together, or following each other without some kind of logical connection.

Within the past couple of decades or a little more, the accepted way of ‘writing’ a full score (or indeed even the simplest Christmas carol) has been to use a music-computer. This is fine for the publisher and printer to bring out a neat finished score, and to be able, more or less thereafter instantaneously to produce any number of perfectly accurate copies. But the use of the computer has threatened to overtake the innocent, tyro composer by beguiling him into believing that one can compose at the computer itself!

Allowing the computer to take over the creative process. This is an insidious situation, aided and abetted by manufacturers - who obviously want to sell their sophisticated wares. Yes! The computer is fine for the finished product, but it is NOT a substitute for the immediacy of inspiration and invention at the point of a pencil on music paper. Rather is it to be compared with the atomic-energy laboratory worker’s need to be at a safe distance from his lethal materials by using a robot hand and arm to operate for him through the safely of a shielding glass panel. It lacks that split-nano-second immediacy of putting one’s thoughts - the written notes of music - on paper. The agency of the computer, for all its incredible sophistication is not a means of composing, although it beguiles so many innocent musicians into believing that they too, by manipulating a few keys can become “composers”. It threatens to become just too easy. The sheer drudgery of really “writing” music is dispensed with, but it has ever been this “drudgery” that has caused generation upon generation of real composers to consider carefully and reflect just what they are doing; to self-question their motives and inspiration: “Do I really mean to do that?” The immense physical effort causes one to pause a while and ask whether what one is doing is useful anyway. The computer, by making such labour no longer a tiring task, is inclined to over-simplify the whole notion of creativity.

Some few years ago, a sixteen year old would-be composer presented me with a score to comment on in which the trombone parts were ridiculously inappropriate and uncharacteristic of the instrument. On being asked why he had done this, his answer was that since they ‘more or less played the bass line’ it would be an easy matter for him merely to press a key on the key-pad which would simply duplicate what he had already written for the cellos and basses. This demonstrated the warped, undeveloped mentality of a ‘composer’ who imagined that this constituted the art of composition and orchestration: depending on a machine to do the job for him. This is akin to those “painting sets” sold for children in which they are led to believe that filling in numbered bits of a white canvas with similarly numbered tiny pots of different coloured paints makes them believe they have become “artists”. 


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