The Symphony Orchestra

Modern symphony orchestras are so strapped for cash, many concerts happen without proper rehearsals, the orchestra perhaps topping and tailing the most contentious bits of the performance just a couple of hours before the performance takes place, if that. This means that pieces such as Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, which requires an orchestra of hundred and 20 or more, is difficult for any professional orchestras put on, and has to be performed in large venues where large audiences can be guaranteed, in order to cover the costs. Is difficult for a nonprofessional orchestra to play the piece because it's technically very challenging, and just a few orchestras, such as the Shingle Symphony Orchestra, which is composed of a mixture of professionals in very good amateurs, can manage a good performance. With the great complexities of music scored for large orchestras and the financial implications, it's hardly surprising that many composers of note, in their later years, turned to writing for the string quartet, considering it as the purest form of music. It's rather like someone who becomes overweight through gluttony, deciding to go on a diet and eat healthily and drink less in their later years.

As we have seen, in the 350 years of development of the orchestra, it is developed from what is effectively a string quartet or a mixed woodwind and stringed quintet, to a huge and complex beast of an organisation, passing through the dinosaur period (oversized orchestras with Berlioz and Wagner), and then slimming down to the typical 90 piece orchestra of the present day.

Another interesting point to look at is the influence of the human voice on the orchestra. Presumably the human voice was the first musical instrument, then mechanical instruments of one sort or another, probably starting with a simple flute and whistle, were developed. One would have thought that once an instrument had been invented music that was suited to that instrument would be composed or developed to be played on it. (Much of pop music is invented around what can be easily played on electric guitar). However this didn't seem to happen, and it was many years before specialised instrumental music was being played and composed. For the most part, when writing music for accompanying instruments (which is nearly always the function of early orchestras), composers were content to let the instruments play in unison with the singers. Another example of this is Arabic music, when played by an orchestra. One of my sons brought some CDs back from Egypt's for me, after been on holiday on the red Sea. To my ears, they sounded most peculiar, though the musicianship and skill of the performers was outstanding, and I was well used to hearing Arabic music as vocal music, something which is quite amazing. It was a flautist friend of mine who pointed that why it sounded so strange, was that there was effectively no harmony. All the instruments, be they strings, woodwind et cetera were all playing in a sort of unison. Likewise, in Western European music, until relatively recent times, the human voice has influenced other forms of music, including instrumental music.

Another historic limitation on the kind of music that could be written for a orchestras, with the limitation of the musical instruments themselves, which have been developed tremendously over the last 350 years, allowing much more intricate notation to be played, greater number of octaves and dynamic range, more power and more subtle tonality. One example is that in the early days of the organ, the keys were up to 6 inches wide and was struck with the whole fist, one note on each hand. (Not that the organ is normally regarded as an orchestral instrument, though it has been used in a number of symphonies.)

Probably the first instruments to reach maturity (maturity being regarded as its modern day form), was the trombone, originally referred to as the sack but in its earliest form, probably from old French saquier-bucher, meaning to pull and push. The trombone evolved from the trumpet around 1300 and has not altered in its structure since the end of the 1300s. At least this is what I read in the literature, but I can't imagine that the sliders of an old trombone would be anywhere near as silky smooth in action as a modern trombone. To get one tube sliding inside another is difficult enough, but over the length of tubing that trombone slides over, it needs an extreme degree of accuracy for the whole length. But at the time that they were first developed, technology couldn't even get a decently straight gun barrel, which can't have been more difficult to make than the slide of a trombone, which had to be light and made of thin material. So I take it with a bit of a pinch of salt.

The next instrument to reach maturity was the violin, with its peak of excellence seeming to have been reached in Italy in the period of Stradivarius. I also take this peak of perfection with something of a spoonful of salt. Certainly it seems that the violin had become totally matured by then, and that a lot of extremely good instruments were made at that time. However, my belief is that equally good instruments have been made by the best makers ever since. A large part of the high-value Stradivarius and Amati violins is, I think, due to their antique value. I remember taking my violin to a violin dealer and restorer in Bristol, many years ago now. While I was there I played various of their violins that were up for sale. There was one, actually I think it was in for some to deflation work to be done it and not for sale, there was worth a few hundred thousand pounds. It was very nice indeed, but didn't seem worth that exorbitant figure compared with some other instruments that I played at around 10 or £20,000 value. When I asked what made the instrument so valuable, I was told it was only the provenance of the instrument. The person said that you could pay more for an instrument up to about £20,000, and you could get a better instrument with price. Above that, you were never buying a better quality of instrument, you are buying the antique value and the investment value.

Notwithstanding that, the violin was developed to a certain form which has barely changed since. Perhaps this is not surprising as the violin is completely made out of wood. Woodworking doesn't require highly sophisticated machine tools and accurate measurement systems, so in theory Jesus, as a carpenter, was just as capable of making as good a violin as Stradivari's or the modern day violin maker. (I don't think there are any reports of Jesus making violins in the Bible, but that might have just been an omission.) It's quite different with most other instruments, where the tone and playability is very dependent on the accuracy of tubing or moving parts, all things that can be achieved much better today on CNC machine tools than on the hand powered lathes and what not that the instrument makers of the past had to contend with.

The only variation in stringed instruments and unaware of that have made significant changes in recent history, is the development of the short viola. The length of the viola is more than a violin, basically because of the requirements of the laws of physics. The viola plays lower notes, needs longer strings to vibrate more slowly, and needs a larger sound box to resonate properly at the longer wavelength of the lower notes. Hence, a larger instrument. The problem with this, is that you either need larger viola players than violin players, so that they have longer arms and longer fingers to reach the fingering position. Look at any string quartet, and is fairly common to see that the viola player is the tall one amongst them. The way round this is to make the viola the same length as the violin, but the sound box in a tangle across the instrument, put thicker heavier strings the instrument, so they will vibrate more slowly because of the additional weight, and hey presto, you have a viola that can be played by normal-sized people without hurting your fingers and breaking your back. The downside is that the instrument looks most peculiar, but then if you've ever looked at the viola players in a string quartet, a lot of them are quite peculiar, so who cares.

The most recent orchestral instruments to have been perfected other French horn and the trumpet, both brass instruments fitted with a complex arrangement of valves for producing their notes, and as stated above, such components can be made much more accurately and easily with modern manufacturing techniques.