INTRODUCING A SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
THE best way to approach the study of music, if you know practically nothing about it, is to get used to recognising the tone-qualities and characteristics of the different instruments which are going to delight you.
It is impossible to learn these things from a book, for no one can properly describe in words what a flute or clarinet sounds like, though Berlioz in his great work on instrumentation invented some very ingenious analogies. The way to get familiar with the various instruments is to find someone who already knows what they sound like and to persuade him to listen to orchestral music with you and point out each instrument as soon as it takes a prominent part.
THE big modern symphony orchestra of about a hundred players contains examples of almost every worth-while instrument in common use, including (for composers like Stravinsky) the piano. It is made up of four main classes of instruments, the strings, the wood wind, the brass and the percussion.
In general it may be said that the substance of the music is given to the strings and its trimmings or decorations to the other sections. The woodwind provides a delicate, less rich contrast and an agility in staccato (short, tripping sounds). The brass provides a military sonorousness. The percussion provides rhythmic emphasis or in the case of the side drum (used with overwhelming effect by Verdi in the Dies Hee of his Requiem) a terrifying body.
The string section of the orchestra is made up of the violins (sub-divided into the " first violins " and the • " second violins), the violas, the 'cellos and the double basses.
MOST people will be familiar with all these instruments, except perhaps the viola. The viola is a bit bigger than the violin, but it is held up to the chin and played in the same way.
The point about it, and the factor which gives it its peculiar " tubby," dark, boxed-in tone, so beloved by Mozart, Bach and Beethoven, is that to match its lower pitch it ought to be considerably larger than the violin.
It would then be a very awkward size, too small to make a good upright instrument like the 'cello and too cumbersome to be played as a violin. Its present size, reached as a compromise after many experiments, not only makes it convenient to play, but delectably different from the other members of the string family. I think it may be said that he who has not learned especially to love and cherish the viola has not yet been admitted to the inner sanctuaries of musical ecstasy. If you want to get to know the viola miss no opportunity of hearing the Requiem of the nineteenthcentury French composer, Faure.
THE woodwind section of the orchestra is made up of the reedless instruments (the flutes and piccolos), the single reed instruments (the clarinets) and the double-reed instruments (the oboes, cot. anglais, and the bassons).
In the flute the column of air is set in vibration by blowing across a hole cut In the side. It can be recognised if
you are watching the orchestra, by the fact that the player holds it horizontally across his mouth, not forward (although recorders, and other older types of flute are played in this way).
The interior bore of the flute is cylindrical, and its tone (owing to the paucity of its " harmonics " or secondary vibrations, which give instruments a rich quality) is peculiarly cool, passionless, and ethereal, like a cloudless blue sky on a winter's day. Mozart uses it with marvellous effect in the orchestral part of his opera, The Magic Flute, to prevent the lusciousness of the music from being over-heated, sticky, or satiating. Equally wonderful and still more icy writing for the flute occurs in the operas of his predecessor, Gluck.
T"piccolo is the flute's shrill little brother, and gives music a touch of hysterical excitement. Watch out for it in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and Verdi's Requiem.
The clarinet is held forward by the
player, and as he blows the mouthpiece he sets into vibration the single " reed" (a thin, elastic strip of cane), which in its turn sets into vibration the column of air inside the cylindrical bore. The clarinet tone is peculiar and indescribable. It is exceedingly rich, but has no tendency to be slightly pausy or coarse like the double-reeds, the oboe and the bassoon. The characteristics of clarinet tone are chiefly due to the fact that it contains only the odd harmonics of the usual series.
The clarinet has a very large compass of three and a half octaves, and like the rest of the woodwind its tone varies with the pitch of the note being played, so that it is an extremely expressive instrument. Large varieties of the clarinet are the basset-horn (tenor) and the bass-clarinet, an octave lower than the usual clarinet.
Listen to Mozart's quintet for clarinet and strings, one of the greatest of all musical compositions, greater than any thing else by any other composer except Bach.
T HE oboe is the treble of the double! reed woodwind, the cor-anglais the tenor, and the bassoon and doublebassoon the basses. The mouthpieces have a pair of reeds which beat against each other and produce a tone with a distinctive " edge " to it, pathetic and tender in the oboe, humorously coarse at times in the bassoon. The bassoon can blow an effective raspberry, and thoroughly deserves the dirty cracks which musicians love to level at it. It is almost out of place in this genteel age.
The cor-anglais, an English horn (from a corruption of coy angle, because its tube is bent at a slight angle--it is neither particularly English, nor a horn) has a famous solo passage in the slow movement of Dvorak's New World Symphony. The double-reed instruments have a conical bore of which the smaller diameter is at the mouthpiece end.
Look out for Mozart's lovely quartet for oboe and strings. Mozart, Weber, and other composers have written ribald concertos for the bassoon.
We shall have to leave the brass and the percussion till next month.