There is a fair amount I could, and probably will, write about the logistical side of Saturday’s concert on Guernsey. However, given several people (including me … ) found my post on the conducting masterclass a couple of weeks back rather too long, I will split that part of what could otherwise become another long write from my reflections on the repertoire. And so first the music.
This was a concert by that relatively unusual beast, a choral and orchestral society. As such, both singers and players are members and both halves have reasonably equal status. It made sense, then, firstly that all the choral music in the programme would have orchestral accompaniment, and secondly that (given the choir gets most of the limelight in most choral-orchestral works) there would be a spot in the concert for the orchestra to come downstage (and to reduce the demand on the choir’s voices).
This was Vaughan Williams’s overture The Wasps. The piece is quite well known and I don’t intend a detailed description here. It has some very programme music wasp buzzing and some folky-sounding but actually I believe original melodies, roughly one faster and one slower, handled as themes for development.
My response to the piece as a player, though, is mainly to do with the part I was playing and editorial practices in the classical music industry. Relatively unusually for my orchestral work recently, I had been hired to play violin 1. In Vaughan Williams’ orchestration as in a great deal of other music written in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the 1st violin part is regularly asked to ascend to very high pitches, not just for the occasional special effect but also doubling melodies an octave above the 2nd violins (a device that became a cliché of orchestration of the period). In much music typeset at that same time, the high notes are indicated, not with bundles of ledger lines, but by writing them an octave lower than wanted and marking ‘8va’.
Now there’s nothing musically wrong with that – indeed as a composer’s or arranger’s shorthand it makes evident sense. But I find that octave transposition is not a very intuitive unit on the violin – it doesn’t correspond to a string tuning gap, there’s no way of achieving it directly unlike on a piano or in the lower registers of the flute. And so I find sight-reading ottava notation passages significantly more difficult than reading the same melodies would be if written out at pitch, despite the eye-blurring effect of all those lines.
Which brings me to two reflections. Firstly, of course, a great deal of orchestral music is played off of old copies, because sets are expensive and (sensibly enough) a system of generally hiring, not buying, them for one-off performances (the lifeblood of orchestral music) prolongs their lifespan. Secondly, however, it is amazing to what degree editorial intervention in classical music is restrained, even when the actual notes sounded are not being changed. So later printings or even editions of The Wasps are likely to retain the ottava notation because it is somehow interpreted as part of the composer’s intention, even though the difficulties of mechanical typesetting which made it advisable to avoid lots of ledger lines are now done away with for anyone actually setting the type again rather than producing basically a facsimile of the previous version.
The same can be said of brass parts, where editions mostly used by players of modern instruments will nonetheless faithfully reproduce the 18th-century transpositions tailored to crooked horns and trumpets, in which lengths of tube were interchanged to change the keys in which one could play a harmonic series with the mouth alone, before the invention of valved instruments that can play chromatically. Result: players of the modern, valved French horn, which we are taught in school transposes in F, are nonetheless obliged – for ordinary orchestral purposes, particularly Classical symphonies – to learn no less than 8 other sight-transpositions in order to play the parts they are likely to see. Similar problems on a smaller scale plague trumpeters, and occasional other wind players (apparently late-Romantic parts for bass clarinet in A are significantly more common than instruments with that transposition. Given the cost of owning one bass clarinet, it is hardly surprising few players stretch to a second), and yet the initiative on the part of publishers to supply a retransposed part for modern instruments (obviously, with the proviso that period-instrument ensembles will require the original transpositions) is hardly ever taken.
This can even extend to ways of notating parts that are evidently egregious. High cello parts tend to progress from the normal bass clef, through tenor, to treble, depending on just how high the notes are, in order to avoid illegible clusters of ledger lines. Players accordingly learn to read all three clefs. However, not only are composers given to not thinking through when and how often they swap clefs very coherently, sometimes they intervene with strange inventions of their own. Dvorak is notorious for writing stretches of cello parts in treble clef, but an octave higher than they are meant to sound, without any indication of the octave shift – to the predictable panic of cellists sight-reading these, until some kindly and more experienced colleague informs them the notes are an octave lower. This is clearly both unhelpful and ambiguous, running a real risk of producing ‘wrong notes’ in performance – and yet, the fact that these parts remain notorious reveals that publishers fail to take the initiative to print them differently and more clearly.
The remainder of the programme from Saturday illustrates an unusual, even reverse position. Both pieces are well-known, but were being played here in recent rearrangements – an all too rare example of reworked classical music being afforded similar respectability to the original, in a tradition which (at any rate since the dying out of private playing of chamber arrangements of large scale works, which died an understandable death with the arrival of recordings) has sometimes tended to ossify composers’ versions and permit nothing else.
First up was Stainer’s Crucifixion, a sort of parish oratorio (or indeed parish Passion setting – J S Bach for the Victorian church choir) which still receives countless performances by church and chamber choirs in its original form for tenor and bass soloists, SATB choir (the sections occasionally have to divide in two) and organ. As such, a good organist can make as much of the organ part as the available instrument, the inventiveness of the player (stops, reharmonisations of the verses of the hymns which punctuate the piece, etc.) and balance with the choir will permit. Here, the vocal parts had been kept as-is, but the accompaniment expanded by one Barry Rose, apparently a top-level organist as well as an arranger, still including an organ part (but reduced I think), and with material passed out from the original organ to a small orchestra. The effect was certainly to heighten the drama of the more narrative sections (timpani and the slightly disproportionately large ‘heavy brass’ group – two trumpets, trombone and tuba – were used to very good effect for the more crushing moments) and to make more of the melodic content of the instrumental parts, with effective solos for clarinet, flute, oboe and solo violin which may or may not have been entirely drawn from the original material.
I know little of the context of the arrangement, except that it was premiered in 2001 on the centenary of the composer’s death. However, I suspect that the choir available must have been more or less chamber-sized, since the orchestration is kept very small, presumably for reasons of balance: just one each of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn, and no dividing of the string sections (except for the violin solos mentioned above, in distinction to tutti 1st violins). This imposes limitations, particularly the need to employ several wind timbres at once in order to orchestrate a chord. Most of the chordal material was relatively lightly scored, and there were places where the arranger in me itched to have added extra lines that simply could not have been played on an organ or would be unnecessary in the original format. but could have added drama, density and (usually, given the character of the piece and the sort of thing I’m thinking of) darkness. Particularly, Rose followed the original in all but one of the hymns in simply arranging them once, despite the up to 8 verses of text in the libretto! (Several are often cut.) This leaves it, in the original, up to the organist and conductor in collaboration to change stop registration, redistribute the choir (all in unison; all in harmony; selected voices on the tune, at pitch or an octave below) and reharmonise where singing is in unison and the organist is up to it. For an orchestrated concert version, particularly if, as this weekend, the audience are not invited or facilitated to join in with the hymns, having only one arrangement is limiting, even if it poses particularly challenges to write varied and additional instrumental parts around an already harmonised hymn (though, again, the choral arrangements could be ‘fixed’ with unison verses which could be reharmonised). I cannot help but feel that if the Crucifixion retains its popularity and starts to move from the church into the concert hall, a more inventively orchestrated version, for a larger orchestra and with the instrumental parts written more freely of the original, would be a viable and worthwhile project.
Nonetheless, as someone who has sung the original version, it was interesting to see the change in effect of expanding the instrumentation, even without adding much new material, to the impact. And it certainly did belong in its concert situation in a way that the organ version I think would not have done, even if it felt a little like the underdog alongside its programme mates for the evening.
The remaining one of those being Elgar’s Sea Pictures. This is, of course, a solo song cycle in its original form; there is some debate about the processes of its composition, but certainly by the time it was premiered and published, it was for contralto and symphony orchestra. The version we played, arranged by Donald Fraser, has a somewhat convoluted history of its own. He appears to have first created a version for SATB choir (no solo whatsoever) and string orchestra (with in effect a solo string string quartet set against the sections), which was recorded professionally in 2013. This almost completely changes the soundscape of the work, dispensing with winds and a prominent harp part to produce a much more homogeneous timbre (voices and bowed strings only, and those are somewhat similar to each other) with subtler inflections. More recently, he has combined the choral parts more or less as they stood in that version with a return in essence to Elgar’s instrumentation, doubtless tweaked wherever necessary to avoid conflicts with the choral material. We were playing the UK premiere of that version on Saturday (the fact that Guernsey, being a part of the Channel Islands which are a crown dependency, is not technically in the UK can be overlooked for this purpose).
The result could easily be messy, if the integration of the choral parts into orchestral writing they were not originally written for had been done poorly. Equally, given the original scoring, the handling of the choir could easily seem perfunctory, merely adding harmony parts below the tune or passing the original solo part around between voices for variety which the original did not really need (it is quite varied enough!).
In fact, even having at some point played the original (it sounded immediately familiar, but I think I probably played 2nd violin whenever it was I played it), this version seemed durable and effective. Fraser has found lots of space, and lots of ways, to use his choral forces effectively, and has been able to preserve certainly the vast majority of Elgar’s orchestral effects (the note of uncertainty because this is purely subjective and impressionistic; I have not, and have not been able to, study and compare the scores). The result sounds essentially seamless, and Elgarian.
If anything, the objection might be that it is simply difficult. Not particularly on a level of notes, for the players at least. For the singers, the fact that this is all densely accompanied, and derived from music written for a professional soloist not a choral singer, probably does lead to parts which are less than intuitive coming from a background of more conventional choral repertoire. However, the Guernseyan singers did not seem to be having any trouble with pitching. What was commented on as a struggle by some of them (though one dealt with very well) was the ensemble challenges of the piece. Elgar makes full use of the potential of a professional conductor and soloist, and both calls for and implies a generous use of rubato and shifts of tempo without a pause to establish the new one, throughout most of the movements. Usually, this is navigated by conductor and soloist together, with the orchestra following rather as in a concerto of the same era (a discipline which most orchestras are at least used to, and have more attention to spare for since they have no text to read!). In the choral version, there can be no leading of speed from the voice as a great deal is with the solo contralto version; everything has to be set from the conductor, and the number of people to be kept in sync is something like doubled, depending on the size of the choral and string sections. Alan Gough did an excellent job (conducting that both choir and orchestra find easy to follow is a challenge, as conducting only one or other has tended to develop divergently), but he certainly had to put a lot of work into it, and this is a good choral society, certainly better than several I have been in orchestras accompanying. The Elgar-Fraser as we performed it is a very durable work, but one not to be attempted too lightly by all performers!
Come back later in the week (assuming I find time to write) for reflections on getting to and from the island, concert logistics and their implications for musicians’ personalities, and looks forward to a period of both-old-and-new live performances for me coming up.