P. I. Tchaikovsky: Nutcracker Suite Op. 71a
Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields
Conductor: Sir Neville Marriner
Recorded in 1982. Philips GCM-15A/441.220-2
We are getting back to the season of orchestral concerts, when one can go to the Teatro Municipal (or another venue) and hear fine orchestral music from one of Rio’s three main orchestras, or a visiting ensemble. This year the OPPM (Orquestra Petrobras Pro-Música) has programmed a real banquet of major works for Orchestra +soloists + chorus: Beethoven’s Ninth, Mahler’s Second, and Verdi’s Requiem – take note!
In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, orchestral writing was at its zenith, with the tremendous effects produced by Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Berlioz, Mahler – more instruments, more imaginative use, more drama, more spectacular climaxes. But as the 20th Century rolled on, classical music took the road of dissonances and incomprehensibility, and separated itself from the popular taste. Today, many more people know about pop music in its many forms than know about orchestral music, even in countries with a strong classical music tradition.
But orchestral music remains a fascinating blend of individual skill and collective coordination. Like any team effort it starts from the capabilities of the individuals, but when you put them together, it is influenced by how they feel about each other, how they feel about the conductor, and the circumstances of the moment. At worst, you may get a dull bureaucratic performance, correct but uninspiring; at best, the orchestra may spark into a collective “high” of intuition and inspiration. Then the coordination happens perfectly, the emotion seems to flow from one to another, and they and we participate in one of those “blue moments” of heightened awareness and engagement, when the world seems to recede for a while.
The make-up of the orchestra
An orchestra is made up of strings (say 16 first violins, 16 second violins, 12 violas, 10 cellos, 8 double-bass), woodwind (say 3 flutes, 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 1 double bassoon), brass (perhaps 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones and a tuba), and percussion (timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, bells and so on). I put in all the maybes because in fact the make-up of the orchestra depends on the composer and the piece. Roughly, the orchestra is simple for earlier composers (Haydn) and immense for later ones (Mahler).
The basic music of the orchestra, in all its range from high to low, is produced by the strings. But since their individual sound is lighter than for instance a trumpet, we need lots of them to get a balance. Remember – natural sound, no amplification! The woodwind provide a pleasing changing in tone quality, but not a lot of volume, so they come to the fore in quieter passages. Among the brass, the horns have a wide range and blend in well with other instruments – not the case of trumpets and trombones, which are for the big stuff, emphatic, dramatic. In the percussion, basic rhythmic emphasis comes from the timpani, which are carefully tuned, and play percussive notes (not just a boom), while the other instruments are for varied bangs and crashes.
Role of the musicians
So what does an orchestral musician have to do? First, get his instrument really in tune and making a beautiful sound. Second, play the notes which are written on his score (taken for granted) – and count out the rests. Not much of a job perhaps for the violinists, who are playing for most of the time, with only short rests. Not so good for a little-used instrument, who may play for three bars and rest for 50! If you think they’re asleep when they’re not playing, you’re wrong, because they are counting the bars until they come in again – and they can’t get it wrong! (The chief responsibility for coming in is with the leader of that particular group of instruments, and of course it is made much easier if the musicians know the piece very well). But notes are not just notes; there are little subtleties of rhythm and phrasing which can greatly affect the meaning of what is played. The ability of the musicians to pick up these little differences from the leader or from the conductor, and to reproduce them precisely together, is one of the determinants of the quality of the orchestra. Then thirdly, we have the dynamics – loud and soft, in keeping with the sense of the music and the balance of sound of the orchestra. Fourthly we have the question of rhythm and coordination. This is not just the speed with which a phrase is played, it is giving emphasis in the right places, starting at exactly the right time, and picking up exactly what the other musicians are doing. It’s not much good waiting to hear what the others are doing, because then you would be behind! Somehow intuitively you have to pick up what is going on, trust your judgement, and do your bit. (The more the musicians play in chamber groups the more they get used to feeling everything which is going on round them, linking it to their playing in a most intimate way).
Surprisingly, the conductor is not as important to interpretation as may be supposed from his antics – his role being essentially that of coordinator and manager of resources. A great conductor may have such a deep knowledge of the music and such a keen musical perception that the musicians respect all his indications. But the interpretative wishes of a poor conductor may be largely ignored by the musicians! The final touchstone of quality of an orchestra is really the collective intuitive perception of the musicians. An orchestra can develop this more highly over time if the musicians are happy, work a lot in small groups, and have good conductors. Then when they play a piece, the little subtleties are picked up and echoed and built upon by different parts of the orchestra, and to the listener it comes over as if it were one instrument, beautifully cohesive, passing across a clear message.
Tchaikovsky wrote the music for a full-length ballet of The Nutcracker, and extracted from it this orchestral suite. Each of the 8 parts is very distinctive in character, and shows a very imaginative use of the different instruments and their qualities. The orchestral playing is quite something else – very precise, light, rhythmically exact, with glorious little contributions at different times from different instruments. One instrumental part picks up from the other so seamlessly you can’t really believe it is 60 or more people reading dots on a paper! A fine example of what is said above. In the Russian Dance, for instance, they manage to get faster and faster to the end without losing the synchronization, ending precisely together. The final Waltz of the Flowers has a lovely warm melody carried by the strings, while we whirl round the ballroom…..
The music may be lovingly familiar to many of us, but the performance makes this something special.