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Music : Booking an Orchestral Journey


Summer can be a time to catch up on reading you meant to do, especially if you're interested in learning more about music. This column is the first in a series devoted to current books that can make you a more perceptive listener.

Think of every symphony as a kind of jigsaw puzzle. All the instruments of the orchestra are the possible pieces of the puzzle; the way they're put together help to make a specific picture.

Antony Hopkins' "Sounds of the Orchestra" (Oxford Paperbacks, $7.95) helps you see that picture.

The book starts with a brief history of how the orchestra evolved. The author, a British composer, broadcaster and musicologist, describes every instrument and gives its individual history, range of notes and system of notation.

This last point is important because if you look at an orchestral score, it appears that instruments are playing in different keys. They're not actually, and there are good historical reasons for the apparent discrepancies, but the score does look confusing at first.

This part makes a good and useful reference text. Part Two, however, becomes much more interesting.

Here, Hopkins look specifically at the scoring of seven works, beginning with the first movement of Mozart's Symphony No. 40.

He then takes up Beethoven's Second Symphony (scherzo), Schubert's Eighth (first movement), Berlioz' "Symphonie Fantastique" (last movement), Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet" Overture-Fantasy, Debussy's "Prelude a l'Apres-midi d'un Faune" and the "Four Sea Interludes" from Britten's "Peter Grimes."

The emphasis is on how each composer uses and blends the colors of the instruments. In some instances, Hopkins considers alternative scoring possibilities and explains why they are not as good as the ones the composers used.

Sometimes the composers didn't have much choice. They had to deal with limitations in the range of instruments available to them.

Schubert, for instance, had to alter a descending line because the string basses of his day could not play as low as he wanted to write. Tchaikovsky, in contrast, could write striking scale-like passages for trumpets because musicians of his day played valved instruments that expanded their capabilities--instruments that were not available to Mozart and Beethoven.

Proving that technological developments do have musical consequences.


Most composers had the opportunity to learn to orchestrate by listening to their own works or to the works of others. Poor Schubert--it seems almost impossible to start a sentence about this composer without adding the adjective--did not.

He never had the luxury of hearing any of his symphonies played, except perhaps by amateur groups. Yet unerringly guided by his own genius, he created a perfect and distinct sound world in the "Unfinished" Symphony, "not a bar of which is derivative," writes Hopkins, "causing an inner voice to murmur to us 'How like Beethoven . . . ' or 'A touch of Mozart there!' "

To illustrate, the author takes one short passage--the accompaniment for the famous second theme--and suggests five possible scorings for it.

In each case, the notes remain the same. They are just distributed among different combinations of instruments.

Schubert used none of these possibilities. He came up with a sixth. "His solution," writes Hopkins, "clarinets in the upper octave, violas in the lower, is the perfect one, though it was probably devised instinctively."

Like Schubert, Tchaikovsky often is regarded as a swoony naif who poured out melody after melody without much conscious control.

In fact, as evident here and also in Roland John Wiley's indispensable book, "Tchaikovsky's Ballets" (Oxford University Press), Tchaikovsky was meticulous and crafty in his choices.

To create the somber opening of the "Romeo and Juliet" Overture-Fantasy, for instance, Tchaikovsky used specific techniques: keeping the second clarinet part "consistently" below the first bassoon to produce "a somber blend of tone-color that is typical of Tchaikovsky"; and widely spaced interlocking chords is "to give a feeling of emptiness."

Even "the precise placing of the cymbal clashes," Hopkins notes, "reveals the care with which Tchaikovsky would orchestrate even the loudest passages, since for the most part they are slotted in at the exact moment where the remainder of the orchestra has a quaver (eighth-note) rest."

Sometimes, however, the author indulges in scene-painting speculations that are not musical or helpful. "I am convinced," he writes, "that Tchaikovsky imagined that the tale was being told by Friar Laurence . . . (who) pauses to sigh at the memory (of the lovers' tragic end), a sigh we hear eloquently expressed on the strings (bars 52-60)."

That's quite a sigh. But one can still appreciate the details of Hopkins' discussions.

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