Sunday, October 9, 2011

Orchestra musicians

I often wonder what orchestra musicians in the times of Corelli, Vivaldi, Bach, Zelenka, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Bizet, Verdi, Berlioz, Paganini, Rossini, Puccini, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Poulenc, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev thought about their music when it was being played for the first time.  Orchestral music is an art that requires many collaborators.  It’s not just one man and his piano.  What thoughts passed through their minds as they labored to understand and decipher, and practiced and rehearsed what the composers had just written?  Did the manuscripts contain a lot of misprints?  Was the music illegible?  Did they even have enough light to see the notes?  Did they have enough rehearsal time to learn the music?  Composers frequently finished their work at the last minute.  Was the conductor clueless?  Was the music any good?  Did they hesitate to speak out?  Were they just there to do a job and go home?  Were they all free-lancers?  Organized, standing (civic) orchestras did not come into existence until about 1800.  Did they take on other work to make ends meet?  Did they ever praise or encourage a composer?  Did they think they got paid enough for their services?  What did they think about the aristocracy?  Did they ever think they were making history?  Did they drink on the job?  Was the music even well-played?  Did they care about that?  What did they think of Bach’s Mass in B minor or Handel’s Messiah?  What did they think of Mozart’s Haffner Symphony or his Don Giovanni?  When Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was premiered, who played in the orchestra?  What did they think of Brahms’ Second Symphony?  What did they say about Bizet’s Carmen?  What did they think of Paganini and his impossible concertos?  What did they say about Tchaikovsky when he conducted?  Who was playing in the orchestra when the riot took place during Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring premiere?  Did orchestral musicians think about their audiences at all?  Did the audiences think about them at all?  Only God knows.  Even among the very best-known orchestras in the world – the New York Philharmonic, for instance - the rank and file musician is invisible.  With some luck, the concertmaster’s identity and abilities might be known, but only to a few.  The rest of the players are anonymous.  They don’t even talk to the conductor, except perhaps about innocuous topics (and only now and then), but certainly not about the music at hand.  Perhaps it’s no different than it is in other enterprises or industries which hire dozens or hundreds or even thousands of people.  We know Mozart and Schumann and Wagner and Berlioz wrote quite a bit about their work and their lives.  Many other more contemporary musicians have also written books about their experiences – Arnold Steinhardt, Leopold Auer, Louis Kaufman, Albert Spalding, Isaac Stern, Joseph Szigeti, Ivry Gitlis, Ned Rorem, Henri Temianka, Carl Flesch, Yehudi Menuhin, Nathan Milstein, Steven Staryk, Ida Haendel, Charles Munch, Riccardo Muti, Igor Stravinsky, Mischa Mischakoff, Leonard Bernstein, Michael Charry, and Gunther Schuller, to name a few.  They are all higher-profile musicians.  What about the guy in the third stand of the cello section, or the third trumpet player, or the woman in the fourth stand of the first violin section, or the assistant principal in the viola section, or the second horn player?  Except for when they play, they keep quiet.

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