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The amateur orchestra - a British phenomenon ? ... Arthur Butterworth

Although musical life in London during the early 1800s seems to have enjoyed a satisfying prosperity, attracting all kinds of distinguished continental musicians - Handel had been attracted even before this time -and there was a flourishing Philharmonic Society, numerous theatres:Covent Garden, Drury Lane; and concert halls, such as the Hanover Square Rooms, Exeter Hall, the Albion Rooms; the provinces, from all accounts, fared less well. Sometime during the nineteenth century an attitude was widespread, in Germany in particular, that England, and by implication the rest of Britain, was "Das Land ohne Musik".

Unlike many parts of continental Europe we appeared to have had no aristocratic courts, ducal palaces, or similar landed gentry establishments where any kind of 'court orchestra' existed. The English aristocracy were, and perhaps still are, more interested in outdoor pursuits. One of the legacies of artistic, and especially musical, patronage enjoyed on continent seems to have been that the state ultimately came to recognise a responsibility for the provision of theatres and concert halls in a way that did not happen in Britain until comparatively recent times.

There every town of any size had, and still has, its own fully professional concert hall or opera house. Of course towards the end of the nineteenth century and even more so in the twentieth, professional orchestras and somewhat more belatedly opera, gradually came to be established in Britain too. By comparison however, we appear to have had to rely far more extensively on amateur musical endeavour. Now, in the twenty-first century, we certainly have some excellent professional orchestras, not by any means all centred on London, and permanent opera companies that could hardly be said to have existed fifty years ago, in any way comparable to those of even the most modest of continental towns aDd cities.

It is a widely-held belief that British orchestral players are the best sight-readers in the world. Where continental orchestras by tradition, are said to expect perhaps five or six rehearsals, British orchestra can achieve equally efficient performances in less than half that time. Of course, it must always remain a matter of opinion as to whether the ultimate artistic outcome, regarding the level of technical efficiency and interpretative polish, is as good. Nowadays the consensus seems to be that British orchestras are as good as those anywhere else, and often even better. Much of the tradition of British sight-reading expertise probably stemmed from the econ0omics of paying for rehearsal time. Perhaps there is far more to it than that; differing attitudes to the whole business of musical performance and its preparation: the studious, not to say pedantic Teutonic approach, and the - probably - more spontaneous way we have generally had to adopt in this country ("it'll be all right on the night" syndrome).

One outcome of these differences seems to be in the matter of amateur orchestral performance. Although the founding some fifty years ago of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain proved to the musical world at large just what young, relatively inexperienced players could achieve in a week or so of intensive rehearsal, and which has led to similar youth orchestras everywhere else, it is often forgotten, or worse still completely ignored, by the musical 'establishment' (meaning sophisticated arts promoting bodies: radio organisations, concert agents, promoters, local authorities, - and perhaps most of all critics) that amateur orchestras outside the youth orchestra sphere: adult amateur orchestral players, whose professions or vocations have no daily concern or connection with music making, have come to achieve a standard in Britain that is quite remarkable.

There must always have been amateur music making; indeed there could never have evolved any professional status without it. (What kind of 'professional' orchestral players were available to Bach, Haydn, Mozart or even Beethoven, Schubert, or Brahms, one wonders ?) In Germany however, and perhaps other continental countries, the establishment of state-promoted professional players might well have led to a state of affairs where there was no place for the amateur to perform in public: the real amateur must have become redundant in society. If he performs at all it needs to be restricted to the small circle of family friends, certainly not addressed to a fee-paying audience in a large professional-style concert venue.

In Britain, however, with our traditional ways of promoting orchestral music as economically as possible, there seems always to have been a useful, and appreciated platform for truly amateur orchestral performance. Not that this has invariably been good, or even acceptable by discerning listeners. In many places, especially where professional orchestras have rarely been affordable propositions, the amateur orchestra has been a welcome, if not technically comparable alternative.

At one time the technical limitations had to be accepted in the choice of programmes. Technical limitations included the restricted abilities of individual performers, and, hardly less significantly the availability of the necessary instruments. At one time, it would seem that string players were numerous enough, but that wind players, especially the rarer instruments cor anglais, bass clarinet, contra bassoon, harp etc - were often just not to be had.

During the past thirty years or more there has been a quite remarkable upsurge of interest in taking on the rarer instruments, while oddly enough, an apparent lessening of the availability of dedicated amateur string players. But it is difficult to explain how the technical efficiency of the amateur orchestra has so increased. So much so that almost anything in the professional repertoire is now possible and is regularly performed by good amateur societies. Not confined any longer to the easier classics, amateur orchestras can now give excellent accounts of twentieth century music. Where is the difference then? The professional orchestra can be relied upon to give - almost - technically flawless performances of anything you care to mention. The amateur orchestra needs rather more rehearsal: instead of a couple of three-hour sessions that might suffice for the professional orchestra, the amateur society perhaps needs seven or eight once-a-week rehearsals. The end result will not be so different as might be imagined; the technical security will be all right, what could be missing is that final sheen and immaculate polish that some professional orchestras can achieve. Another quality the amateur frequently projects - that is sometimes lacking in professional performance - is a spirit of enthusiasm and sheer pleasure; a quality which tiredness and ennui can detract from the professional orchestra that has played the same work too often.

It would be interesting to know how amateur orchestras fare in other countries. This very brief review does not claim to be in any way an authoritative view; rather the opposite: it asks the question. However, some evidence suggests that nowhere quite matches Britain for its enterprise in the matter of amateur orchestral performance. Visits to some European countries suggest that amateur orchestras are either non-existant in towns of comparable size to British centres, and certainly that the repertoire so confidently explored by many British amateur orchestras - Stravinsky, Mahler, Sibelius, Richard Strauss, Ravel, Shostakovich, Lutoslawski - to say nothing of the solid core classics of Beethoven, Brahms, Tschaikowski, Dvorak, or English music, Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Walton, Bax - is just not contemplated.

What is the situation in America, one wonders ? The American High School Band is a well-known musical quantity. What happens to its players when they leave school or university. All those lawyers, doctors, young business people, workers in every kind of industry, teachers, commerce, transport, advertising, scientists, researchers, drug-store assistants , office workers, bank clerks. Do they, like their Britisg counterparts in - say - Sheffield, Peterborough, Colchester, Huddersfield, Croydon, Cardiff, Leeds, Aberdeen or Winchester play in good amateur orchestras ?

There is a notion- going around that in some places in Britain, the really good amateur orchestra (and there are more than a handful), who engage distinguished professional soloists and conductors, have begun to replace professional orchestras that have become too uneconomic to invite. It is also certainly the case that some towns that do have visits from professional orchestras also have a local amateur orchestra to perform the expensive works that the professionals can no longer afford to put on.

There could be many reactions to this superficial view. It does not, after all, in any way claim to be the authoritative result of a thorough research; it merely suggests that others might care to investigate the situation for themselves. Most of all: it asks why amateur orchestral playing in Britain is now so flourishing - and this despite the multifarious other leisure and recreational distractions: sport, television, travel, or whatever other interests take up people's spare time.

Arthur Butterworth

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