Sunday, July 17, 2016

Project 366 - Team Sport

To mark the fifth anniversary of ITYWLTMT, we are undertaking a long-term project that will introduce - and re-introduce - musical selections in the context of a larger thematic arc I am calling "A Journey of Musical Discovery". Read more here.


Music is a study in balance: balancing voices, balancing colours, balancing ideas and balancing musicians. If “four” is the Magic Number of voices (and players) where this great balance is achieved, then why do we have quintets, octets and nonets?

Like I wrote a few chapters back when discussing the organ and how it somehow fulfills our deep-rooted need of achieving bigger, greater sounds, we don’t have to search long to get our answer. For whatever reason we want more: more voices, more colours, more ideas and – yes – more performers.

As I tried to plan out this first set of chapters, you can see that we are working our way up to music for full orchestra. There is a difference in scale but also a difference in organization and structure when it comes the sort of music a given compliment of players performs. There is “method” behind why I chose to treat “small chamber groups” (2, 3 and 4) and “large chamber groups” separately, as they are indeed “transitional” in many ways. It’s not quite “chamber music” (though it very well can be) and not quite “orchestral music” (though in other cases it appears that it’s a “scaled down” version).

The Quintet Conundrum

They say “there is no ‘I’ in TEAM” but in most team sports, we do have a dominant team member. In American Football, it’s the quarterback, some will argue it’s the goalkeeper in ice hockey, for example. 

The most common quintet configuration adds an instrument to a string quartet. For example, there are many piano quintetsSchubert’s Trout quintet is an excellent example of that. Mozart, Brahms and Carl Maria von Weber write clarinet quintets; Boccherini wrote some string quintets that add a second cello to the string quartet.

These configurations provide an interesting opportunity – one instrument (piano, clarinet or cello in the above cases) “partnering with” a string quartet, in the same way a violin partners with a piano in a duo sonata.

Thus, we have the “quintet conundrum”: some quintets are more “democratic” than others. In some cases, one instrument dominates the others, while in others all five instruments play an “equal role” in the piece, where there isn’t an instrument that stands out. 

Chamber Vs. Orchestra

Let’s suppose you have ten instrumentalists performing music together. How is that different from an orchestra? I don’t think there is a “hard and fast” rule that says an orchestra has to have a minimum or maximum number of players…

An orchestra is “organized” a certain way – it has sections: strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion instruments. Inside these sections, some instruments can be represented once, twice, even eight or ten times. An orchestra “scales up” by adding multiple similar instruments but has this idea of “sections”.
There’s nothing “democratic” about an orchestra if you ask me – the potential for anarchy when you have tens of players is undeniable and without a strong “singular vision”, the composer’s intent may not get justice. Thus we have a conductor.

There is, however, a difference between a small orchestra and a gaggle of, say, eight or ten musicians performing music and it has a lot to do with the idea of “democracy at play”. It may be most simply explained as "no conductor required"...

I think you have to look at “large chamber combinations” as a group of individual players rather than as a “single team” playing as a group. Many of the examples I retained to illustrate this – and in particular groups that aren’t scaled-up string quartets, tend to provide opportunities for specific players to shine, taking their turn.

There are, however, some pieces like Mendelssohn’s Octet or Schönberg’s Verklarte Nacht which give more the impression of being really scaled-down orchestral music. In fact, it’s not uncommon to hear those pieces played by string orchestra – a not-too-subtle segue into our next section.

Orchestral Vs Ensemble Repertoire

In French, the word “ensemble” literally means “together”, though in music an ensemble is one of those things that is synonymous with orchestra – in fact, we tend to use ensemble to denote a group of musicians that don’t quite constitute an orchestra.

Rather than explore “ensemble repertoire” as something unique and distinct, I’d rather explore it in opposition to orchestral repertoire. When we did our ABC montages, I provided two examples of “transcriptions” of works intended for full orchestra that were “adapted” for wind band. If you have the opportunity to hear the same works in their original form – like say the overture to Wagner’s Rienzi – you’ll find that not much gets lost in the translation, and there’s good reason for that.

From a tonal perspective, a transcription can look at passages assigned to certain stringed instruments – like the violin – and “assign them” to an instrument that falls roughly in the same tonal range – like a clarinet or a flute. The result stays generally true to the original work, as orchestral music doesn’t really rely much on “virtuoso colours” like bowing technique. In cases where virtuoso colours are important, the passages can be assigned to instruments where a fac simile technique – or a replacement technique – gets the nod.

Wind band repertoire also addresses a “practical problem” – the outdoor gazebo-style concert. In venues that don’t provide natural (or man-made) amplification, wind instruments provide the level of volume naturally. And let’s not get started with marching bands (there’s a “classic” Woody Allen skit of him as child playing the cello in a marching band, moving his chair after every note…). Wind band music is therefore rich with military music and outdoor festive music.


At the other end of the spectrum is the string orchestra, anywhere between 13 string players to the “101 string” players of the aptly-named ensemble. Their repertoire often looks at chamber music and “scales it up” for the purpose. A quartet maps easily to sections of the string orchestra, delegating more isolated passages to first chairs. With the addition of a harpsichord and bass to provide the “basso continuo”, string orchestras are well-suited for most of the baroque orchestral repertoire. 

Exploring the large chamber repertoire - Some Listener Guides

Listener Guide #20 - "Piano Quintets": Our look at quintets features two piano quintets by Pierné and Schubert. (ITYWLTMT Podcast #215 - 12 Feb 2016)



Listener Guide #21 - "Clarinet Quintets": Our look at quintets next features quintets for clarinet with strings by Weber, Brahms and Coleridege-Taylor. (ITYWLTMT Podcast #213 - 15 Jan, 2016)


Listener Guide #22 - "Music from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston": Recital of chamber works by Carl Nielsen, Peter Tchaikovsky and Arnold Schoenberg. (Pierre's Tuesday Blog - May 10 2016)



Listener Guide #23 - "Octets and Nonets": A monyage featuring octets and nonets for all sorts of instrument combinations, Works by Mendelssohn, Stravinsky, Gouvy and Gounod. (ITYWLTMT Podcast # 223 - 10 June 2016).



Listener Guide #24 - "Daniel Barenboim, ECO - Dvořák & Tchaikovsky Serenades For Strings". Brahms, Dvorak and Tchaikovsky share a Slavic heritage and so this coupling of works highlights that connection, as well as a more “spiritual” one. (Vinyl's Revenge #18 - 26 April 2016)



Listener Guide #25 - "Harmonious Winds": A montage featuring music for wind band by Mozart, Vaughan-Williams, Sousa, and Beethoven. (ITYWLTMT Podcast #224 - 24 June 2016)



Listener Guide #26 - "Nothing but Strings". A montage featuring music for string ensembles by Mendelssohn, Richard Strauss and Talivaldis Kenins, (ITYWLTMT Podcast #225 - 8 July 2016)