The Logistics of the Gothic symphony – 2

Philip Legge

Option E: Complete, rescored for different orchestral and vocal forces

To a lesser or greater extent all of the foregoing options have taken Brian’s work on its own terms and attempted to work pragmatically within the limits of the symphony’s design. The pragmatic options of an abridged Te Deum (options B and C) or performing only the orchestral movements of the Gothic (option A) may justly be viewed as unappealing by both musical purists and concert promoters, on the grounds that the work must be presented in line with Brian’s heaven-storming ambition. “All or nothing” is then simply interpreted as either one of the possibilities mentioned under option D, or — tacet. So as a further thought experiment on the (im-)practicality of this leviathan work, let us consider the possible benefits in revising and rescoring the work from beginning to end, essentially making a “performing version” of the Gothic. In the letter printed in NL 186 I suggested this was a radical approach compared to the more conservative if pragmatic tinkering described above. For obvious reasons, in making a separate performing edition one would not be constrained by the same choices that were deemed essential to retaining the character of the work inviolate, and for this reason the solution I will outline represents only one of many possible “revisions”.

A sensible first approach to revising the work is to consider the nature of its practicality. Is a work for an orchestra of 200 practical? The Gothic is really a work for two 100-piece orchestras, though concert promoters have rarely solved the issue head-on by amalgamating two distinct ensembles (the Marco Polo company deserves plaudits for convincing the Slovak Philharmonic and the Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra to put aside their considerable rivalry to record the work). One could imagine two large regional orchestras combining to perform the work, and then taking it on tour—each orchestra getting a turn to play “home and away”. None of this convinces me that the work is thus any more tractable—rather, involving two orchestras and their associated political dynamics would make it far more likely for one of the orchestras to pull out before contracts are drawn up, let alone signed. So to ensure the rescored Gothic is more practical, it must be within the possible reach of a single, hundred-strong orchestra, say a Berlin or Vienna Philharmonic, or a London, Chicago, or Sydney Symphony, which would typically augment their forces to around 130 or 135 players for tackling the largest Mahler symphonies and their ilk. Based on the logarithmic difference between the so-called “demi-Gothic” for 100 and the full work for 200, I chose 141 as the target number, viewing any extra requirement beyond this limit as likely to cause the orchestra’s financiers to suffer heart palpitations, if not quite a full-on coronary.

This choice now begs the question, how will the instrumentation be affected? Brian perhaps should have taken a leaf or two out the scores of his contemporary compatriots in Holst and Vaughan Williams, by cueing parts for the rare and unusual instruments elsewhere in his orchestration. Any reputable large orchestra will have the standard doubling instruments readily available (ie, piccolo, cor anglais, E flat and bass clarinets, contrabassoon)—the instrumental rarities on the other hand will normally be more difficult to hire, and the supernumerary players may need to be paid higher than normal rates, per diem rather than being employed fulltime. Thus I would choose to eliminate the necessity for alto flute, oboe d’amore, bass oboe, basset horns, pedal clarinet, and bass trumpet, by cueing their parts into other instrumental parts wherever possible, to render them both dispensible if necessary as well as being a preferred performance option if cost-effective. If certain of the instruments are readily available to be played, then the appropriate cued-in parts may be safely ignored; but a “minimal” performance of the revision should not require any of the unusual instrumentation. It is worth reiterating that Part One of the Gothic has rarely been attempted, since it is challenged by virtually the same issue regarding its instrumentation as is the full symphony.

The percussion ranks should be similarly trimmed of the inessential or difficult to acquire equipment—indeed, upon reading David Brown’s comment in NL 17 regarding the role of the thunder machine and the “old Victorian dictum about the behaviour of children”, it suggests it would be better not seen at all, but replaced by thunder from a special effects recording! The bird scare is easily acquired (the ratchet type swung overhead by football fanatics being sufficient), and I can personally attest to members of the male choruses in Schönberg’s Gurrelieder having raided local hardware shops to acquire small braces of chains at extremely low cost.

Having already described my preferred number of string players, I can now enumerate the orchestra: 25 woodwind comprising 2 piccolos, 4 flutes, 2 cor anglais, 4 oboes, 2 E flat clarinets, 4 B flat clarinets, 2 bass clarinets, 3 bassoons, and 2 contrabassoons. The on-stage complement of 25 brass are largely unchanged, 8 horns, 2 cornets, 5 trumpets, 4 tenor trombones, bass and contrabass trombones, 2 euphoniums, and 2 bass tubas, and are augmented by only one off-stage band, consisting of 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 tenor trombones, and 2 tubas. As discussed above the number of timpanists is reduced to four, playing 14 drums; the battery of 11 percussionists have in their purview 2 bass drums, 2 side drums, 2 pairs of crash cymbals, 2 tambourines, 2 triangles, gong, tubular bells, a small set of chains, bird scare, glockenspiel, xylophone, and celesta. Added to this are the dedicated organist, 2 harps, 17 first violins, 16 second violins, 12 violas, 12 ’cellos, and 8 double basses, making for a total of 141 players. The need for an extra trumpet is predicated on having the ability to send two extra trumpets off-stage to effect the striking, distant fanfares of the Judex that follow the solo soprano’s “indefinite intonation”, without drastically reducing the on-stage forces, and the extra tenor trombone on-stage is actually to cover the occasional three-part writing for the off-stage pair of trombones.

Having only one off-stage band might be regarded as leaving the brass section comparatively under-powered, but only the second of the two “Varèse moments” at the end of the Te ergo would actually suffer from having fewer instruments than the number of distinct parts allocated by Brian.
I have not yet mentioned the possible role of the vocal soloists and choirs in a revised version of the work. The most obvious change to make across the board is to eliminate the children’s choir and to incorporate all of their music into the second of the double choirs, which in the Te Deum is comparatively under-utilised. While I am very conscious of the aesthetic role children play in works such as Mahler’s 3rd or 8th symphonies, or Berlioz’s Te Deum, symbolic of the music attempting to embrace an entire world of experience, in practical terms their presence just adds another dimension of difficulty to an already formidable exercise.

The 4 bar solo for a single girl chorister at figure 341 in the Te ergo (pp 223–24) then becomes a welcome, if belated reward for the alto soloist, who otherwise has no independent solo work—an omission which Brian was candid enough to admit was owing to him forgetting to include such a solo in the course of composition.

Astute followers of the articles relating to the vocal score of the Gothic will have noted that Brian’s choral writing also poses problems, verging on the eccentric when dividing the “two double choirs” into a Spem in alium-like 37-part ensemble. There would seem to be some merit in reworking the choral polyphony, especially in places where disparate choirs frequently double one another, contrary to the appearance of a multitude of unique lines. It would also be desirable to ensure the four vocal divisions of the choir—either in terms of location (A/B/C/D), or voice type (S/A/T/B)—be divided into no more than 8 parts maximum, so that the total choir with about eighty voices per section would always have a minimum of around ten voices per part.

Finally, is there any hope that the Gothic might be rendered as a performing version any time soon? Curiously, the answer revolves around what United Music Publishing choose to do to replace the Cranz full score, now out of stock. It is safe to say that at least the a cappella music from the Te Deum would be ready in electronic format to replace the corresponding pages of the Cranz score, though this is a comparatively small proportion of the work. In the course of preparing three piano reductions for orchestral interludes in the Gothic however, I scored some 24 pages in full score, or a little under a tenth of the entire work. So I believe it is possible for the Scores Sub-Committee to address the task of the Gothic full score as a combined effort: even with minimal proof-reading by various members of the HBS, such a collaboration would very likely be more accurate than the Cranz score was, replete with hundreds if not thousands of errors. A full score of the Gothic in electronic format would then vastly simplify the process of creating any derivative performing version.

© Philip Legge 2006

Newsletter, 2006