The school orchestra

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

Brian’s concern for youthful music-making — which dates back at least as far as his children’s songs of 1914 — is illustrated by this article from the June 1937 On the other hand

My recent experience at the eighth annual school orchestra festival was most enjoyable. I feel that at no time has Queen’s Hall been used for a more stimulating or laudable object than these yearly functions. The importance of this musical movement has not yet been generally grasped, though I know that one foreign visitor was quick to notice its significance Meeting at Queen’s Hall the son of a famous German composer and conductor7, he spontaneously told me that it was the most interesting musical experience he had ever had. He was unaware that England had so many juvenile orchestras and violin classes. He added that they had nothing like it in Germany or Austria, and presumed that State support was given, about which I had to disabuse him. He liked the unaffected manner of the orchestral conductors and their interpretations. With some previous experience, gained two years ago, I was not surprised at anything but the improvement in technique, ensemble and interpretation.

I was amused at the personal idiosyncracies and temperaments of the conductors expressed unconsciously by their placing of the young people on the platform at Queen’s Hall. I suppose it’s the way they have at school. For one youthful violin band the conductor had the orchestral stands so raised that the players stood; and the children, or some of them, were so small or so dressed that they might have come from the nursery. Yet they held their fiddles, fingered and bowed (full bows, if you please) like mature players, through Bach’s Gavotte.

Another conductor (a lady) spread her violin class of girls across the front of the platform, firsts to the right and seconds to the left, but with no players in front of her, and consequently had to throw her glances left and right. But the play’s the thing, and these girls, having been well taught, played splendidly. A great surprise awaited us at the evening performance. Three orchestras — Westminster City School, the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle-on-Tyne, and the Beckenham County School for Boys — were chivalrous enough to enter the open class, for which there were no prizes.

The orchestras were plentiful in numbers, particularly one from Newcastle, where out of 700 boys at one school, 240 are learning to play a musical instrument. And many of them came with their conductor the long distance from the Tyne to the Thames, just to show what they could do. They aimed high, too, for they chose to play John Ireland’s Summer Evening and Berlioz’s arrangement of the Rakóczy March. The spirit shown in both pieces revealed musicianship: but also a grand miscalculation I am sure that in a school where 240 are learning to play instruments, there are plenty of trombone and percussion players. Whether they were on strike, or had lost the train, was not explained: but we heard Berlioz with only one trombone and no percussion.

I have never heard Berlioz sound so meaningless: strawberries without the cream. The Beckenham boys were more fortunate, and there was more of the real thing in their rendering of Meyerbeer’s Coronation March. The Westminster City School orchestra went ‘all out’ for Handel’s concerto in B flat, arranged by Constant Lambert. There was a full complement of wind, but only one horn, the boy playing which becoming a hero! The organist gave a clever performance of the solo part. The ensemble was good, and the antiphonal playing between soloist and orchestra was on the whole, neatly negotiated. As exhibition performances of the capabilities of school orchestras, they were revealing: but the conductors must show more respect for the composer’s orchestral score.

After this we had a competition amongst four school orchestras from Beckenham and London, who battled over the first movement of Haydn’s London symphony. Here again I was mystified by several specifications used. One orchestra had three trumpets; another no bassoons, but two trombones: so there was a new type of Haydn ensemble to be heard, though the spirit of the music was properly played and enjoyed, particularly the second theme, which, becoming so hearty and jocular, was almost turned into ragtime.

It is impossible to sit through these events without feeling easier about the future of music in England. There is a hope. As Mr Stanley Chapple put it, there are things which boys and girls are compelled to do at school, but which are afterwards quickly forgotten. But a child who takes up an orchestral instrument and becomes proficient to take part in competitions, has gained something that will never be forgotten. The child may become even more musically efficient. Here then is a movement to be encouraged. The pioneer work, being done by teachers and conductors of violin bands and orchestras, cannot be praised too highly. The movement lacks supporters in the way of those who accompany their favourite football teams and brass bands to cheer and encourage the players.

They are very young these violin bands and orchestral players, and their psychology should be considered. A cheery audience and a children’s entertainer would relieve the tension of the competitions, when awaiting the adjudications, especially among the children who have travelled long distances. Massed rehearsals, such as those given on the Saturday, are excellent, for they develop a spirit of camaraderie among those present. The juvenile orchestra is a movement of development, and its necessity is now being recognised by those in authority. Not all educationists can be expected at once to follow the Glamorgan Education Committee, which has equipped twelve schools with string and woodwind instruments: but it is a good lead.

  1. Who, I wonder? Brian had corresponded with Richard Strauss’s son Franz — could he have been attending the event? ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, June 1937, pp. 776–777