Richard Bratby finds inside stories of the great and good straight from the orchestral horse’s mouth in viola player Bernard Shore’s 1938 memoir – and some eternal truths too…
‘The scene: Queen’s Hall; the time, 8.10pm. The orchestra assembles. A symphony concert is to be directed by a famous conductor. The house is filling, although there will at 8.15pm still be the few empty seats of those inevitable late-comers who never permit themselves to hear an overture. As the players take their seats the state of the house is generally remarked upon. “That’s better! A packed house at last! A difference from last week…”‘
And we’re in. The charm of Bernard Shore’s 1938 book The Orchestra Speaks isn’t just in the period details – well-heeled audience members sending their servants to concerts, or the way conductors invariably address the orchestra as ‘Gentlemen’. As any viola enthusiast will tell you, Shore was for many years the principal viola of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The Orchestra Speaks is – as the title implies – a book on music written from the perspective of an orchestral player. And what’s clear, from that very first page, is just how little that perspective has changed. Here’s the orchestra taking the stage:
‘Chairs are shuffled about, and one wonders why there is less room on the platform than there was this morning. The string players move their arms far more than if they were actually playing, to ensure ample space for a climax. Inside players – those seated on the left of each desk – turn up the corners of the music.’
Some things are eternal, and Shore’s remarkably good at pinpointing the little, crucial facts that every orchestra player, then and now, knows – but which can still come as an enlightening surprise to concertgoers. He does this by describing, chapter after chapter, the experience of working with some of the most famous conductors of the pre-war era. It’s stuffed with details that you won’t read about anywhere else: Beecham’s starched collars, Toscanini’s alpaca coats, and the fact that these two impeccably dapper gents were both invariably drenched in sweat within minutes (that’s the sort of thing that leaves an impression on a front-desk player).
Ever wondered how Sir Henry Wood managed a complete Proms season on just three full rehearsals a week? Shore was there: he describes Wood’s timed-to-the-minute schedules, his turnip-shaped stopwatch and the electric bell with which he’d retreat into the auditorium, and occasionally startle guest conductors like Dame Ethel Smyth (‘Drat the man! He’s gone. Henry – Hen…ry!’).
He’s never too indiscreet, of course. The Orchestra Speaks is a bit like being in the pub post-concert with a veteran player – there’s that same caution about judging a colleague too honestly, and every story ends with the obligatory ‘of course, they’re a wonderful musician’. But after a couple of pints, the defences slip, and you can read between the lines. Casals you learn, clearly couldn’t conduct for toffee – but the players loved him anyway. Mengelberg was hopeless at sticking to the schedule. Koussevitsky sounds an unmitigated nightmare. Where else – unless you’ve seen what orchestral players pencil inside their folders – will you find a run-down of the great pre-war maestros’ rehearsal catchphrases?
‘Bruno Walter’s “Più piano!” Mengelberg’s “Ter-Der!” Albert Coates’s “Extase colour!” Sir Henry Wood’s inimitable “Play near the bridge! Let your tone penetrate!” Toscanini’s unceasing cry “Singing cantando, ah, cantando sempre! Always cantare!”‘
And there are some real mischievous pleasures to be had, as Shore says what would nowadays be unsayable. ‘Bruckner’s symphonies, it has to be confessed, are not looked upon kindly by British orchestras.’ ‘Choral concerts are hated by symphony orchestras.’ ‘Sitting inside an orchestra at a Bach concert one often wonders, why?’
Well, it is called The Orchestra Speaks. Read past the anecdotes, the confessions and the pet peeves, and this book still rings startlingly true. Shore understood orchestras from the inside, and had the skill to convey that understanding in words. Next time you’re at an orchestral concert, follow his advice, and look at the players’ faces. ‘Do they show alertness and sparkle? …if no-one appears to be interested in the stick, or indeed, anything at all, then the conductor is unworthy.’ You’ll be surprised how often it works.