Felix Warnock’s fine memoir opens with a blow-by-blow story of Pierre Boulez subjecting his playing to a mercilessly forensic public examination in front of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. This got me thinking about the conventions of orchestral rehearsal.
My remarks below refer to orchestral string players; I don’t know how much of it applies to wind players—who are more like soloists, each playing their own individual part. And all this changes over time, varying both in the UK and around the continent.
Indeed, rehearsal * has changed substantially since the 18th century; the original performers of Bach’s cantatas and Passions were confronted with challenging new music every week, yet rehearsal time was minimal; and after the service they might never play these pieces again. Modern performers are most unauthentic in knowing every corner of the Passions—as I wrote in my article on Bach and Daoist ritual,
Even Bach’s performers never got the chance to get to know them nearly as intimately as Mark Padmore when he sings the Evangelist. Even I have performed both the John and Matthew Passions more in a single week than Bach did in his whole lifetime. And of course we have recordings, which affects not just availability but our expectations of technical “perfection”. When we sight-read an unfamiliar cantata we are being more “authentic” than our own saturation in the Passions. However rigorous our training in baroque style, and however lengthy our experience, they are utterly different from those of Bach’s performers.
Aesthetics changed only gradually through the 19th century, further stimulated in the 20th century by the development of recording technology.
In the UK since at least the 1970s, for standard repertoire (Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and so on) there may be just one single three-hour rehearsal on the day of the concert—although conductors with some clout may be in a position to demand lengthier preparation. Of necessity, British players are renowned for their sight-reading abilities—limited budgets meaning shortage of rehearsal time. There’s safety in numbers, and with any luck tricky string passages will be camouflaged beneath loud wind and brass chords; you can usually busk it (again, unless singled out in rehearsal, as in this story!). Indeed, it can be hard to tell which passages might be tricky until you hear the piece in context. Learning the dots is what rehearsals are for.
In all but the most exceptional cases, it’s considered uncool to take the parts home to practise between rehearsals. Having played a range of music in youth orchestras and then in college, students also prepare with collections of orchestral excerpts. Although most London musicians are freelance, and in many cases don’t have to audition, these collections are useful to help prepare for auditions for a regular job in a symphony orchestra—now they’re revolutionised by online collections, complete with recordings.
From Mahler 5, 1st movement. Source.
So by the time you get to sit in a professional orchestra, you will have played a lot of the repertoire; moreover, when you come across a piece you haven’t played before, you will be familiar enough with the style to be able to sight-read well.
Brahms 3, opening. Source.
A young violinist goes for an audition. The leader puts an orchestral excerpt on the stand for him, and he starts hacking away at it gamely. It seems to be going rather well, until reaching the foot of the page, he whips it over, looks up and exclaims breezily, “Good God, this is Brahms 3—I’d never have known!”.
The BBC Symphony Orchestra, mostly rehearsing (and often performing) in the Maida Vale studios, enjoyed a rather leisurely schedule. But for some other bands such as the RPO it was a matter of pride to cut it fine, ideally staggering in directly from the pub. Still, you could tell if people cared just a bit about a gig—and a conductor—when most of the band was already practising several minutes (!) before the conductor arrived to take the rehearsal.
Symphony musicians were most unlikely to take “the music” home to practise. Such “cheating” wouldn’t endear you to your peers—it made you a kind of teacher’s pet. Backstage before the gig itself, where you’re unlikely to have sheet music with you, practising snippets is just about OK; but wizz-kid violinists soon learn that it’s uncool to show off with their fancy concertos.
The line between the mild panic to which musicians are accustomed and the tedium of over-rehearsal with a pedantic uninspired conductor is illustrated by the diametrically opposite approaches of the great maestro Rozhdestvensky (“Noddy”) and Celibidache. For me, Noddy had an electrifying vision of spontaneous creation, whereas Celi’s espousal of Zen (he’s even cited in the wiki article on the Japanese aesthetic of transience) was surely refuted by his endless nit-picking in rehearsal. Even Carlos Kleiber achieved the magic of his concerts through lengthy rehearsal. The story of the rehearsal where the players asked Noddy if they could possibly just play the piece all the way through just once before the gig is all the more drôle precisely because musicians are always chafing about being subjected to too much rehearsal.
And anyway, the most stressful passages of all are slow, sustained pianissimo, which only become more difficult as the moment of truth approaches. Felix may have been sight-reading, but that wasn’t the problem; what was so excruciating was the exposure in front of everyone. For string players, there may be safety in numbers with the louder, more virtuosic passages, but not with hushed slow writing, where they are especially prone to attacks of the purlies. It’s often easier to play a solo than to play such slow passages in a section of fourteen violinists, when it can be agonising even to try getting the bow on the string, let alone keep it moving. That excerpt above from Mahler 5 may look fiendish, but fiddle players may be more anxious about the Adagietto.
The world of early music bands since the 1970s is rather different. A keen leader, or conductor, would sometimes ask fixers to send out the parts in advance—which players who had experience of symphony orchestras might find amateurish.
We became accustomed to sectional rehearsals in the National Youth Orchestra, but I don’t recall any in professional symphony orchestras; I sometimes encountered them again in early music. Generally, early music bands get more rehearsal time than symphony orchestras—and for programmes that seem less challenging, at least technically.
In the 1980s’ heyday of the recording industry’s infatuation with early music, the opposite might happen too: at recording sessions for at least one band, you might turn up to play through some obscure Haydn symphony that no-one had ever played before, and the red light would be switched on at once; moreover, some of these takes even ended up on the CD. At least—like our counterparts in the symphonic world—we were immersed in the style, and prepared for eventualities.
The wiki article on rehearsal gives an inadvertently apposite list of some other types, such as “wedding guests and couples practising a wedding ceremony, paramedics practising responding to a simulated emergency, or troops practising for an attack using a mock-up of the building”.
The concept of “rehearsal” tends to be elusive in many musical traditions around the world. It adds another layer to the continuum from composition to performance, which the great Bruno Nettl pondered in his work on improvisation.
Rather than rehearsing, young students learn by imitating their masters, often within the family, soon going on to “perform” for life-cycle and calendrical ceremonies. Household Daoists learn their trade from young, including the vocal liturgy and instrumental repertoire, but their skills are gradually consolidated on the job (see e.g. Li Manshan’s recollections in our film, from 9.50). They go through a process of “studying for three years, returning [the debt] for three years”, but from very early in their apprenticeship they are taking part in ritual performance. It’s not even easy to find musicians “practising” individually.
I absorb the fug of the “public house” in rehearsal, Gaoluo 1996.
I found a clearer case in Gaoluo village in the weeks leading up to the New Year rituals, when the large ensemble re-familiarised themselves with the shengguan instrumental repertoire by getting together to recite the gongche solfeggio of the score—partly because as an amateur group that was only in occasional demand for funerals, they might not have played for some time (see Plucking the winds, pp.247–53).
There seems to be scope for research here; but in all, as Nettl too suggests, perhaps such traditions are not so far from the WAM scene: you learn from young, and then you start taking part in rituals/concerts. In WAM it’s complicated both by having to perform pieces that you might not know and by the chimera of perfection; but for the familiar standard repertoire, one might wonder where rehearsal might come into it. To adapt Laurel and Hardy, here’s another nice mess WAM has gotten itself into (for the Dance of the cuckoos, see here).
Still, WAM musos, for whom the artistic fulfilment of which they dreamed in their teens is often submerged under the pressure and routine of the profession (cf. Ecstasy and drudge), will find few things so satisfying as doing a series of performances on tour of a great work that they’ve been playing for a couple of decades, with an able and inspired conductor who esteems and trusts in the players’ experience—whether Mahler in a symphony orchestra or a HIP Bach Passion.
* As I noted here, in French and Italian the word for rehearsal is répétition/repetizione. The German Probe is suggestively medical. In English, “re-hearse” may sound like putting back into a vehicle to transport the dead—and indeed, there is a connection. It comes from French hercier “to drag, trail along the ground; rake, harrow [land]; rip, tear, wound” [sic!]; 13th-century English borrowed hers from Old French: “a framework, like a harrow, used to hold candles and decorations in place over a coffin”, which by the 17th century became “hearse” in the modern sense.