Wednesday, 14 May 2008

BBC Weekend and ‘Young Persons’ Guide to the Orchestra’

At the Bromham Baptist Church weekend, with a focus on 'What is Church?', I did a session on the Body of Christ and used a musical example from Benjamin Britten's Young Persons' Guide to the Orchestra. I spoke about the genius of the orchestra because it plays as one, but is made up of the different families of instruments: strings, wind, brass and percussion; as well as the different instruments that constitute those families, for example, flute, piccolo, oboe, cor anglais, clarinet, Eb clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, contra bassoon, and that's just the woodwind family!

Sometimes the question is asked 'What instrument is the most important?' Answers include the violins in the string family, the flute in the woodwind family, the trumpet in the brass family, and the timpani in the percussion family, but all of these would be heavily contested. There are almost as many answers as there are instruments. I had a friend who passionately argued that the timpani is the most musical instrument in the orchestra. No guesses what instrument he played, and although he is one of the finest timpani players in the country, his argument wasn't convincing.


However, it is true that some instruments have a more prominent role, while others less so. If you go to an opera, keep an eye on the orchestra pit and you will see the brass section disappear, sometimes for long periods of time. Actually every instrument within the score of a musical work is needed, and the most overlooked instrument can be absolutely crucial. Next time you listen to 'The Lark Ascending' imagine it without a triangle.


I played the fugue from the end of Young Person's Guide, and the effect was electric. In the space of less than three minutes, we heard each of the instruments introduced with their different characteristics; how they related to the next instrument once they'd made their entrance; and how Purcell's big tune at the end holds everything together even though it's radically different to all that's happening around it. This spoke powerfully of the unity and huge diversity in the Body of Christ. If you don't know this piece of music, it really is worth a listen and you can download just the final fugue for .79 pence at iTunes, although I'd recommend the piece in its entirety.


I'll share some more thoughts in the next post.

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