Sunday, 24 January 2016

Yet More About Berlioz

I hope all this stuff about the great Hector Berlioz is not boring my readers. Well no actually I couldn’t give a nun’s wimple if it is; what’s the point of having a blog if you can’t write about whatever you like?

Since before the time of Bach, keyboard proficiency, indeed often virtuosity, has been the general rule for composers. In this as in so much else Berlioz was an exception; he couldn’t play the piano for toffee. He could play the flute a little, also the guitar; he had a very nice guitar which had belonged to Paganini, small-bodied as they often were at that time. (Guitars, not Violinists; don’t be silly.) Nevertheless, he knew the abilities and limitations of just about every instrument you can think of, and several that you can’t. In fact he wrote a big (but eccentric of course) book on instrumentation; how best to use all these instruments in orchestral writing. Even so, he sometimes went awry: having just written a long exposed passage for trombone in D flat major — that’s five flats; I think it might have been the magnificent solo at the beginning of the second movement of the Symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale — he panicked and dashed out to accost a passing trombonist and ask if playing it were feasible. The trombonist laughed at him, though not of course in the cruel way Harriet Smithson had done, and assured him that in fact D flat was quite a comfortable key for the trombone; the usual tenor instrument has, as it were, two flats ‘built in’ already. (I could explain that, but it would need a longish essay on the history of brass instruments.)

Among the instruments you probably can’t think of was the ophicleide, which I mentioned the other day. But I think this must wait; I know you have pathetically tiny attention spans. Oh and you like pictures; here is a trombone:




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