Symphonia 101


Learn more about the London Symphonia to enrich your concert experience.

Do ticket prices cover the orchestra’s expenses?

Ticket sales cover about one-third of the cost of operating a professional orchestra. Hiring musicians, obtaining music scores and proper licenses, renting the hall, and bringing in guest artists and conductors are just some of the large expenses required. We rely on grants and donations to keep the lights on and the music playing. We are a registered charity, and you can donate here.

Has London Symphonia ever considered using iPads for the musicians instead of printed music?

Some musicians might be using this technology for certain situations. However it’s not really practical for orchestra musicians who need to be able to write all kinds of markings into their parts during rehearsals leading up to the performance.

iPads are more for a chamber group’s “gig book” which typically has a huge amount of music for all occasions. The individual musicians know all the music well enough that they aren’t rehearsing it much anymore and don’t need to be making notes, edits, etc.

How do musicians know how fast to play a piece? And why are the terms in Italian?

One of the most basic and important aspects of interpreting a piece of music is determining the speed, or tempo. A composer’s most accurate way to indicate the desired tempo is to give the beats-per-minute (BPM). This means that a particular note value (for example, a quarter note) is specified as the beat, and the marking indicates that a certain number of these beats must be played per minute.

Mathematical tempo markings of this kind became increasingly popular during the first half of the 19th century after Johann Nepomuk Mälzel invented the metronome. Beethoven was among the first composers to use the metronome, and in 1817 published BPM tempo indications for all of his symphonies. Early metronomes were rather inconsistent, but modern electronics make BPM markings extremely precise.

Musical pieces do not always have a mathematical time indication. In classical music, it is customary to describe the tempo of a piece by one or more words. Most of these words are Italian, because many of the most important composers of the 17th century were Italian, and this period was when tempo indications were first used extensively and codified.

Before the metronome, words were the only way to describe the tempo of a composition. After the metronome’s invention, these words continued to be used, often additionally indicating the mood of the piece, thus blurring the traditional distinction between tempo and mood indicators. For example, Presto and Allegro both indicate a speedy execution (Presto being faster), but Allegro also connotes joy (from its original meaning in Italian). Additional Italian words also indicate a specific mood that adds to the interpretation. For example, a marking of Allegro agitato has both a tempo indication (faster than a usual Allegro) and a mood indication (agitated). These words at times become used as the composition’s title, with perhaps the most famous example being Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings.

Some of the more common Italian tempo indicators, from slowest to fastest, are:

·    Grave – slow and solemn (20–40 BPM)

·    Lento – slowly (40–45 BPM)

·    Largo – broadly (45–50 BPM)

·   Adagio – slow and stately (literally, “at ease”) (55–65 BPM)

·   Adagietto – rather slow (65–69 BPM)

·     Andante – at a walking pace (73–77 BPM)

·     Moderato – moderately (86–97 BPM)

·     Allegretto – moderately fast (98–109 BPM)

·     Allegro – fast, quickly and bright (109–132 BPM)

·     Vivace – lively and fast (132–140 BPM)

·     Presto – extremely fast (168–177 BPM)

·     Prestissimo – even faster than Presto (178 BPM and over)

Although Italian has been the prevalent language for tempo markings throughout most of classical music history, many composers have naturally written tempo indications in their own language—most notably, French, German, and English. The composer using the most elaborate combined tempo and mood markings was probably Gustav Mahler. For example, the second movement of his Symphony No. 9 is marked Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers, etwas täppisch und sehr derb, indicating a slowish folk-dance–like movement, with some awkwardness and much vulgarity in the execution. Mahler would also sometimes combine German tempo markings with traditional Italian markings, as in the first movement of his sixth symphony, marked Allegro energico, ma non troppo. Heftig, aber markig (Energetically quick, but not too much. Violent, but vigorous). One can easily see that with instructions being given in so many different languages, an orchestral musician must become something of a linguist!

How important is the bow to the sound of a stringed instrument?

Short Answer:  Very!

Long Answer: No two bows are exactly alike. Even those made by the same maker, and from the same woods, will be a bit different. It might help to understand this if you think of bows and instruments as works of art as well as functional things.

Baroque bows (for music composed between 1600 and 1750) are most often made from snakewood. Modern bows are usually pernambuco.  Snakewood is very stiff and much denser than pernambuco, which makes for a different sound. The design of Baroque bows is also quite different – they are shorter, lighter, and have less curve. They are also very differently balanced. Each bow will have a balance and flexibility that is all its own, which also contributes to its sound.

Each player will be looking for a bow that suits their instrument and style of playing. Someone once joked that “When we buy a new bow or instrument, we never get a different sound, we just get a more expensive version of what we’re used to!”

The differences between bows are sometimes very slight, and perhaps only noticeable to the professional person who is playing the bow, but they are there nonetheless.  An audience member 50 metres away may not really hear the difference between two similar bows, but the players will notice, and it will affect how they play!

 How is the composition of a symphony orchestra decided upon?

At its most basic, an orchestra is a large instrumental ensemble that contains sections of string, brass, woodwind, and percussion instruments. The orchestra grew throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, but then changed very little in composition during the course of the 20th century. The writing of the prominent composers of each historical period determined the “standard” size and make-up of that particular period. A smaller-sized orchestra (twenty-five to fifty musicians) is called a chamber orchestra. A full-size orchestra (fifty to one hundred musicians or more) may be called a symphony orchestra. A philharmonic orchestra does not indicate any difference from a symphony orchestra, but can be useful to distinguish different ensembles based in the same city (for instance, the London Symphony Orchestra and the London Philharmonic Orchestra).

The instrumentation requirements of orchestras became somewhat standardized in the Classical Period (1750–1820), based on the compositional habits of the most prominent composers of the period (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven), which were in turn largely influenced by the possibilities of the instruments available to them. Clarinets, for example, were not invented until around the turn of the 18th century, hence most baroque music does not include clarinet. The 19th century woodwind section also saw an expansion in the number and types of instruments, with increasing use of the piccolo flute, the English horn, the bass clarinet, and the contrabassoon. Valves for brass instruments were not invented until the early 19th century, at which point there was a rapid growth in both the number and the prominence of trumpets and horns, beginning primarily with the works of Hector Berlioz. With the rise of the rest of the brass section and the invention of the tuba, the trombone found a regular home in the symphony orchestra, whereas its use was previously limited primarily to liturgical settings. As the number of woodwind, brass, and percussion instruments increased, the size of each string section also increased in order to balance the output of the different sections of the orchestra.

The actual number of musicians employed in a particular performance may vary according to the work being played and the size of the venue.

 What is the difference between the terms “Symphony” and “Orchestra”?

A symphony is a large-scale musical composition, usually with three of four movements. An orchestra is a group of musicians with a variety of instruments, which usually includes the violin family.

A symphony orchestra (often just called “a symphony” for short) is an orchestra that has both the number of players and types of instruments required to play a symphony.

And philharmonic just means “music-loving” and is often used to differentiate between two orchestras in the same city (e.g. the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra).

What are the roles of the Conductor, Concertmaster, and Principals?

The role of a Conductor is to unify a large group of musicians into a core sound instead of a wild bunch of different sounds surging out; the role of a Concertmaster is to decode the conductor’s information, and transmit it to the orchestra, plus to his or her section; the role of Principals is to use all this information and put it in the context of their own sections.

 What is “New” Symphonic Music, and how is it different than “Regular” Symphonic Music?

New music is what happens when a living, breathing composer creates a piece of music for an orchestra in the 21st century. It is about imagination and creativity, about letting the orchestra and the public explore the full range of sounds, emotions and atmospheres that a symphony can create.

New music comes in a staggering range of style and approaches, full of contrasts and extraordinary musical experiences, all linked to the idea that music is a creative dialogue between the artist and the public, that great symphonic music is being made right here, right now.

 This article also has great information about this topic.

What is the role of the soloist?

A soloist is an individual musician that is being featured in some way. Like a guitar solo in a rock song, the soloist might be heard over the rest of the orchestra for a brief solo while the rest of the “band” stays out of the way and supports the soloist.

A concerto is written so that the entire piece features one soloist out in front of the orchestra. A concerto is intended to show off all aspects of the soloist’s technical and expressive mastery of his or her instrument, from fast pyrotechnics (referred to as “virtuosity”) to slow, sweet, and lyrically sensitive musicianship.

Some compositions, such as Beethoven’s Triple Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Piano, feature multiple soloists in front of the orchestra. Others, like Handel’s Messiah, have singers featured in front of the orchestra who sing solos, duets, trios, and quartets throughout the work.

What’s the difference between first violins and second violins?

It can be difficult for the audience to completely understand the difference between the first and second violins of the orchestra. The simplest answer is to say that usually the second violins play a supportive role harmonically and rhythmically to the first violins which often play the melody and the highest line of the string section. Although the two sections play different parts, all members share in the responsibility of blending seamlessly together as one unit.

All violinists in an orchestra have very high skill levels and the only difference between the two sections is the role they play in the orchestra. Members of both sections audition with mainly the same repertoire and have to maintain a very high level of musicianship. If truth be known, a lot of what is required of the second violins is difficult even at times treacherous! They often have to play rapid intricate rhythms on the lower strings, which is difficult and tiring, and harmonies sometimes create awkward passages. They also have to play syncopated and other very difficult rhythms underneath the soaring melodies of the first violins. Often the second violins have to come out of the musical texture and play the melody themselves or play in unison with the first violins.

All first violinists appreciate the value and hard work of the second violins. While the first violins concentrate on their own difficulties in creating excitement in the higher registers or the fast passages, they constantly rely on the musical support of the second violins.”

Why are pieces divided into movements?

The movements of a symphony or concerto are like the chapters in a book. A composer uses them to organize and contrast the themes and ideas in a longer piece of music, and to build suspense or pace the overall expressive contours of the music.

Sometimes in a long piece of music, the musicians and audience all need a moment to digest what they’ve just heard and take a deep breath before moving onto the next movement. Usually, there is a brief pause between movements, but sometimes a composer will instruct the musicians to go directly from one movement to the next without interruption (this is called “attacca”).

Often, a first movement will be lively and upbeat, and set the mood and introduce the different themes that will be heard throughout the piece. Middle movements might be slow and lyrical, or perhaps lighter and more playful in character (called a “scherzo”, which is Italian for “joke”). The final movement is typically another fast and exciting movement that will bring the audience to its feet at the end!

Concertos are usually written in three movements. Symphonies are usually written in four movements, but there are many exceptions to this rule of thumb.

Why do the French Horn players keep turning their horns upside down?

All woodwind and brass instruments collect moisture and condensation that constantly needs to be removed during performance to prevent any stray gurgles in the sound. Each instrument has different ways of dealing with this.

Brass players have “water keys” (aka “spit valves”) that drain the instrument, although trumpets and horns have so many twists and turns that various slides need to be removed to find moisture that gathers in a specific place. Horn players often need to physically twist and turn and shake their instruments in order to force the moisture to a point in the instrument where they can empty a specific slide or water key.

Woodwind players can swab their instruments periodically – oboists have long feathers for this purpose. Clarinetists and bassoonists are very efficient about it and simply suck the moisture back in! You’ll also see woodwind players using cigarette paper to get moisture out of specific keys.

Why do the musicians play a few notes before the conductor comes on?

Before the conductor walks on stage and the concert begins, the musicians need to be sure that their instruments are perfectly in tune with one another.

In order to do this, the concertmaster stands up and asks for quiet. Then the oboe plays a tuning note (an “A”) into an electronic tuner and musicians play that same note to hear if they are exactly in tune.

String players adjust their “A” string and then the other strings of their instruments if necessary. Wind players also adjust their instruments accordingly.

The reason the oboe plays the tuning note is not only tradition – it is also because the sound of the oboe is very penetrating.

 Why do the musicians wear such formal clothes?

The tradition of orchestra musicians wearing formal clothes started centuries ago, when they performed as servants in royal houses. Today, it’s more about dressing similarly, so that their clothes don’t distract from the music.  

Why does the conductor walk on and off stage at the end of a concert?

After each major piece, the conductor will take a bow and then leave the stage. However, if the audience keeps clapping, he’ll come back out to acknowledge the applause and point out musicians in the orchestra who played particularly well.