A particular orchestral beast

Violinist in a visor

A particular orchestral beast

by Ernest Fleischmann, general secretary of the London Symphony Orchestra

To a large extent, for the average member of the public, an orchestra is an orchestra, whether it comes from Philadelphia, Amsterdam or London. But if Gertrude Stein could perpetrate a monumental error about roses and be forgiven because she was a poet, so can we condone the general public’s misconception about orchestras. For do not most of them look alike, in their white ties and tail suits, and do they not even tend to sound rather alike, at least to the unobservant ear?

In actual fact, no two orchestras really do sound alike; how could they, when they are made up of 70-100 different individuals, when instrumental techniques and tone quality differ from country to country, even from town to town. Every great orchestra, and many a lesser one, prides itself on its own particular sound, its own style. There are, of course, not that many truly great orchestras around these days: perhaps half a dozen in Europe, and another four or five in the U.S.A. – and each of them differs mightily from the others: the Vienna Philharmonic has its glowing, golden string tone, the Berlin Philharmonic its solid, disciplined strength, the Philadelphia is sensuously rich, the Boston Symphony a little more lean but breathtakingly brilliant.

And the LSO? What are the qualities that distinguish it from the other 10 or so of the world’s foremost orchestras? As one who has, as it were, lived with the LSO for almost six years and been privileged to contribute something, however inadequate, to the orchestra’s phenomenal development during that time without playing a single note, I am perhaps in a rather special position to understand these unique characteristics which go to make up the nature of this particular orchestral beast.

The most important factor which, to me, accounts for the LSO’s success can be summed up in the word ‘independence’ – an independence of spirit, of outlook, which affects the playing, as well as the policy, of the orchestra. Because the members are not dependent on, nor responsible to, an outside director or governing body, their total responsibility is to, themselves. The enthusiasm, even passion, which noticeably infuses their playing stems directly from this: the orchestra’s future prosperity, both artistic and financial, depends on everything they do – every concert is a shop-window, every recording session an unalterable document. Wherever the LSO has appeared – be it in London or New York, Tokyo or Vienna, Berlin or Tel Aviv, Bombay or Budapest – audiences have been struck by what they consider a most ‘un-English’ enthusiasm and lack of reserve – some have called it ‘nothing short of abandon’ – of the LSO’s musicians.

The orchestra’s spirit of independence surely stems from the fact that members have controlled their own destinies ever since the LSO was founded in 1904 – by a group of musicians who broke away from the Queen’s Hall Orchestra in protest against what they considered to be an unduly dictatorial attitude on the part of their conductor, Mr (later Sir) Henry Wood. The LSO’s other very noticeable characteristic – the orchestra’s bright, brilliant tone, its corporate and individual virtuosity – is of more recent vintage. Its beginnings can be traced back to around 1955/6, when some drastic personnel changes brought a much-needed infusion of young, highly gifted musicians into the orchestra. They made up with their virtuosity and intelligent musicianship for what they lacked in orchestral experience, and soon became imbued with the traditions of independence and idealism which formed the orchestra’s most valuable heritage. Virtuosity, musicianship, independence and idealism all soon merged to produce the LSO’s style of today: an undeniably modern style in its brilliance, precision and elegance, but a modernism tempered by some of the richest traditions developed over more than 60 years by what is after all – and in spite of the rather youthful appearance of many of its members – London’s oldest orchestra.

Peter Morley’s documentary will, I am sure, most eloquently capture some of the characteristic qualities I have here outlined. It will also show just how the ‘democratic co-operative’ that is the LSO translates its ideas on independence and artistic standards into practice. We are deeply grateful to Rediffusion Television for putting so much outstanding television talent and such substantial financial resources into the making of this documentary, which will surely give all who see it a profound understanding of all the many factors – the difficulties, the problems as well as the pleasures – that combine to make up the unique institution we know as the LSO.