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.

Rediffusion Television and The Music Men


by John McMillan, general manager, Rediffusion, London

The great satisfaction of having a national television responsibility – of being an independent television programme company in this country – is the fascinating variety of activity which presents itself to all who play a part in it. No other medium of communication gives so many opportunities to its board of directors and to the staff responsible, day in and day out, for the operation of the service. By the same token no other medium of communication poses so many problems of decision. The nightly audience is vast, comprising almost every newspaper reader (and some who are not) in our population. They belong in equal proportions to every class and every shade of taste and opinion about what they expect television to give them.

They share just one common view: that having, as an individual or as part of a family group, subscribed to the purchase of a receiver and the annual licence fee they are reasonably entitled to programmes they will like just at the moment they are ready to start viewing. It is rather like expecting a newspaper editor to combine all the distinctive features of all newspapers and many periodicals in one day’s issue.

It is impossible but it is fascinating.

The question is how to organise and to conduct a company which will attempt the impossible and keep on trying every day. Firstly, the temptation to specialise, to do part of the job, must be put aside. That is the clever way out because action can merely be taken to satisfy the vocal, articulate subscribers and thereby stifle effective criticism while creating a superficial reputation for something or other of a worthy or enviable kind.

It will just not do. It is an abdication from responsibility – a breach of an unwritten contract.

Our way – we believe deeply and continuously that it is the right way – is to establish a scale of priorities covering the whole range of real television opportunities and then to make every programme as best we can. To do that we have banded together a creative production staff of dedicated professionals. They do not always succeed – which is another way of saying that they are not always satisfied – but they try and they try as a comprehensive team.

This programme, ‘LSO – The Music Men’, is a typical example of Rediffusion Television in action. It began its formal existence, at least on paper, at a company Board Meeting held at Television House on 10 June 1964. Board meetings are held fortnightly. The senior management officers are there too taking part in the discussions on all aspects of company policy. On this occasion attention turned inevitably to a standing item on the agenda – ‘Grants to Arts and Sciences’. These include gifts of financial subvention to organisations concerned with the presentation direct to the public of serious music and, at that time, Rediffusion’s cash donations had reached a total of £59,000 most of which had gone to the Hallé Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra. These cash gifts had been made because the company had come to believe through its experience that direct patronage in material form would be more effective than the broadcasting of concerts to a minority television audience.

It never pays, of course, to be too rigid in the pursuit of a policy. In the minds of all who attended that Board meeting rested a fond hope that one day a means would be found of making music intriguing to a large television audience in a broadcast programme. Consequently when one of the Directors proposed that a fresh attempt be made there was a ready response. The job was turned over to the Programme department where Peter Morley, one of its producers, immediately rose to the challenge and soon proposed three alternative programme treatments after consultation with four of his colleagues who were, although not musicians, deeply interested in the problem.

The particular proposal which was finally chosen was, at that time, conceived and described as a half-hour programme. It is interesting and typical that enthusiasm throughout the company for the project has resulted in a final running time of 58 minutes! And whereas in the beginning it was merely intended to produce it for television audiences in this country, business arrangements have now been made with the performers to enable it to be shown throughout the world on any television station and in any cinema theatre which cares to acquire it.

Therefore it is not surprising that the production budget has multiplied by four times in the inevitable course of the programme’s evolution and aspirations. It now remains to be seen on 22 September whether 14 months of work and worry, intermixed with many moments of sheer enjoyment, have justified the effort and the speculation of time and much money.

Whatever happens – whatever the public and critical reaction – we shall at least have the satisfaction of knowing that once again, in one of the many fields of activity which challenge us, we all tried – from board room to studio floor.