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The Music Box

By Jonas Barish

One of the most remarkable forces in our present music world is the modern virtuoso orchestra. Orchestral players have developed such faultless technique that it is very seldom that audiences find occasion for dissatisfaction. When occasion does arise, however, it is surprising how often the trouble seems to be in the brass section.

It is hard to say that one instrument is more difficult than another, but the method of tone production in the brass is certainly extremely treacherous and touchy. The hornets or trumpeter is dependent on subtonic adjustments of his breath and lip muscles rather than on the finger and arm motions, which most other musicians employ. The difficulty of tone production is especially important when the player must enter after a long period of rest. In music of the pre-Romantic period--for example, Beethoven's First Symphony in the next Friday and Saturday symphony concerts--the player must continually pick out notes without preparation after his instrument has become cold and his lips have stiffened.

Add to the treachery of tone production the conspicuous sonority of the brass and the fact that the player is usually alone on his part, and one can see that a small slip of the lip becomes terrifically embarrassing. An occurrence at a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert recently has a very interesting bearing on this subject. Just before a long passage for muted strings a very important member of the first violin section lost his mute. He searched for it frantically, finally was forced to play the whole passage unmated; but the total effect was not too shocking.

Of course, the special nature of brass technique requires a special type of writing by composers. Skillful handling, as in the bombastic theme near the end of Strauss's Don Juan and in the rich romantic treatment of Brahm's Fourth Symphony (which will be played this week) exploits the qualities of power and sonority which make the brass so valuable in the modern orchestra.

These very qualities, however, are also responsible for the obtrusiveness of the burbles and crackles which sometimes come from the middle of the orchestra. Through we cannot be expected to enjoy sour notes, we certainly should try to modify the snap judgment that the unhappy musician who makes them belongs in a boiler factory.

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