Idiomatic practice

The noun “idiom,” the adjective “idiomatic” and the adverb “idiomatically” are hardly cryptic or uncommon terms, but they may well deserve a definition. They are used either to denote characteristics that naturally or appropriately associate with something, or to denote the gamut of such characteristics. Most frequently they are used in the context of language – “idiomatic language” pertains to those particular features that characterize a language when spoken by people to whom it is native, or by those who are entirely conversant with it. Countless fixed expressions or sayings in a language (referred to as “idioms”) are incomprehensible to anyone not familiar with their specific meaning or use. Idioms such as “out of the blue,” “beating around the bush” or “pulling someone’s leg,” or in French “c’est la fin des haricots” (corresponding to the English idiom “that is the last straw”) would not convey their intended meaning in a verbatim translation. Likewise in German – “Hals- und Beinbruch” (break your neck and your leg), for instance, corresponds to the English idiom “break a leg” and the Italian phrase “in bocca al lupo” (in the mouth of the wolf).

In the field of music, the term “idiomatic” has been used to denote the specific features, the technical or expressive possibilities and unique qualities that characterize each individual instrument or type of voice. Before one of the great revolutionary periods in Western music around the year 1600, music had rarely been conceived and written for specific musical means and most often could be performed by different instruments and types of voice without undergoing significant change or sacrificing any of its essence. And even Bach’s late contrapuntal works – notably Musikalisches Opfer, composed in 1747 – did not call for specific instruments. In the concertos from his years in Köthen and Leipzig, on the other hand, particularly the Brandenburg Concertos, Bach did indeed write idiomatically for specified instruments. In fact, the high pitched parts for natural horns in the 1st concerto, the virtuoso music for natural trumpet in the 2nd, or the bowed string arpeggio (“bariolage”) in the 3rd – just to mention a few examples – would either lose their unique expressive character entirely or be downright unplayable on other instruments. At times even Claudio Monteverdi composed expressly for specific instruments: his operatic scene Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (1624) is among the very first musical works to exploit playing techniques such as pizzicato and tremolo for the strings. And later, in Mozart’s operas, for example, the choice of a specific instrument is often so closely linked to the dramaturgic intent and the composer’s evocation of different dramatic characters, that it would hardly be possible to replace a solo flute, an oboe or a bassoon with any other instrument without putting the intelligibility of the drama at risk.

Well into the 18th century, however, it was still common practice to transfer music from one instrument to another. As long as the music was not specifically conditioned by the technical possibilities of a particular instrument, this usually created no problems. Bach transcribed a number of Vivaldi’s violin concertos for the harpsichord without sacrificing any of their essential properties. But as music became increasingly and inextricably tied to specific instruments, this practice diminished and its nature changed. As the piano eventually became an indispensible piece of furniture in the homes of the educated bourgeoisie during the 19th century, a lively tradition of playing chamber music established itself in private homes. It must be remembered that only few people at the time had either the means or the opportunity of regularly attending orchestra concerts. The piano became the instrument par excellence in the repeated encounter with orchestral masterpieces, and the most popular symphonies, overtures, etc., gained their popularity through private performances by amateur music lovers. Far into the 20th century, orchestral music was often printed in different arrangements and versions – as piano music for two, four and even six hands, for a string or a wind instrument with piano accompaniment, etc.

As music gradually became more instrument-specific, focus on the uniqueness of the individual instrument increased, as did the awareness of particular technical and expressive characteristics that distinguished a certain instrumental medium – what here is referred to as the idiomatic quality of an instrument, or what might be considered idiomatic, i.e. natural or appropriate, for a particular instrument. The 1819 publication of Niccoló Paganini’s opus 1, his 24 Capricci for solo violin, was a groundbreaking event. Double stops with trills and tremoli, long passages with up-bow staccatoarpeggios spanning the whole register, octave passages, the use of all four strings (not least the low G-string) in the very highest positions, fingerings requiring outrageous stretches – all of this turned any former conceptions of the violin and its potential upside down. For more than a century, a wide range of composers (among them Schumann, Brahms, Rachmaninov and Lutoslawski) adapted these acrobatic solo pieces for the piano. Franz Liszt’s yearlong project in the mid-19th century to reinvent and transfer Paganini’s idiomatic violin writing to the piano is the very epitome of creative preoccupation with the idiomatic qualities of a specific instrument.

A plain and simple “verbatim” transfer of Paganini’s manuscript would instantly prove problematic and of little or no artistic value. Played on a piano, this music would seem clumsy, often nearly unplayable, and, in terms of musical gesture, would entirely lose the expansive, transcendental effect of Paganini’s original. Liszt had to search for solutions – technical, expressive and not least physiological ones – that would allow him to transfer the highly idiomatic use of the violin to an equivalently idiomatic use of the piano. The actual written notes of Paganini’s original would have to be regarded as secondary to the transfer of idiomatic instrumental qualities(something that may bring to mind the insight that Tancredi in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard arrives at: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”) Franz Liszt prepared several widely differing versions before reaching a satisfying result. But in the first Capriccio he paradoxically ended up with a solution that leaves Paganini’s violin original virtually unchanged by letting the pianist’s left hand cross the right hand in a way not unlike the bow’s pivoting motion across the strings.

Figure 1-4 · Paganini, 24 Capricci op. 1, No. 1 / Liszt, Bravour-Studien nach Paganini, No. 4a-c


Audio 1 · Audio 2 · Audio 4

During the same period, Liszt was working on his “Transcendental Etudes” for piano, which apparently underwent a similar developmental process through various intermediate stages. Their history goes all the way back to a juvenile work from 1826, but the etudes emerged as a kind of “work in progress,” a deliberate attempt to focus ever more succinctly on the specific idiomatic possibilities of the piano. Please note that the tempo changes from Allegro to Poco Adagio (!) and that the meter changes from groups of four to groups of three.

Figure 5-6 · Liszt, Étude, m. 1 / Liszt, Étude d´exécution transcendante, “Paysage,” m. 1 Figur5-6.ver3

Audio 6

Similar considerations confronted Johannes Brahms when he decided to transfer Bach’s immortal Chaconne for solo violin (from his Partita No. 2 in D minor) to the piano. The written notes of Bach’s original are certainly playable on the piano, but the impression of great physical energy and heavy fullness resulting from playing chord progressions over three or four strings simultaneously on a violin would vanish entirely. Brahms had to invent a way of playing the piano that involved an equally transcendental, largely physical resistance. And he found an extremely simple solution: he confined himself to using the left hand alone! Feruccio Busoni is one of numerous other composers who have attempted this Bach-translation, but in his monumental piano version of Bach’s piece, the heavy, massive chords are actually quite far from the clear-cut, simple intensity of Bach’s violin-idiomatic original.

Just as language is subject to constant change and development, the same is true of instruments and their idiomatic use. The language spoken by, say, Charles Darwin, differed from common English in the 21st century in a number of ways. Liszt’s idiomatic piano explorations are in many ways quite different from those devised by György Ligeti in a long series of piano etudes during the last 25 years of his life. So-called multiphonics (chord-like sounds on monophonic instruments) are achieved on woodwinds by using special fingerings and on brass by playing and simultaneously singing into the instrument. They only occur in music written after the Second World War, but cannot be considered less idiomatic than traditional ways of playing. The same can be said about the use of extreme bow pressure on string instruments (resulting in a noise with no precise pitch) or the special sound spectra achieved when the human voice is compressed. Such idiomatic techniques, however, simply cannot claim the same general status as traditional ways of producing sound, and they still occur only sporadically, also in the orchestral music of today. But nobody can rule out the possibility that some day they will be as common as the use of pizzicato, fluttertongue and mutes.

Relating the concept of idiomatic practice to the orchestra as such, and thereby regarding the orchestra as an individual instrument with unique properties and individual features, is less common, however. But in his pioneering textbook on instrumentation and orchestration, Hector Berlioz presents the orchestral instruments one by one in individual chapters – a common practice ever since –and titles the last chapter “The Orchestra,” as though simply dealing with yet another instrument.

Against this background, the idea of a gamut of idiomatic practices that apply to the orchestra as a whole – and the idea that an orchestra can be used more or less idiomatically – incorporates all the unique possibilities, unique circumstances, unique mindsets and practical issues at play when many different instruments are used simultaneously, i.e. used as an “orchestra,” the actual mix of instruments and their number notwithstanding. It goes without saying that any idiomatic practice will to some extend be linked to a specific historical period. Just as the meaning of a linguistic idiom at any given time must be defined by the current use of the language in question, the idiomaticity of the orchestra, its canon, must be defined by the music that represents the current repertoire of orchestras and concert institutions.

There is, however, a clear difference between current language and artistic expression. While meaningful rules for idiomatic and “correct” use of language can be established, even if language changes continuously, a similarly “correct” standard for language does not exist in literature and poetry. And the same is true when dealing with the question of how to use an orchestra in a specific artistic context. The intent here is by no means to downplay stylistic-aesthetic aspects, but to focus on a set of common principles that seem to exist independently of style and aesthetics.

Late in life, Rimsky-Korsakov spent several years writing his famous textbook on orchestration, first to be published after his death. Here he used examples exclusively from his own oeuvre, including many works virtually unknown outside of Russia today. Nevertheless, the book is still considered an international standard work. Not just a textbook illuminating a particular orchestral style from the Romantic era, but a book about timeless, generally acknowledged issues concerning the orchestra and its idiomatic usage, a fact that also applies to Berlioz’ previously mentioned textbook. These books continue to form the general background for our academic identity and practice in the field of orchestration – books that to a large extent make it possible to speak of idiomatic orchestral practice in the definite form.

It is the thesis of this book that idiomatic orchestral practice may be described in more general terms by investigating how the orchestral medium has been utilized, with primary focus on the period from Haydn to mid-20th century, but essentially involving music from Monteverdi’s time until today. Specific examples from specific works by great orchestral composers often exhibit such exemplary functional qualities that they can reasonably be seen as models with broader relevance for the field of orchestration. Whether they can also provide the basis for a comprehensive theory about idiomatic orchestral practice is a question that exceeds the scope of this book. At best, the book as a whole may suggest the rudiments of such a theory.

As suggested earlier, it is impossible to define the idiomatic use of an orchestra from a stylistic, aesthetic, historic or technical point of view. However, the following account is based on the premise that basic principles derived from history and experience may in a broad sense indeed constitute idiomatic practice(s). And in accordance with the arguments presented above, such principles will predominantly be searched for in the tradition that – in a similarly broad sense – is commonly known as the “classical” tradition. Although there is a difference between today’s English and the English spoken by Charles Darwin, and although the language of literature and poetry may differ dramatically from everyday language, similarities still by far outnumber the differences. Therefore, the development of the orchestra after the end of World War II will only rarely be discussed here. If a theoretical basis for the concept of idiomatic orchestral practice can be established, ongoing innovations are likely to extend this notion, rather than to contradict it.

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