I’ve recently finished reading Stuart Feder’s The Life of Charles Ives, in the Cambridge Musical Lives series. Ives has become, since the Symphony Orchestra’s performance of The Unanswered Question eighteen months ago, something of a favourite of mine. I can’t speak up for the biography – it has a great many faults – but it did put the Concord Sonata and Symphony No. 4 back on my playlist. And, equally as important, it prompted me to rethink an interesting issue for orchestras like ours.
The University of St Andrews Symphony Orchestra is an amateur music group. There’s no getting around this. We’re of a good standard for an amateur group – most of our players are Grade VIII holders or the local equivalent, and some come to us with Diplomas in hand – but we are not professional. And we’re not even a ‘proto-professional’ group, such as the NYO or a music-college orchestra intends to be. Occasionally we have players who go on to make music their career, though the point of our group certainly isn’t to prepare musicians for the profession.
So the question of what our orchestra is for is a difficult one, tied up with what role the institution of amateur music fulfils in society more broadly. It’s a cultural training ground, no doubt, for performer and audience alike. It provides a setting for us all to get to know good music better, outwith some of the alienating contexts that orchestral music is often forced to occupy. (I wouldn’t now be listening to Concord Sonata and reading the Essays Before, if it hadn’t been for playing Unanswered Question eighteen months ago.) It performs a social function, too: you only need to see us all half an hour after the rehearsal to realise that.
But Ives seemed to me to have it right that the most important function of amateur scene is to provide a genuinely unrestricted space for music. One reading of Ives’ decision not to participate in professional musical culture it that he feared that the criterion of success imposed by the profession would interfere with genuine innovation and creativity. Remaining an ‘amateur’, Ives didn’t need to earn money by writing, and therefore wasn’t at the behest of commercialism and musical fashion. He remained autonomous.
And it’s odd, in a way, that the word ‘amateur’ doesn’t carry these sorts of connotations more directly. When we hear an orchestra referred to as ‘amateur’, we don’t tend to think first of autonomy. Neither do we think first of the fact that the members of an amateur orchestra are all there because they think the project valuable, rather than because they are being financially incentivised. But all of these things are worth keeping in mind.
Obviously, the pieces you write for us will have to be playable. This is one consequence of writing for an amateur orchestra, and it’s one we hope you won’t find too constraining. But we hope also that you’ll feel free to write whatever you want to. You shouldn’t feel constrained by any style, by any trend, or indeed by any feeling that you need to be ‘innovative’ or ‘new’. Our status means that we’re in the lucky position to conduct a search for good music that is totally unrestricted.