Some months ago, I had commented in this column on the rarity of wind ensembles performing in Goa.
So I was delighted to help the Steinhaus Orchester Besigheim play a concert here, on the Goa leg of their tour of India.
The Steinhaus-Orchester Besigheim is a wind orchestra with musicians from the area of Ludwigsburg, near Stuttgart, Germany. It is conducted by Music Director Roland Haug. Their concert programme in Goa (Menezes Braganza hall Panjim 26 May 2016, 6.30 pm) features waltzes, polkas, marches and folk music from Austria, Germany, Switzerland and the Czech Republic.
They have had successful concert tours of other countries: South Africa (2005), Chile (2008), Namibia (2010), Paraguay and Brazil (2012) and Mexico (2014).
The Steinhaus Orchester Besigheim can be seen as the descendant of the Harmonien (ensembles of wind instruments comprising six players or more) of seventeenth-century Prussia and Germany that I had discussed in the earlier article, the precursors of the wind band tradition.
There were also the municipal, town or ‘tower’ musicians, upon whom fell the duty of announcing the hour of the day through short, signature fanfare.
The stimulus for large, standardised, part-playing bands in western Europe is thought to have come from the influence of the Turkish Ottoman empire, whose military had a time-honoured tradition of large bands of musicians playing loud wind and percussion instruments as they accompanied troops onto the battlefield. They would form a semi-circle around their flag or standard. As long as the troops could still hear the band playing, they knew their standard was still flying high and this kept up their morale.
The wind band tradition spread from Germany to other parts of Europe and to Britain and the United States.
From the tiny numbers of the 17th-century Harmonien, the wind orchestra has grown much larger numbers, and the Steinhaus Orchester Besigheim is an indicator of this. It has in its ranks 2 flutes, 7 clarinets, 1 bass-clarinet, 5 saxophones, 2 bugles, 4 trumpets, 2 euphoniums, 1 baritone, 1 trombone,2 tubas, and drum-set and percussion.
The possibilities of tone colour in a wind orchestra or ‘band’ can be exploited in a different direction than if the woodwinds and brass were merely part of a larger ‘conventional’ orchestra with the large string forces. The elimination of doubling of parts (many instruments playing the same melodic lines) brings clarity, precision, and lets individual timbres of instruments come through and project much more effectively. Furthermore, a typical symphony orchestra would not have a full complement of clarinets (the Steinhaus Orchester has eight), and would seldom employ the forces of the saxophone family or euphonium. The clarinets in effect substitute for the strings, and a full complement from the soprano to the bass clarinet covers the harmonic spectrum.
These advantages allow wind orchestras to play orchestral repertoire and bring out nuances that are quite different to when the same work is played by a typical orchestra. For instance, the Steinhaus Orchester will play for us works like the Radetzky March (Johann Strauss Sr.) and Leichtes Blut the famous polka by the more illustrious son Johann Strauss Jr. Both are orchestral favourites, and regulars at the Neuesjahrkonzert (New Year’s Concert) in Vienna and elsewhere). But played by a wind orchestra, they take on a whole new mantle, with tone colours and blends completely unique to their forces.
Thanks to the Portuguese legacy in Goa, we still have brass bands supplemented by a few woodwinds at social occasions such as church feasts, novenas, processions and at weddings and funerals, although this is being seen less often. Our tiatrs would be bereft without the distinctive sound of trumpet and saxophone.
But we have to seriously think about the future of our musical cultural landscape. Too few of our children are learning to play woodwind and brass, for a whole host of reasons, the biggest one being the lack of good teachers. We know this first-hand at Child’s Play India Foundation. Apart from recorder and flute, and a tentative beginning at clarinet, we have not been able to foray further into this sonic territory solely because it has so far been impossible to find teachers for these instruments.
I do not labour under any delusion, as some seem to do, that merely staging a concert featuring such instruments will inspire our youth to rush out to buy them and take them up. Brass instruments cost a fair amount of money, and double-reed woodwind instruments such as oboe and bassoon even more. A good working knowledge of reeds, the making of them, their lifespan etc is necessary, and there is no substitute for an experienced good teacher.
A concert can awaken an interest, for sure, but until there are really good competent teachers locally and round the year, it is unlikely to proceed much further. Essentially this means having to establish a grass-roots pedagogical tradition. The irony is that overseas musicians would love to come here to help do precisely this, provided we can address the visa and financial issues this would involve. And this again is really small change compared to the money required to import say, an overseas football player for the Indian Super League. If philanthropists and corporate houses seeking to meet their CSR (corporate social responsibility) quota help us in this objective, it will have a trickle-up effect in benefiting not just our children but all sections of society. That will be something to toot our collective horn about!
(An edited version of this article was published on 22 May 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)