The Saxophones of Rome

contrabass clarinet

I’ve been thinking a little bit about the arts of arranging and orchestration.  Conductor Ken Wood’s excellent blog’s latest article talks in detail about the merits and the legitimate reasons for rearranging great composers’ works.

There’s some great stuff in there, like Schoenberg’s small ensemble arrangements of Mahler’s mighty symphonies – written in the years of austerity after the First World War.  Conversely there are also examples of Mahler’s upscaling of works by Beethoven to take advantage of the new large symphony orchestras and concert halls being built at the end of the nineteenth century.

On a seemingly unrelated note, I have also been enjoying a magazine detailing the sterling efforts of the various composers responsible for the music soundtracks that accompany the BBC TV series, Doctor Who.  Those who know me know that this is a programme that’s very close to my heart (new series starts on September 19th folks!) – and I’m happy to say that I have a keen fascination with all aspects of the fiction and the production of the show including, naturally, the music.  Nowadays, composer Murray Gold has the full forces of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales to play with, but back in the early days when budgets were tighter, composers had to be inventive with limited resources. Composers would either arrange music for a carefully chosen group of instruments chosen for maximum effect or wrestle with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s early synthesisers.  Whilst Delia Derbyshire’s realization of the theme music is worthy of a blog post of it’s own, arguably the finest incidental music composer the series had was Dudley Simpson.  His signature  of horns, cellos, bass and contrabass clarinets, combined with the aforementioned Radiophonic Workshop analogue beeps and hums,  created the unique sound pallet for the show throughout much of it’s original run.

Another notable score, was Radiophonic Workshop’s bonkers soundtrack for 1972 story, The Sea Devils – all realized on the workshop’s new EMS Synthi 100.

See below for a pic of Malcolm operating the synth.

synthi 100

The workshop weren’t allowed to compose for the series for 8 years after that…. Personally, I love it!


Much like the world of Science Fiction at the BBC in the 1970s, the world of musical theatre is another environment where composers have to work with a limited palette of musicians as a result of both budgetary and space restrictions.

Nowadays most professional shows are able to produce a big orchestral sound with the minimum of players  by playing a mix of live instruments combined with expert programming of synthesizer keyboards.  Sometimes in the amateur world, using these arrangements can produce mixed results.  Production of a credible sound in this environment is often less about the quality of the aforementioned keyboards and more about the way these sounds are mixed together with live musicians and singers.  Investment in a good sound designer often comes far too low on the list in the world of amateur music theatre.  Likewise, choice of synthesizer patch is, I think, sometimes misunderstood.  To sound like a credible string orchestra takes more than just dialing up ‘Synth Strings 38’ on your Roland.  A down bow at forte sounds different from one at piano, which in turn sounds different to an up bow or a marcato or staccato note.  All these things are taken into account by the expert Broadway and West End arrangers.

Whilst it’s great that this technology, in the right hands, is available to create these wonderful rich scores on a fraction of the budget, it does to my ears, result in a slightly dull homogeneity of sound between different shows.

I do miss the ingenuity of theatre composers of the past – just like the Simpsons and the Schoenbergs of the world – creating a unique soundworld from a quirky group of well chosen instruments.

The Musical Directors of amateur productions often have to make considered decisions on how best to cut down the lavish orchestrations of the shows they are putting on to match the lineup of musicians they have, again dicated budgets or theatre size.  I don’t MD many shows these days, but the Doctor Who magazine did remind me of my last swim into these waters.  It talked about the, perhaps unusual, choice of composer Raymond Jones to use saxophones in scoring a story set in ancient Rome.  The explanation was that combination of  saxes with other brass instruments could produce a credible Roman fanfare sound.  The fact that sax players are able to double on a number of other instruments also provided a wide variety of tonal colour in a small ensemble.

I had to make some similar choices when it came to picking instruments to play in a reduced orchestration of Broadway classic “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”.  The original score is for lavish full orchestra – large string section as well as full wind, brass, percussion and harp.  This was both a budgetary no-no as well as physical impossibility in the confines of the studio theatre we were performing in.

For me a big factor in the success and style of “Forum” as a show is that, yes it’s set in ancient Rome, but the style of the piece spans the eras of old style music-hall Vaudeville and a more modern satirical wordplay-heavy 1960s style of comedy. I decided if I couldn’t have the widescreen Hollywood soundtrack sound, then, for the studio theatre, I would try to do the smallscreen TV version.  With composers like Dudley Simpson and “The Avengers” Laurie Johnson in mind I tried to evoke the 60s as best I could.

Firstly, I was keen that any synthesisers we used would only recreate the sounds of other keyboard instruments (to avoid the upbow, downbow articulation issues etc) and certainly no instruments that hadn’t been invented post early sixties.  Thus a combination of piano, electric organ, vibraphone, xylophone and in particular harpsichord (check out the Avengers soundtracks for making the baroque harpsichord sound funky) was used to play melodies, countermelodies, riffs and harmonies originally assigned to a whole bunch of different orchestral string and brass instruments.

Secondly, to push the Vaudeville aspect of the show, we filled the score and the script with as many ‘comedy’ percussion sounds as good taste would allow: comedy timpani boings when  people fell over, swanee whistles, whip cracks when folk were slapped, rattles, sirens etc…

Other than the percussion, the only acoustic instruments used were 3 clarinets.  Like Raymond Jones’ Roman saxophones, the 3 together could blend to create a homogenous choral sound or were able to double on a number of other instruments for variety of tone.  So my 3 clarinetists were also able to provide me with flute, piccolo, bass clarinet, alto and tenor sax as required.

The most contentious omission from my small band arrangement was the trumpet.  Peppered throughout the show are a number of fanfares played in beautiful 3 part harmony on strident brassy trumpets a-la the MGM Roman epics of yesteryear.  But that’s pretty much all they audibly do.  No way was I wasting my precious instrument allocation on players that accounted for about 3 minutes of the show.  But the fanfares are important.  1 Trumpet?  Not quite the same pomp and circumstance. The feeble fart of the synth trumpet? Nah. Like Raymond Jones’ Roman saxophones I opted for the woodwind-faking-it-as-brass approach.  And quite frankly, 3 clarinets honking away at full volume sounded not bad at all.  Actually to this brass players ears, they were really rather impressive…


Upcoming Gigs

Delighted to playing for Bolton Symphony Orchestra again – 7.30pm at the Victoria Hall, Bolton, Saturday 26th September.

It’s the second outing this year for me for Bernstein’s West Side Story symphonic dances, but the real treat is the utterly barmy Variations on America by Charles Ives.  Check out the original version for organ below:


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