Music – The Orchestra From The Beginning Of The World To The Birth Of Beethoven

MAN had probably not been man more than a few weeks before he made some sort of a musical instrument. Soon he was making many and they fell into three great classes—Percussion (I put them in probable order of early importance), Wind, and String. I believe that every country in the world, even that least in contact with European civilization, has instruments of the three classes.

Slow Progress in Combination

The idea of combining instruments of various classes must have come into man’s head early in his existence, but for a long time he bungled the business. Some reasons for this have already been suggested (pages 23 and 90). Two most potent reasons are: for any effective method of combination you must (a) have standardization of instruments, and you must (b) have an intelligible and reliable notation.

As regards (a) : there was for long no settled standard as to the size, the number of strings, and so forth, on a Stringed Instrument, and Wind Instruments varied quite as much. Some instruments were so near to one another in their tone qualities and their capabilities that a capable musical Martian looking down on our world would have remarked at once that until process of time had brought about a survival of the fittest no coherent orchestral combination would be likely to arise.

Then Wind Instruments were excessively difficult to bring to perfection, and, indeed, never reached it until the end of the nineteenth century—if they reached it then. For long it was almost impossible to play some of them in tune, and, in addition, for centuries the Brass Instruments were restricted entirely to the production of the wide-spreading ‘ harmonic series’ such as to-day may be heard from a military bugle.

Glaring Anomalies

A glance at that list reveals what are to us curious anomalies as, for instance :

(a) The importance of Plucked Strings and Organs.

(b) The lack of balance amongst the Bowed Strings, showing that they can hardly have been used as a family, as we today use our strings.

(c) The absence of Bass Wind Instruments.

Some of the anomalies partly disappear when it is realized that this force was hardly intended to be used as a whole Various groups were used at one time or another during the. Opera, to give one tinge of colour or another to the music.

But the parts for the Keyboard Instruments were not fully written out, a ` Figured Bass’, or musical shorthand, indicating the harmonies of any passage, and the player being often left to elaborate his part out of this.

And whilst we know pretty well what we mean by `Orchestra’, Monteverde could hardly use the word as a sufficient business description of his forces, but would, on any particular occasion, have to define exactly what he meant, since on some other occasion he would use some other very different combination. To us all this is chaos.

Purcell’s Orchestra

By the time of Purcell things were a good bit more settled, but these peculiarities remained :

(a) The constant use of a Keyboard Instrument to supply a background of tone and to ` lead’ the other instruments.

(b) A lack of differentiation, i. e. Purcell often showed little sense of the fact that different instruments have different capabilities, and, for instance, often gave Trumpets the same passages as Violins (this by using almost exclusively the upper range of the instruments, where the notes of the harmonic series come close together.

(c) The combination to be called Orchestra was still not standardized, so that in one work it would mean one set of instruments and in another another set. More-over, one solo or chorus in a work would be scored for one combination and the next for another, and some instrument included in the orchestral body engaged might be called for only once or twice in the whole performance. Yet there is this beginning of modernity —that the Strings are tending to assume first importance, and to be treated as a family instead of as unrelated individuals.

When we come to Bach and Handel we find a little progress beyond Purcell, but the same general conception in methods of Orchestration.

The best plan for the rest of this chapter will be to take actual specimens of Orchestration of (a) Bach, (b) Haydn, and (c) Beethoven, which will show us in a graphic way some of the changes that took place over the period of about a century which saw the gradual establishment of the modern Orchestra.