Orchestra And Absolute Music

—The most perfect means for expression in music is presented by the orchestra, which, in its complete form as shown today, is the result of a long development in many directions. To give us this magnificent mass-instrument required a sifting of the various instruments and the choice of those that offered the best possibilities, a perfecting of these instruments, a shaping of systems of playing them, of technique that should draw out all possible effects, and an understanding, on the part of composers, of the nature and demands of absolute music and how best to shape their conceptions in accordance with these demands. The orchestra and its music, therefore, represents the extreme height of man’s work in music, for even when choral forces are joined to the orchestra, the instrumental idea dominates, as, for example, in the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven, in which the chorus is simply a vocal band added to the other groups. The orchestra is a great means for musical expression because it offers to the composer the maximum of resources. In modern days, when the principle of Unity in Variety receives the most elastic interpretation due to the demand for the greatest possible contrasts in tone-color. power and in nuances, all, however, intended to exhibit and illumine the themes invented by the composer in their various transformations, in these days the orchestra is truly the most complete art-means known.

Groups in the Orchestra.—The orchestra is composed of groups of instruments allied by similarity of construction.

The usual classification is into three main groups, strings, (bowed instruments), wind and percussion instruments. In the former are included the violins, viola, violoncello and double or contra-bass ; wind instruments subordinate into wood wind and brass, the former include instruments of the flute, oboe, bassoon and clarinet families, the latter horns, trumpets, trombones, tuba or other bass instruments; the percussion includes kettle drums, other drums, triangles, cymbals, etc. ; the harp, while a stringed instrument, is not included in that class. These instruments offer a great variety of effects,, singly and in many possible combinations, in the peculiar effects possible by variety in playing, which in bowed instruments is considerable, and particularly by contrast with each other. While the orchestra today is in a highly developed condition, composers are seeking to ex-tend the limits of their art by the use of more elaborate and subtle forms ; so that we cannot in any wise predict the course and limits of absolute music with the almost unlimited resources at its disposal in the modern orchestra.

Purpose in Combination.—When we consider the orchestra as a combination of instruments we must bear in mind that this combination is the result of a definite purpose to pro-duce music independent of restrictions such as were shown to have existed in the days of the domination of the Church. The composers of the early polyphonic period and up to the 17th century bent their efforts to the composition of choral music which was sung for many years without instrumental support. When later the organ, and still later, viols and other instruments were drafted into the service of church music, the accompaniments were not independent of the voice, but merely doubled the various parts. Composers thought in terms of voices and their limitations, not in the greater range and endurance of instruments.. Then, too, the instruments were crude and their tone lacked distinctiveness as well as the comparative sweetness and purity of the vocal music of that day. Combinations of instruments existed in the Middle Ages, but not according to a system, and were due to the executants who assembled them rather than to the demand for them in the works of composers. It was in the attempts at light dramatic music that preceded the establishment of the opera that instruments were grouped together, showing a great weakness, from our point of view, in stringed instruments played with the bow, and a corresponding preponderance of brass.

Influence of the Opera.—The first composers of opera and oratorio gave instrumental support to the singers, although it was very meager. Yet the opera gave the help of that great principle of invention, necessity, and composers began to experiment with various combinations of instruments to secure a more adequate accompaniment for the voice as well as to heighten the effects demanded by the drama. Monteverde, an independent thinker and innovator, marked out lines in which efforts should be made by successors. He studied the characteristic effects of the various groups and made use of them as he felt them. His orchestra for “Orfeo” (1608) was made up of two harpsichords, ten tenor viols, two bass viols, two “little French violins,” one double harp, two organs of wood, one regal, two viole de gamba, two large guitars, two cornets, two trombones, three trumpets with mutes, one octave flute, one clarion. The most significant item is found in the “little French violins,” which presages the appearance of the instrument which was, a century later, to be recognized as the backbone of the orchestra. Among the distinctive instrumental effects which Monteverde introduced was the tremolo for bowed string instruments as well as the pizzicato. In looking over the instruments of Monteverde’s orchestra we will note but one wood wind, the flute. This shows that composers, doubtless through the military use of brass and drums, had accepted the latter as means for special effects. Instruments of the wood wind type were still too crude to be admitted. Alessandro Scarlatti, who did so much for the opera from the side of form and con-tent, also contributed to the development of orchestral mu-sic. He evidently perceived the importance of having a nucleus around which to build his harmonies, a group of instruments which should furnish a firm support and which could blend the various tone qualities. With the intuition of genius he selected the string tone for this purpose, and in this he was greatly aided by the fact that the Amati family, and their successors, Guarnerius and Stradivarius, had already perfected the violin, although the great players were yet to come. Scarlatti wrote in four parts for the string instruments, the treble part to the first violin, the alto to the second, the tenor part to the viola, which previously had often played in unison with the double bass, while the bass part was taken by ‘cellos and basses. He also added oboes and bassoons to the strings and brass. Lully in France used an orchestra similar to that adopted by Scarlatti. The kettle-drums now come into use.. The works of Corelli and his violinist successors, which showed the possibility of writing for strings, undoubtedly influenced orchestral writing.

Bach and Handel.—We now come to the period of Bach and Handel, each distinct in methods, the latter the more immediately influential in the development of the orchestra, the former’s principles of writing in the polyphonic style not being taken up until after years by Wagner and more recently by the extreme modern composers with their free polyphony. In a Bach score each instrument had an independent part to sing, and was treated from a musical standpoint, whereas the tendency of other composers was to seek figures and passages which should be characteristic of the instrument, the standpoint of effect. This particularly applies to the wind instruments. Handel’s idea seemed to be the building up of great mass effects, his style par-took of the harmonic rather than the polyphonic. He used all the important instruments found in the modern orchestra except the clarinet, although the proportion of the wind-instruments to the strings is greater, due to the relatively inferior power of these instruments in Handel’s time.

Maydn and Mozart.—From Handel we pass to the first of his three great successors, Haydn, who has been called the “father of the symphony,” who determined, in fact, the course of orchestral development. And we should not over-look the fact before-mentioned, namely, that the professional violinists, most of whom were also directors of orchestras in the pay of great princes, were testing the capacities and resources of the instruments used. In the period which Haydn represents, the proportions of the instruments in the orchestra were definitely fixed and the size of the string band became relatively greater, the ‘cello coming in to greater prominence in its use as a melody instrument. Haydn’s last symphony, written in 1795, calls for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two kettle drums, and the usual string band. This was the combination which Haydn selected as the most useful and effective, as the result of his experience as a conductor for many years. It was to Mozart that the introduction of the clarinet into the orchestra is due, for Haydn did not employ this instrument in his earlier works. The clarinet began to take an effective form about the end of the 17th century, yet it was not until the 19th century that it received the improvements that now make it one of the most useful instruments in the orchestra, with a wonderfully facile technic and correct intonation. The greatest of these changes was the application, to the clarinet, of the system of keys and fingering invented by Theobald Boehm (1794-1881) for the flute. In addition to showing the value of the clarinet as an instrument, Mozart pointed the way to some uses of the trombone. His E-flat Symphony is scored for one flute, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, tympani and strings ; in the score of the “Jupiter” symphony, the clarinet does not appear.

Beethoven established the orchestra as “the composer’s instrument.” He added but little to the instruments used but he took the resources established by his predecessors and demonstrated what could be done with them. Every group of instruments was used with more detail and to produce characteristic effects both separately and in combination. In his first and second symphonies he uses the same orchestra : two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, tympani and strings ; in the “Eroica,” a third horn part is added ; the fourth has the same orchestra as the first two, except that one flute is dropped ; the fifth calls for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, contra-bassoon, two horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tympani and strings ; in the sixth he uses the same orchestra as in the fifth, except that he drops the contra-bassoon and one trombone; in the seventh and eighth the orchestra is the same as in his first and second symphonies. In the ninth (Choral Symphony) he calls for a larger orchestra : piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, contra-bassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tympani, triangle, cymbals, bass drum and strings. It will be noted that Beethoven does not use the harp. It was not until 1820, seven years before Beethoven’s death, that Erard invented the double-action harp, an effective and a playable instrument.

Berlioz, Wagner and Richard Strauss.—The composer who first made an exhaustive study of orchestral instruments, their distinctive qualities, separately and in combinations, was Berlioz, who gave to the world his knowledge in his “Treatise on Instrumentation,” published in 1844. Berlioz gave to every one of his works a more or less distinctive quality by varying the composition of his orchestra instead of using the conventional combinations. He made frequent use of the harp, bass clarinet, English horn, bass tuba, besides other less frequently used instruments. He very much enlarged the scope of orchestral music by the new effects he devised. Richard Wagner, in his great music dramas, makes use of many new means of dramatic musical effects, introducing new instruments, enlarging the various families, dividing the strings into eight parts, in-creasing the number of brass instruments, giving to his scores a richness of power and a sonorous quality unknown before his time. Richard Strauss is, today, the greatest master of the technic of orchestral writing. His tone-poems make greater demands on the resources of the instruments and contain effects beyond those of Wagner.

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) was the son of a French physician, who designed him for his own profession. But the lad’s bent for music was so strong that when sent to Paris to prepare for a medical degree, he spent most of his time in going to the opera and in studying the scores of the masters. Much against the will of his parents, he determined to give up medicine and entered the Conservatoire.

His early musical training had been far from thorough and his career was at first not successful. This added to his father’s displeasure, and he finally withdrew all support from his son, who, rather than abandon Jais art, struggled with the most crushing poverty until a violent illness brought on by privation reconciled his parents to his choice of a profession. After several unsuccessful attempts, he gained the great Roman Prize, which entitled him to a period of study in Italy and Germany at the cost of the State, but throughout his life he battled at home with adverse and discouraging conditions, artistic and domestic. Until after his death his works never received the recognition gladly paid them in foreign countries, where he made frequent tours for the purpose of producing them. His demand for exceptional means of performance, based upon their large scope and previously unheard-of effects, was ridiculed in France, where they were also considered dissonant and bombastic; he encountered jealousy and intrigue at every turn and bore them, too, in no patient spirit.

His Important Works.—As a winner of the Roman Prize, however, he had a claim on the State. Thus his great “Te Deum,” written for three choruses, soli, and orchestra, was one of several commissions from the Government and was composed for the opening of the Exposition of 1855. Another similar colossal work is his “Requiem,” with its four small orchestras of brass stationed at the corners of the principal orchestra. These cross and re-cross with thrilling effect, simulating the blowing of the last trump. His most popular and widely-known work, “The Damnation of Faust,” a dramatic cantata now frequently heard in this country and in Europe, failed to awaken the slightest interest at its first performance in 1846 and involved the composer heavily in debt. His enthusiasm for Shakespeare led to the composition of what some consider his most important work, “Romeo and Juliet,” a symphony for orchestra, solo voices and chorus. Berlioz’ genius was essentially instrumental and symphonic in character; hence, though he composed a number of operas, none was successful. In-deed, the failure of “Les Troyens” (The Trojans), the subject of which was taken from the “Æneid” and which he intended to be his masterpiece, was his death-blow.

His Genius as an Orchestral Composer.—Berlioz was the founder of the modern school of orchestration, as well as the pioneer in the art of expressing a definite program in terms of absolute music. Like his great contemporary, Wagner, he was no executant; he played but little and, curiously enough, only such insignificant instruments as the flute, flageolet, and guitar. The orchestra was his instrument and no one has ever had a more unerring instinct for its capabilities either as a whole or in its component parts. In the origination of weird, unearthly effects he had been anticipated by Weber, whom he greatly admired; but he went beyond him in devising bold and daring combinations, which he justified by the end in view, though it cannot be said that a refined taste always finds this end in itself justifiable. For example, in the last movement of his “Fantastic Symphony,” he pictures an execution by the guillotine. A company of witches and demons dance around the headless body and perform a burlesque requiem—the whole sup-posed to be a nightmare suffered by an artist under the influence of opium. Color rather than outline, thrilling and novel effects of sonority, rhythmical variety and animation, intensity of expression and dramatic climax are the principal characteristics of Berlioz’ music. Yet delicacy and charm are by no means lacking in his works. Irregular in proportion and unequal in inspiration as they frequently are, they undoubtedly entitle him to the distinction of being the greatest composer that France has yet produced.

The Music of the Orchestra includes Symphonies, Overtures, Symphonic Poems, Tone-Poems and Suites and the Concerto for a solo instrument with orchestral support. The symphony is an elaborated sonata, and the first movement is usually constructed on the principles recognized under the term Sonata-form; the same principles are used in the Overture, which consists of but a single movement. Liszt, in his efforts in the program music style, devised the Symphonic Poem, which aims to present a series of emotional pictures in the Symphonic style, but with the various movements continuous. He advocated deriving all themes from a common source, transforming them rhythmically as needed to work out his conception. His successors in this style of music still use the thematic methods devised by the writers in the true symphonic style, but are free in their methods of construction and elaboration.


Grove.—Dictionary of Music and Musicians, articles on the Orchestra and the various instruments used, the Sonata, Symphony, Overture, Suite, etc., and Sonata-Form.

Henderson.—The Orchestra and Orchestral Music.