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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 8, No. 2

Introduction to Music : The Orchestra: How it Developed; Why Performers Sit Where They Do

by Sarah Choukah / October 2, 2002

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An evening at a symphony concert is first and foremost a treat for the ears. After this comes the pleasure of seeing the orchestra (and conductor) in action. It's always an impressive sight to watch musicians performing as a unit, especially with music that calls for pulling out all the stops. The fullness of sound combined with the multifaceted visual details, including where performers are placed, add up to an exhilarating experience that sharpens our awareness of the greatness and beauty of the work. However, when listeners can't see the orchestra properly they don't always appreciate the subtle advantages of placement. They are more likely to gain a better understanding of symphonic works if they become familiar with the orchestra and the art of using it in a way that respects the composer's ideas as closely as possible. Familiarity will also make them aware of an essential element in music--timbre--and its infinite potential.

A long development

Today's symphony orchestra is the end product of a long development. Its present form dates from the eighteenth century. The orchestra's makeup has changed continually, and even more so with present-day composers and arrangers. As early as the first dynasties of Egyptian pharaohs there were instrumental ensembles accompanying singers and dancers during religious ceremonies. Around 700 B.C. the Egyptians gave definite form to their musical cortèges. Mizmars (double flutes), lyres and other stringed instruments, such as the ancient oud, performed side-by-side with hand-clappers.

Ancient Greece had no ensemble large enough to correspond to the notion of an orchestra, but this term comes from the Greek, nevertheless. The word denoted the space where the Greek chorus stood during drama performances, generally between the stage and the tiered seats. At the beginning of the seventh century, it denoted the space reserved for the musicians and their leader, and later was applied to these people.

Early historians of the orchestra thought that its makeup evolved at the same slow place as the development of musical instruments, but this isn't necessarily the case. Wind instruments only acquired valves and finger keys in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These improvements made it possible to alter all notes. The winds became easier to play and could equal the strings in virtuosity. Until then, the use of various wind instruments depended on the type of music being played. Trombones, for example, were kept for religious music and their use was still rare before Handel. Clarinets figured in opera orchestras in Venice, Vienna, and Hamburg in the eighteenth century, but only appeared in other orchestras in the last half of the century--at first sporadically, then as a fixture. The same was true of the English horn, which became an accepted orchestra member only in 1780. Other instruments such as the oboe d'amore (an oboe in the viola's range) gradually disappeared as the orchestra's development took off.

Backbone of the orchestra

Violins, violas, cellos, and double basses (the latter introduced into French orchestras and opera ensembles around 1701) form the backbone of the orchestra. They are often compared to the four main voice classifications: soprano, alto, tenor and bass. Their supple fingering, ease of modulation, homogenous timbre, and virtuosity of performance make them a truly core section of the orchestra--unlike the winds, which generally punctuate or add emphasis to musical discourse. The strings are often given the melodic line because of their homogenous timbres. This makes them a powerful foursome, capable of providing the most subtle effects, both in the realm of dynamics and modes of attack (pizzicato, col legno: using the wood side of the bow). Depending on the period, the roles of brass, woodwinds, and percussion instruments will differ--from providing colour to adding unusual sound effects, including simple harmonic backgrounds, or, on the contrary, brilliant and exotic melodies rendered in their particular timbre.

Good acoustic transmission

To achieve good acoustic transmission, the strings are arranged at the front of the orchestra. Their core function and role as melodic interpreters justifies their being close to the conductor in order to have better contact. The most important reason for their placement, however, is their low projection capability. You will easily hear two trumpets (or any woodwind or brass instrument, for that matter) playing amid the whole violin section, because the winds have a much greater power of projection. The harp is usually placed between the violins and the brass, and is used to interpose harmonic chords. This format is a relatively recent development. Monterverdi, for example, divided his orchestra in two and conducted his instrumentalists separately, placing them on two sides of the hall to underline the contrast between certain parts of his works.

Berlioz and Wagner, who had a megalomania for orchestral effects, wrote titanic symphonies, although even these weren't enough to satisfy the composers. The biggest orchestra to date got together in Boston in 1872 for the Gilmore Peace Jubilee, celebrating the end of the Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War. Over 4,000 instrumentalists were present, including over 300 violins, 100 cellos, 100 double basses, 24 clarinets, bassoons, and French horns. It's hard to imagine such a spectacle!

Many consider Jean-Baptiste Lully's violons du roy (his twenty-four "king's violins" inaugurated in 1626) as the first orchestra resembling those we know today. Since the time of Louis XIII, however, there have been many changes in the orchestra's makeup. Patrons continued to encourage music in the imperial courts of Europe up to the twentieth century. Orchestras were then governed by the financial resources available to them and their patrons, depending on how ambitious these courts were in matters of entertainment and cultural outreach. The demise of a number of orchestral societies along with nineteenth-century monarchies affected even opera companies, the best employers. The flame was passed on, however, thanks to the intervention of the state, musical societies, and individual music-lovers, all of whom wanted posterity to share this great tradition.

[Translated by Jane Brierley]

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