Welcome to this weekend with the TSO.
The theme over these two days is ‘The Evolution of the Orchestra’ and we hope you will join us for all the talks, rehearsals and masterclasses as well as the two concerts.
There is a strand that traverses the whole of the weekend - the Ricercare in 6 voices from the Musical Offering by J S Bach.
This work opens the Saturday night concert with a performance by a string orchestra; it also opens the Sunday night concert, but this time in a wonderful orchestration by the 20th century composer Anton Webern; and Sofia Gubaidulina’s Offertorium quotes the theme and the Webern orchestration at the very opening of the piece - the fugal theme then becomes the foundation upon which the whole concerto rests.
The story goes that Frederick II gave the full theme to J S Bach who was visiting the king at his residence where C P E Bach (J S Bach’s son) was employed as a court musician. The king asked J S Bach to improvise on the theme on one of his new fortepianos which were new instruments at the time. After J S Bach obliged, the king asked for a 6 voice version, and Bach asked to be allowed to do this at home - the result is The Musical Offering of which the Ricercare in 6 voices is one part.
Less well known is the (anecdotal) story that C P E Bach gave the king the fugal theme in the first place, hoping to trip his father up with such chromatic and difficult subject matter!
Bach’s sons thought their dad was old fashioned and out of touch and were determined to abandon counterpoint in favour of the new ‘Stile Galant’ (see ‘The Evolution of the Orchestra’ below for a more detailed explanation)
C P E Bach’s music was therefore composed in the midst of a seismic shift in terms of style, form and instrumental usage; The Sinfonia in D demonstrates wonderfully both the advances and discoveries of the Stile Galant, but also the uncertainty of how to navigate these uncharted waters.
We could pretty much say the same about the other composers whose music we are performing over these two concerts. Mozart and Beethoven, Berlioz. Webern and Sofia Gubaidulina - they all pushed at the boundaries too. Gubaidulina is still very much at it! Over the course of this weekend we will explore all of these works and witness how the symphony orchestra has grown, developed and transformed since its birth in the early 18th century - we hope you enjoy the journey and thank you for joining us!
The Evolution of the Orchestra
The symphony orchestra is one of the great wonders of the world. In its current form it can produce a vast range of sounds and timbres on woodwind, brass, stringed and percussion instruments, with each group capable of covering a huge range of pitch, dynamics and colour. It can produce staccato stabs or long drawn out lines, delicate filigrees or a wall of sound. The combinatorial possibilities are almost infinite - the symphony orchestra is a multicoloured palette waiting for the brush strokes of the composer to land on this amazing sonic canvas. It was not always so - the symphony orchestra as we know it was officially born in the mid-18th century in Mannheim. It coincided with the end of the baroque period and the birth of the Stile Galant and the classical era. Since then it has grown and developed, acquired new instruments and expanded from typically around 30 musicians to well over 100 in many cases.
Early Beginnings and the Influence of Style
In order to understand not only how, but also why the symphony orchestra came into being, we need to go back to the baroque period and take a brief look at the contrapuntal style of composition which had dominated musical composition in the Western tradition as far back as the 9th century. That is more or less when true polyphony began to emerge.
Until then, monks had sung Gregorian chant unisono (‘in one voice’), but with the advent of a notation system and the need of human beings to push at the boundaries, polyphony was born. Suddenly it was realised that one voice could move in one direction, while a second moved in another. Counterpoint was born!
In any contrapuntal music, which by definition has at least two separate and independent voices (but often four or more), the independence and beauty of each voice (line) is the top priority, i.e. one listens simultaneously to both the whole and (horizontally) to each voice as the music progresses over time. The art is to make each voice beautiful in its own right. Notes sounding at the same time, creating what we now call harmony, were not given the importance we assign them today, and although the intervals between them had to obey certain rules, as long as these were followed, everybody was happy. That, in very brief, is the theory of counterpoint.
Leonin and Perotin (12th and early 13th cent.), Guillaume de Machaut (14th cent.) and Palestrina (16th cent.) are some of the more famous and well known explorers and exponents of continually developing contrapuntal techniques.
It was not really that important which instrument played which line, so long as the (pitch) range of the instrument was suitable. (Indeed, the vast majority of the music by the above list of composers was vocal, sacred music) However, as we move into the late renaissance and then the baroque period, instrumental music becomes more and more common. So for example, many works by J S Bach have a 1st violin part doubled by flute, a 2nd violin part double by oboe and a bass line doubled by bassoon. One can play a 4-part fugue on an organ or harpsichord or with a string, wind or brass quartet and the music will speak equally well with any of these different ‘orchestrations’.
This is not to say that specific instruments were never specified - you couldn’t play Bach’s cantata No. 51 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BFDtRn396WY) without a trumpet - just that the contrapuntal style did not place the same importance on orchestration that the emerging classical era of Mozart and Haydn would.
Counterpoint was the dominant technique/feature of composition until the beginning of the 18th century, when a new compositional style began to creep in.
The Stile Galant
The stile galant was a radical departure in the sense that there was a melodic line at the top and a harmonic chordal underpinning which moved the music energetically forward within a newly codified concept of tonality. The crucial point here is that, apart from the top melodic line which dominates, the other voices below cease to have a melodic, horizontal life of their own - they are simply there to provide the pitches that make up the chord.
A severe health warning is needed here - as with all generalisations, exceptions to the rule are numerous - counterpoint has never died out and examples of it appear in almost every piece of classical music - but the general movement from counterpoint to this new style is accurate enough as an observation of style.
Sometimes, when attempting to create an historical timeline, one can point to specific events that were turning points. Rameau's 1722 Treatise on Harmony (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Philippe_Rameau#Treatise_on_Harmony,_1722) was definitely one of those and it initiated a revolution in music theory. Its main contribution was to establish the principles of harmony and tonality - Rameau didn’t invent them - he just identified the ‘rules’ and put them into a book, thus establishing a theory of music that was already understood instinctively, but hadn’t been written down before. It had a huge effect on the subsequent development of Western classical music mainly because it codified a set of ‘rules’ which (some argued…) then needed to be followed.
This is probably the place to point out that J S Bach straddled the two horses of counterpoint and harmony with a perfection and genius that is unmatched to this day.
The Orchestra is Born
These changes had many repercussions, but one of the most important, especially relevant to our discussion, was the emergence of orchestration and colour which came to be specified in a deliberate and detailed way. One can play a baroque fugue on any group of instruments, but no-one would dream of substituting one woodwind for another in a Haydn symphony.
Suddenly, instrumentation had become an integral part of composition. It is almost equivalent to the jump from two-dimensional iconography to three-dimensional paintings in the history of art. In music, this extra dimension was timbre/colour.
The famous Mannheim Orchestra consisted of a body of strings - 1st and 2nd violins, violas, cellos and basses - flutes, oboes and bassoons, horns, trumpets and timpani. A continuo (harpsichord) player was in attendance up to the time of Mozart. Clarinets were included later as they were only invented in the 1690s or later (a development of its precursor, the Chalumeau) and it took a while for them to be incorporated into the mainstream.
Woodwinds now took on a role which was much more independent - rather than just doubling the violins or bass, they were given their own melodies, equivalent in importance to those written for their counterparts in the string section. Woodwind ensembles, or groups of two or three instruments emerged as well.
Beethoven introduced trombones in his 5th, 6th and 9th symphonies, as well as an early form of contra-bassoon and the piccolo, and increased the brass from two French horns to four.
Berlioz, one of the most creative orchestrators of all time, included small clarinets and bass clarinets, English horn (Cor Anglais), tubas, harps and huge amounts of percussion - he loved lots of timpani as well as tubular bells, cymbals and bass drums, to name but a few.
Wagner actually invented a hybrid horn/tenor tuba aptly named a Wagner Tuba which Bruckner quickly adopted in his last three symphonies. Also, the celeste, invented in 1886 and used by Tchaikovsky in 1892 (Sugar Plum Fairy), features prominently in many subsequent orchestral compositions.
The 20th century was the era of percussion - xylophones and other tuned percussion (such as the vibraphone created in 1922), different varieties of drums and various other oddities all crept in and grabbed a spot in the orchestral line-up. In his Ameriques, Edgar Varese includes a portable air raid siren too.
It is however fair to say that the instruments of the orchestra generally ossified more than 100 years ago. Of course there are more recent minor improvements to instruments, and occasionally someone uses a genuine late 20th/early 21st C quartertone flute!
Patrick Ozzard-Lowe’s wonderful book on contemporary musical instruments can be found at www.c21-orch-instrs.demon.co.uk for those who want to explore this subject further.
The Balance Shifts
The four basic elements of a musical event - pitch, rhythm, dynamics and timbre - have each attained different levels of prominence at different times in musical history. Pitch and rhythm were of prime importance in the baroque period, timbre (colour) became increasingly important in the 19th and then 20th centuries. Many advances in instrumental engineering occurred between 1800 and 1900.
Dynamics emerged in the 18th century - the Mannheim Orchestra was famed not only for the virtuosity of its players, but also for the ability of the orchestra to ‘get louder and softer’, i.e. crescendos and decrescendos. With the emergence of serialism (circa the 1920s), the increasingly precise notation, duration, pitch and dynamics, particularly allowing greater individuation of musical lines, also meant that conventional tonal harmony was often thrown out and replaced. Then graphic scores and indeterminism, very popular techniques from the 1960s onwards, made pre-determined pitch and rhythm less crucial (even relevant) and texture became everything. The minimalists arrived on the scene in the 1970s and very exact pitch and duration values became essential ingredients again, but in the service of creating what is in essence textural music where melody was at most a by-product.
Perhaps most crucially, the 20th century brought new languages which uprooted conventions of melody and harmony and replaced them with atonality and serialism as well as the very distinct vocabularies of Stravinsky, Bartok, Shostakovich and many others.
A Changing Landscape and a Peek into the Future
You may wonder what all this has to do with the symphony orchestra and its development. The orchestra, orchestral instruments and orchestral musicians have all had to adapt to this changing landscape and it is impossible to separate the development of compositional style and the means with which these compositions are performed. Indeed, in many cases the advances in instrument building influenced and inspired composers to push at the boundaries. Instruments became louder, extra keys and mechanisms were developed and introduced (e.g. valves on horns and trumpets (19th century)), new playing techniques were introduced (e.g. flutter-tonguing, glissandi, multiphonics (chords) on wind instruments) and musicians had to learn new skills to cope with the demands of an expanding musical language and an ever more challenging repertoire.
The 20th century especially was responsible for the breakdown of rules, boundaries and structures that had been the foundations of Western music for hundreds of years. The structure of the symphony orchestra was not immune and the orchestra as an organisation both expanded and disintegrated at the same time. A great deal of music was composed that used smaller, more specialised ensembles which comprise any combination of instruments imaginable. In much contemporary music, the static groups of strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion were no more. The instrumental ensembles of today often consist of a pool of players all of whom are highly skilled musicians familiar with the different techniques and demands of modern repertoire. Different ensembles and combinations form and dissolve on a per concert basis governed by the repertoire and its instrumental makeup.
These ensembles exist alongside the (thankfully) many orchestras which still exist but economics and a changing world are undoubtedly a threat to the symphony orchestra as we know it. It may well be that in 50 years’ time, the conventional symphony orchestra will be a specialist ensemble confined to playing the repertoire of past eras, very similar to the authentic instrument ensembles which specialise in the performance of baroque and classical era repertoire today.
And then there is technology. Classical music in general and the symphony orchestra specifically are in no way immune to the rapid advances of modern hardware and software. Just a few examples: many musicians now use iPads instead of paper scores and parts; sample-based synthesis is often used to replace live musicians in theatres and shows; amplification and sound diffusion offer huge potential for both creativity and stupidity; compositions which combine both electronically generated sounds and traditional acoustic instruments are more and more common; and music is consumed in very different ways too - the CD is dead, having been replaced by streaming and online access. All these developments will have unforeseen impacts in the future.
The theme of this weekend is evolution. Change and development will continue to do their magic regardless of whether we feel this is a positive or negative phenomenon. The important thing is the quality, the engagement, the being there when music speaks. The vehicle that propels us there is less important.
One hopes though that this wonderful human creation, the symphony orchestra, will manage to survive the ups and downs of the modern world and last long into the future.