Unidade 2


One well might wonder why in an era of computer driven synthesizers, digital recording and sound generation why an ensemble such as the symphony orchestra is still very important. These questions are especially pertinent when the programs of the major orchestras in the world contain an almost insignificant percentage of music composed in the last twenty years.

There are several reasons for this. One of them is that for over two hundred years--a significant era in modern history, the orchestra was one of the principal music-making bodies, often a public showpiece for a composer's best music. The orchestra was basically the radio station/movie theatre of its era. During these times, because it was such a popular ensemble, most of the best composers wrote a lot of music for the group. As a consequence, a great deal of the best music ever composed was written for the orchestral ensemble.

Before the past two or three centuries, music was usually written for a specific time or occasion and forgotten, replaced by new music written for a new time. In the period when the orchestra evolved, tastes began to change and the general public (as well as the musicians who performed for them) began to program some of the best of past master composers--the "golden oldies" of past eras, if you wish to think of it as such. The orchestra evolved during this era, getting the double riches of new music composed for it, as well as having a flood of older music to keep in its stable of warhorses. Because of the way they were written to exploit the strengths of this particular ensemble, most orchestral pieces don't translate well to other instruments or instrumental ensembles.

Perhaps the singlemost important factor in the orchestra's endurance is that in all of human history, the orchestra stands out in complexity, sophistication, and in its overwhelming ability to produce dazzling variety in its tone colors.

No other musical invention has developed into the complexity found in an orchestra. The sounds created by these instruments have been refined to a degree where they each can be delicately controlled to create nearly an infinite variety of shadings and colors. When you begin putting these instruments together in combinations and groups, the possibilities for creating unique sounds explode in timbral fireworks.

From the viewpoint of a synthesist, the orchestra represents the ultimate synthesizer. It can produce an infinite variety of tone colors, make a drastic change in these colors instantly, or have a large number of separate colors happening simultaneously and independently.

From the paradigm of an electronic musician, an orchestra consists of a rich mixture of sawtooth and square waves with many available and adjustable attacks and decays. Filtered white noises can be used to create sharp rhythms and add complexity in tone color.

It also represents a peak in cooperation between sometimes more than 100 musicians, each functioning as a separate individual and also as a component in a greater unit. The whole here is definitely greater than the sum of its parts.

Oftentimes a great orchestra will have a very large number of musicians who have been performing for forty or more years each, constantly refining their abilities along the way. The number of hours of practice chalked up by the members of any orchestra over their lifetimes would be nothing short of mind-boggling.

Typically in an orchestra, musicians often function somewhat as soloists, heard very clearly by the audience. In other words, the music is written like a complicated fabric texture where one line will come to the surface for a few seconds, then another, then a different one, etc., constantly weaving a multicolored sound.

Orchestral players also must constantly be listening and reacting to many of the other players around them. For example, an oboe player will have a number of solos in a composition, but at times will need to listen to (and blend in with) other oboe players. Perhaps the oboe player must play a duet with a clarinet or a flute. The music will often call for the oboes to blend in and support other members of the woodwind sections. At times, the woodwind family will need to submerge its unique sound and link up with the rest of the full orchestra in tutti sections. And finally, not the least thing to worry about is the conductor, who is constantly giving signals and has his own ideas about interpreting music. The average orchestra will have a great many guest conductors in a season, and the players must be able to react to each one's style and idiosyncrasies.

So--an orchestral player needs to focus his attention on solo parts, members of his section, other assorted members of the orchestra from time to time, members of his instrumental family, the whole orchestra, and the conductor--simultaneously. It's as difficult as it sounds, if not more so.

Certainly as other forms of musical instruments and ensembles began evolving as popular mediums, the amount of music written specifically for the orchestra began to decline. Sadly to say, we have probably seen the peak of the orchestra's popularity as a medium for new music. Rising costs for music, salaries, conductors, halls, etc. have skyrocketed, causing many orchestras to pull back their position to a safe and familiar audience pleasing repertoire. Because of these financial ramifications, unknown composers often find it very difficult if not impossible to have music performed by a good orchestra. And, unfortunately, many smaller orchestral organizations around the United States have collapsed from financial difficulties.

Regardless of this, the concept of the orchestra remains a marvelous invention with its computer-like precision balancing off with its abilities to richly express subtle musical ideas. Few things can top the dynamic interaction, complexity, and unity of purpose seen in a live orchestra concert.

The orchestra in its recognizable form began to take shape in the early 1700s. Up until that time, there were many ensembles of different sizes and combinations, but as instruments began to be refined and composers began to be more imaginative with instrumental colors, a fairly set ensemble began to emerge, using members of the string, woodwind, brass, and percussion families. Even up into the late 1700s, the harpsichord was a staple of many orchestras, filling in harmonies, ornamenting various lines, (not much differently from keyboard players in many rock or jazz bands today).

A typical orchestra of the early 1800's would have about 24 strings, 4--8 brasses, 4--8 woodwinds, and two timpani, or a total of about 36 players.

The orchestra of the late 1800's would have about 64 strings, 16 woodwinds, 18 brasses, five people playing various percussion instruments, two harpists, or a total of around 105. This tradition of expanding size reached its peak in the early twentieth century and most present orchestras are not much larger than the one just cited. Due to practical (economic) reasons, most today are somewhat smaller. By way of tradition strings are usually divided into first and second violin sections (same instruments, but different musical parts because of their great versatility), a section of violas, a section of cellos, and the section of doublebasses as the foundation (to literally "double the bass line", hence the names).

Traditionally, strings have always been the backbone of an orchestra. Although each individual string instrument can't produce a great deal of volume, they're easy to play in groups and they hold their own quite well among the other families.

By the early 1700s the string families had hit their technological peak. The Stradivari, Amati, and Guarneri families had produced their best violins (embarrassingly, the best violins of all time) at this point, and as composers began writing music for the newest groups of musicians at the time, naturally they exploited the strengths. Also, strings blend well with other members of the family and they have great versatility in tone colors, with the ability to change quickly. Not the least important factor is that the players don't have to stop to take a breath.

Early woodwind roles often doubled string lines in the scores, being used much of the time as added color, much of the way a painter will highlight certain details to make it stand out from the background. Eventually the recorder gave way to the flute, and in general, the woodwind sounds strengthened in both tone color and volume. Over the next two centuries as the individual instruments were improved, woodwinds began taking a more independent role in the music.

Brass instruments were limited by not having valves at their disposal. Through the 1700s and middle 1800s, brasses were used more or less as musical punctuation and for reinforcing important musical ideas. There were occasional compositions that made use of the rich brass colors, but generally the composer had only two choices: either write melodies that carefully tiptoed around the limited note ranges of the brasses, or use them only when complex harmonies crossed paths with notes available to brass instruments. Although the trombone with its slide didn't have these problems, it was rarely heard in an orchestra.

With few exceptions, the percussion instruments were pushed farther into the background than the brass instruments, serving as coloration and punctuation.

Before the early 1800s there was no such thing as a conductor separate from the orchestra. Preceding this time, the group was started and stopped by the person playing the keyboard (harpsichords were used a lot in early music) or the first violinist. Before that, someone would often use a large stick to pound the floor or hit a music stand with a rolled up sheet of music to keep the players in time. It was also a bit noisy and distracting.

Systems such as these didn't allow very many subtleties in phrasing, tempo, or much of anything else. Because of this, not many such subtleties are written into the music. Often today, much Baroque orchestral music is performed by orchestras without a standalone conductor because one really isn't all that necessary--a concept unthinkable for music of the Romantic Era and later.

In the early 1800s, the person leading the orchestra got rid of his other instrumental responsibilities and devoted his energies to refining and shaping the sound of the orchestra, eventually "playing" it as one very complex, but rich single instrument. When composers realized the detailed and subtle ideas that could be expressed by the new powers of the group, they quickly capitalized on the conductor, writing music that needed a strong leader to shape and sculpt the sound. Louis Spohr, a pupil of Beethoven, is often acknowledged to be the first real conductor as we know it (see the passage by Spohr in THE ORCHESTRA CONDUCTOR).

In the mid 1800s, the role of the conductor took on some curiously gigantic dimensions, growing to the superstar/tyrant/dictator figure that we sometimes think of today. Wagner, Richard Strauss, and Mahler are some of the first ones of these who rose to legendary status, although Mahler might have the best claim on being the first to become an international superstar conductor.

Another important landmark in the orchestra's history took place in the middle 1800s--the invention of valves for brass instruments. Brass players now had every chromatic note that the other instruments had at their disposal, and again, the composers made good use of the invention. The rich and brilliant (and sometimes deafeningly loud!) brass passages in orchestral music by Richard Strauss, Mahler, and Anton Bruckner dramatically showed what the family could do.

Before 1900, it was a rare piece of music that featured percussion instruments other than the timpani, bass drum, and an occasional triangle or snare drum. As music entered into an age of experimentation at the beginning of this century, composers found there was a whole range of exotic and unique tone colors out there waiting for them in the percussion family. They also realized that when a piece of music called for all of the stops to be pulled out, the percussion instruments could come close to drowning out the brasses. Stravinsky and Bartok, the French Impressionists, and many others brought the percussion family to the forefront. Edgar Varese and Charles Wuorinen are two out of many who have composed music for ensembles that consist of nothing but percussion instruments.

Not long before his death, Beethoven ran out of instrumental colors to express his ideas and became the first to use voices as part of a symphony. Mahler, Holst, Shostakovich, Vaughan Williams are a few who followed in his footsteps in this regard.

Many listeners suspect that when someone writes for an orchestra, he will usually sit down at the piano, work out the music, and then make an arrangement for the larger group. This very rarely happens. The orchestra is such a multicolored instrument that the best composers will usually think in terms of orchestral sound and individual instrumental lines while they are conceiving of the material. Each of the instrumental sounds tends to have somewhat of a specialized character it can convey, and the composer will use that character to "speak" the music in the tone color that matches what he wants to say.

In the early 1800s, French composer Hector Berlioz was the first to really exploit the tone colors of the modern orchestra. Other musicians who are noted for their brilliant orchestration include Russian Nikolai Rimski-Korsakov, Austrian Richard Strauss, and French composer Maurice Ravel. Many listeners consider Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" to be the most brilliantly orchestrated piece of music ever written. Premiering in 1913, Stravinsky thoroughly annoyed many listeners (to the point of causing an out-and-out riot) by taking many of the instruments outside their usual ranges.

With a little practice one can almost become a musical Sherlock Holmes. A good listener can can hear an unfamiliar orchestral composition and tell when it was composed within twenty years one way or another. By picking out certain instruments (do you hear a harpsichord? a lot of percussion?), how they are used (complicated brass melodies?), and a few other factors, pieces of the puzzle will often fall into place.

If that isn't enough, there are even certain national characteristics of music, such as harmonies, rhythms, and orchestration, that will allow a listener to make an accurate guess as to whether the composer was British, Russian, American, Scandanavian, French, German, Slavic, etc.

Orchestras are sometimes commonly referred to as a "symphony". More correctly a symphony is a piece of music, not the group that plays it. Many orchestras are called "symphony orchestras", and "symphony" is the typical shortened form of that. Oftentimes the name of the ensemble denotes size and purpose--such as chamber orchestra (very small orchestra), opera orchestra (small, usually performing opera scores), and symphony orchestra (a somewhat larger group). Some orchestras are given the name "philharmonic", literally meaning "friends of harmony", although it's hard to imagine a group like that calling itself "enemies of harmony".

The name 'band' has changed in meaning somewhat over the last couple of centuries. Today, many describe a group such as the Beatles, Anthrax, or the Talking Heads as a band. Traditionally a band is a group consisting of woodwind, brasses, and percussion instruments--no strings. To further confuse the matter, in Beethoven's time, a band was the name given to what we now call an orchestra!

A history of the orchestra wouldn't be complete without mentioning the eighth symphony of Austrian Gustav Mahler. Because of the giant numbers of strings, woodwinds, brasses, percussion instruments, voices, organs, it has been nicknamed the "Symphony of a Thousand". While there is music composed for larger ensembles, none of them have made it to the common orchestral repertoire. Even so, because of the cost involved in hiring and coordinating so many musicians, Mahler's eighth symphony is somewhat of a rarity, and when it is heard, it is usually scaled back to a group of only 500.

In the last few decades, an interesting movement has taken place in orchestral performances--that of using the original instrumentation available at the time the music was composed.

Even though a modern orchestra will use the same instrumentation called for in an eighteenth century score, the sounds of the instruments themselves have changed drastically, as well as the way they are played. For example, string instruments generally used lighter, thinner gut strings, were played with a different type of bow, less vibrato, and had less tension on the instrument. The result is a lighter, more feathery sound. Even more drastic changes can be heard in the sound of the other families. Oddly enough, instead of the result sounding like a museum production, it often makes the music sound fresher, more alive. Many performers and listeners aren't quite satisfied with the "new" sound, though, and there remains quite a debate about which style is actually more faithful to the intentions of the composer and the spirit of the music.


The orchestra is the ultimate instrument, capable of functioning as one giant and incredibly versatile synthesizer. You probably know that a synthesizer is capable of an infinite variety of tone colors and effects. While this is impressive, it does have severe limitations in the number of simultaneous effects it can create. These are shortcomings that an orchestra can easily overcome--but only when the musicians are able to lose their individual musical identities and function as one.

The conductor performs a big role in creating this unity. In essence, the modern conductor "plays" this giant and complex instrument. The components--the players--must be able to function under a very authoritarian (and we hope, beneficient) leadership if anything of artistic merit is to come from the process. The orchestra, at least from a sheerly musical standpoint, definitely CANNOT function as a democratic organization.

The most obvious function of a conductor is simply to keep the players together, as a "musical traffic cop". You will often see a conductor pointing to a section or individual player. He is giving the musician(s) a cue to reinforce an important entrance or melodic line, making sure that it is played. Some orchestral parts will have hundreds of consecutive measures of rest--it is very easy to lose count in these. You can imagine the disastrous effect for a musician to blare out singly after 99 measures of a 100 measure rest--which has happened. . . Simply put, the conductor is responsible for the cohesiveness of the orchestra's sound.

A second important function is the job as interpreter of the orchestral score. Almost no composition is set down with an EXACT tempo (speed), EXACT dynamics (loudness), or usually even the exact number of instruments playing each line. The conductor is responsible for all of these decisions and more. In addition to these simple mechanical and technical considerations, he becomes as a great Shakespearean actor--the words are there, the phrasing is there, but life must be put into the lines. In a like fashion the conductor must breathe life into the music. It is also within a conductor's realm (and job) to delve into the music, sense some kind of meaning (if it exists), deal with the emotions presented in the music, and be sure that they are communicated effectively to the audience. The technical aspect of this can be taught without too much trouble. The interpretive ability is a gift from wherever creative gifts like that come.

In addition to these purely musical functions, there are practical elements--such as making sure the audience members get sufficiently entertained. The conductor must give the audience a show. There are instances where a very capable and talented conductor was fired from a position for being too sedate in his conducting--forget the fact that the orchestra was doing an outstanding job under his leadership. Don't mistake the fact that the elaborate motions DO serve to shape and sculpt a sound, a musical color, or the execution of a line, but if one watches a rehearsal instead of a performance, the conductor's movements are usually closer to the original function of a conductor--that of simply being a musical traffic cop.

A fourth--and very important--function of the conductor is as one of the administrators of a large business organization. Yes, a performing arts organization must keep its financial status in PRIME consideration. Musicians' unions have many demands that need to be met, a performing hall must be available, the regular and guest musicians must be paid (for many of them, the orchestra represents their primary source of income), etc. Oh yes, and in addition, they must be sure that this process of music-making sells tickets. Along with being involved in these processes, a conductor will often make decisions on the musical direction that the orchestra takes--the concert tours, the programs, etc. that are performed. As orchestras have become more autonomous business organizations, the conductor/music director has become less and less involved in the hiring and firing of musicians, salary matters, but their decisions and wishes often carry a great deal of weight--especially if the conductor is a recognized "star".

Before the conductor became a separate position, the orchestra was led by the first violinist (today called the CONCERTMASTER) or the keyboard player if there was one. As noted above in THE ORCHESTRA, not a whole lot of subtlety and nuance could be written into the music. The leader had his own musical part to keep him occupied. Outside of rehearsal guidance, little was done (or necessary) besides getting the group started and stopped together.

Louis Spohr, a pupil of Beethoven, and perhaps the first conductor to use a baton (the baton is the 'stick' that the conductor waves--it is really a visual extension of the conductor's arm) relates the effect that a conductor can have on an ensemble:

"I took my stand with the score in front of the orchestra, drew my conducting stick from my pocket, and gave the signal to begin. Some of the directors had been alarmed, but when I besought them to grant me at least one trial, they became pacified. The symphonies and overtures that were to be rehearsed were well known to me, and in Germany I had already directed their performance. I could therefore not only give the tempi in a very decisive manner, but also indicate to the wind instruments and horns all their entries, which ensured to them a confidence such as hitherto they had not known there. They played with a spirit and correctness such as till then they had never been heard to play with."

While the wild motions of some conductors make them look like they are trying to take off and fly, thus far in music history there has been only one fatality directly attributed to conducting. Jean Baptiste Lully, an early French Baroque composer would pound a stick on the stage to keep the orchestra together, something that would cause people to faint in today's concerts. One time he accidentally speared his foot, and died from the resulting infection. More recently, Sir Georg Solti impaled his hand with his baton during a recording session and had to be taken to the hospital to have the tip of the baton removed.

In the midst of praising the conductor, let us not forget the musicians who are responsible for the memorable performances. Even a great conductor cannot get passable performances out of poor ensembles. Among the best orchestras, there is a very highly developed sense of ensemble--they have learned to play as one large group while still retaining their individual musical personalities. This allows orchestras to have many different conductors in a season and still sound credible. When the conductor gets the many standing ovations at the end of a performance, he is getting the same glory as a quarterback after a good game, or the credited win of a baseball pitcher. All three know that it was truly a team effort and that they happen to be in the spotlighted position--albeit a guiding one.


As long as I opened this particular can of worms, I might as well dig just a little deeper into it.

Among hard-core musicians, there are few things that will provoke more arguments than the issue of musical interpretation. Again, to interpret a piece of music is to bring it to life, making it sound like a living breathing document, not something that one would hear out of a mechanical music box. Two intelligent, musically gifted, and imaginative performers will approach the same notes, dynamics, and tempos and come up with very different performances. How? Why?

In many ways a piece of music is a partnership between the composer and the interpreter. The performer must accept the responsibility for "speaking" for the composer. He must make an attempt to understand what the composer is trying to say (if only in sheerly musical terms) and convey that message to the listener. Ultimately, he does so on his own terms, using what he has learned and experienced. This is what he contributes to the partnership.

He must balance this message off with other factors such as the character of the audience, the sound of the particular instrument or orchestra, the acoustical properties of the performing hall, and perhaps even his reputation as a performer.

These differences in approach are among the reasons that you will sometimes find twenty or more different recordings of the same piece of music.

One famous 'partner', a conductor, had so much of a fanatical following that it was suggested that people would buy tickets to see him conduct a stereo playing a recording. One sometimes wonders as to who is the junior partner here!

Two modern conductors, American Leonard Bernstein and Austrian Herbert von Karajan could well epitomize the argument. Much of their large orchestral repertoire overlapped, so we have quite a few recordings to compare. Their approach to music was quite different, and it is rare that you will have an experienced listener liking both of their recordings of the same work.

To a devotee of Bernstein, his performances bring out a lot of the joy of music, the fire seething deep within the drama. His performances are very exciting and spontaneous.

Karajan represents a well thought out interpretation with a focus on the orchestra as the supreme musical instrument. His performances are calculated and highly polished with well planned climaxes.

To a Bernstein admirer, Karajan's performances are often cold and lifeless, almost mechanical. They focus on perfection in the orchestral sound at the sacrifice of the emotional program presented in the music.

To a Karajan enthusiast, Bernstein's performances are shallow, flash without substance. His attempts to make the music more exciting often reach a level of vulgarity and lose sight of what the composer was trying to say.

To complicate matters, you will often find many listeners who don't like either of their approaches and prefer someone else's recordings.

Who's right in their approach--Karajan or Bernstein? Both? NEITHER?

To be sure, there is the element of temperament on the part of the conductors--Bernstein the American, Karajan the Austrian--and a matching or conflicting temperament of the listener as well.

Perhaps the concept of right or wrong just doesn't apply here. Perhaps at some point, the tastes and experiences of the listener begin to decide whose interpretation is best. Once the composer's wishes have been fulfilled--by playing all of the notes, dynamics, tempos, etc.--who is to say that this skeleton shouldn't be fleshed out in whatever way the musician feels applicable?

How can one tell which is the best interpretation? That's a good question without a good answer. A long time ago I listened to two recordings of a piece of music by Igor Stravinsky. To me, one of them stood head and shoulders above the other. The "loser" in the comparison was conducted by. . . Stravinsky himself. (Hardly a unique example of creators and interpretation--there was once a competition to see who could do the best imitation of silent film comedian Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin himself secretly entered--and came in third!)

Above all, whatever standards we use to judge an interpretation, one we shouldn't use is whichever recording sells the most copies.

Musical expression--breathing life into the music--is something that just cannot be written down without making a piece of music unimaginably difficult (some have tried). The only real way to do this is for the composer to make a recording of the music and let that be the performance.

If that last statement sounds a little unrealistic or impractical, think again. That is EXACTLY what has happened since the invention of recording. In the field of modern pop music it is rare that you hear one band performing music that another band has recorded (most of the time when you do, you hear them doing a cover of it, and then you might as well just play the recording). The recording hasn't destroyed the art of interpretation, it has just made it a little more personal. It has become an interpretive art in itself. (For more discussion, see Electronic Music and Recording in Unit 4).

Now--a stupid question that may sound a little less stupid the more you think about it: If there is music composed that leaves the performer out of the partnership, is there music written that leaves the COMPOSER out?

Believe it or not, the answer is yes. There is a fair body of music "composed" that pretty well leaves the composer out of the partnership. One composer who again comes to mind is American John Cage. Many of his compositions depend a great deal on random chance. (Note: The name for this type of music is aleatoric music and can be described as "the decision not to make decisions". Before we blame it all on modernists like Cage, it might be good to know that Mozart composed a work which requires the conductor to roll dice before playing a particular composition. How the dice come up determines the order in which the different sections are to be played!)

Some of Cage's compositions consist of symbols that can be interpreted pretty much any way the performer sees fit. Needless to say, they are not always recognizable from performance to performance! On the other hand, they are constantly fresh and immediate.

Before Cage is dismissed as a madman (for at least the millionth time), we need to realize that there is more than one way to do things. Not everyone thinks like we do, particularly non-Western cultures. To the Western world, Beethoven's fifth symphony is one of the most brilliant, tightly woven, and engaging musical dramas ever composed. To many cultures, it is a useless piece of music because each time it is played, it is exactly the same! It doesn't grow, it doesn't change!

Are there other less extreme examples of music that changes drastically from performance to performance? For a commonly known example of music that changes greatly from performance to performance, we need to look no farther than Jazz.