The next few installments of our ongoing look at the
Classical Repertoire considers the orchestra
, as a natural, scaled-up,
progression from chamber music. As we started to discuss in our earlier look at
“team play”, the orchestra is a large musical ensemble, laid out in discrete
sections of primarily string, wind and percussion instruments.
Sections of an Orchestra
The term orchestra derives from the Greek name for the area
in front of an ancient stage reserved for the Greek chorus. Nothing much needs
to be said about the orchestra as an ensemble, other than it has evolved
through the last 500 years in size, scope and texture, going from so-called
period instruments (some of which have fallen into obsolescence) to the
instruments we recognize today. Gone are the viola de gamba
and the oboe
, and long-live the cello and the English horn!
Size and breath provide endless possibilities to orchestral
composers – sometimes known as symphonists
- and works typically found
in the orchestral repertoire fall into three broad categories, along the lines
of what we can hear at a typical subscription concert: symphonies
. The concerto (which literally means concert
) is a form
that has evolved quite a bit throughout music history, and I have chosen to
look at concertos in an upcoming, separate installment of our project.
Etymologically, the word symphony is derived from Greek,
meaning "agreement or concord of sound", "concert of vocal or
instrumental music". Not surprisingly, with such a broad meaning, the
terms "overture", "symphony" and "sinfonia" were
widely regarded as interchangeable up until the Romantic period.
In the sense of "sounding together," the term
symphony begins to appear in the titles of some 16th- and 17th-century works.
For most of the Baroque period, the terms symphony and sinfonia were
used for a range of different compositions, including instrumental pieces,
usually part of a larger work like an opera. The "Italian" style of symphony, often used as
overture and entr'acte in opera houses, became a standard three-movement form:
a fast movement, a slow movement, and another fast movement.
Over the course of
the 18th century it became the custom to write four-movement symphonies,
following a pattern we refer to as the classical symphony:
- oopening sonata or allegro
- slow movement, such as adagio
- minuet or scherzo with trio
- allegro, rondo, or sonata
Variations on this pattern, like changing the order of the
middle movements or adding a slow introduction to the first movement, aren’t
The most important symphonists of the latter part of the
18th century are Haydn
, who wrote at least 107 symphonies over the course of 36
years, and Mozart
, with at least 47 symphonies in 24 years. The three-movement
symphony died out slowly; about half of Haydn's first thirty symphonies are in
three movements; and for the young Mozart, the three-movement symphony was the
norm, perhaps under the influence of his friend Johann Christian Bach
The symphony became a true work horse for composers, a “rite
of passage” from also-ran to significance, probably starting with Beethoven
and from that point on to Schubert
. In fact,
symphony was a work that had an excessively long gestation - there
was an expectation from Brahms' friends and the public that he would continue
"Beethoven's legacy" and produce a symphony of commensurate dignity
and intellectual scope—an expectation that Brahms felt he could not fulfill
easily in view of the monumental reputation of Beethoven. Early attempts at a
symphony morphed into his piano concerto in D Minor and a good ten years later,
probably in 1868 Brahms finally realized what would become the final structure
of his first Symphony. The work would not premiere for 8 more years, in 1876.
Everything is relative – works come in all shapes and sizes,
yet symphonies are viewed as “large orchestral works”. Indeed, some can be
quite substantive, require a large complement of musicians, and can be lengthy,
lasting sometimes close to an hour from beginning to end.
In the film Rhapsody in Blue
, in clear abuse of
poetic license, George Gershwin’s father on his death bed, hears a performance
of the Cuban Overture
and shows much satisfaction when the performance
clocks past ten minutes in duration, declaring it “a major symphonic work” by
virtue of crossing that arbitrary threshold.
What I take from that episode is that even if works aren’t
coined to be “large”, they can still be terrific pieces of music, and cannot be
merely dismissed as “filler” for a program. As I will try and illustrate, a
whole class of works, from operatic preludes to ambitious symphonic poems, or
even suites of disparate dances, can be just as significant in their content
and message as the great symphonies of the orchestral repertoire.
It is common in orchestral concerts to program overtures,
a term we intuitively apply to the instrumental introduction to a stage work. The term overture means a lot more than just that. In fact,
the term was used interchangeably in the late baroque and early classical eras
with sinfonia. In some of Verdi and Rossini’s operas, they actually
identify the overtures as sinfonias! Some compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach
and Georg Philipp Telemann which we often refer to as dance suites are also
It is sometimes customary for major orchestras to commission
works from local composers. More often than not, these works are used at the
start of a program, or after intermission.
During the early Romantic era, composers such as Beethoven
and Mendelssohn began to use the term overture to refer to independent,
self-contained instrumental, programmatic works. One of Beethoven’s attempts at
overtures for his opera Fidelio
) include an attempt that is viewed
as so intricate and complex that it is often heard in concert only – you may
know it as “Leonore No. 3”. Such works are precursors to a genre known as the tone
(or symphonic poem), a form devised by Franz Liszt
distinction between the two genres was the freedom to mould the musical form
according to external programmatic requirements. The symphonic poem became the
preferred form for the more "progressive" composers, such as César
, Richard Strauss
, Alexander Scriabin
, and Arnold Schoenberg
, while more
conservative composers remained faithful to the overture. In the age when the
symphonic poem had already become popular, Brahms wrote his Academic Festival
, as well as his Tragic Overture
. Examples clearly influenced by the
symphonic poem are Tchaikovsky
's 1812 Overture
, and his equally
well-known Romeo and Juliet
- labelled a 'fantasy-overture'.
Exploring the orchestral repertoire - Some Listener Guides
Listener Guide #27 - "Curtain Raisers"
: We explore concert overtures – short pieces of music that launch orchestral concerts. A wide range of selections are proposed, including a few Slavic/Russian favourites. (ITYWLTMT Podcast #226 - 22 July 2016
Listener Guide #28 - "Karl Bohm Conducts Haydn and Mozart"
- Conductor Karl Böhm in Mozart’s great symphonies no. 40 and 41. (ITYWLTMT Podcast #227 - 5 Aug 2016
Listener Guide #29 - "Karl Bohm Conducts Richard Strauss"
: This old favourite recording of mine, featuring Karl Böhm conducting four works by his friend and mentor Richard Strauss, including two of his oft-heard tone Poems: Till Eulenspiegel and Don Juan. (Vinyl's Revenge #17 - 24 May 2016
Listener Guide #30 - "Beethoven 2 by 4"
: This montage features two symphonies and two overtures by Beethoven. (ITYWLTMT Podcast #43 - 17 Feb, 2012