Orchestral music

For many people, the first association with the term "classical music" is the orchestra as a medium, and for some the two are synonymous. Consequently the perceived crisis for art music is tied directly to modifications of the orchestra as both a business entity and as a musical medium. While the former is an interesting topic by itself, and is tied to the changing role of public works and indeed of cultural obligations, it goes rather far outside the bounds of this column, and so must be placed in the background. However, it should first be stated that the deteriorating business conditions are closely linked to the conservative program choices, in a constricting move which is typical of human nature. This is, of course, linked directly to the change in the orchestra as a musical medium, based on its relative inaccessibility for the ordinary modern composer. The image of an orchestra in every city clamoring for new works, often from its own citizens, has become merely a humorous anecdote.

Those who have followed my remarks elsewhere will recall that I have been no keen enthusiast for orchestral music. The history of increasing orchestra size is fundamentally about being louder, an intention I do not share. John Cage has gone even farther by applying that basic pronouncement to harmony, stating that it is primarily a tool for being louder. While the connotations of Cage's remark might be objectionable to many people, I do believe the underlying point is sound. Much of Western musical development relates directly to the idea of making a louder noise, at least until this century. Of course, the other attraction to the orchestra is its variety of sound & timbre, and this is an area where my appreciation has increased substantially of late. Despite a lingering personal predilection toward the abstract sound of homogenous ensembles, I have become more intrigued by sonority and combined ensembles (called "broken consorts" in the English Renaissance). What is perhaps most amazing here is that, if we do not count the piano, there are so few major repertory pieces written for mixed chamber ensemble. Apparently the pull of the orchestra was too strong for works whose nature did not demand timbral equality among the parts.

An inescapably remarkable point about the orchestral phenomenon is the brevity of the period during which its basic repertory formed. The symphony progressed uninhibited only from the later 18th century into the early 19th! Earlier forms were bound up with concertante showmanship or the voice, while later developments were already staggering under the load placed upon them. Of course, this is not to suggest that the orchestra was dead by the later 19th century, far from it, but that its basic constituency and repertory was already set, to be added to only incrementally. The emergence of the symphonic form, lacking words, as the summit of musical composition is perhaps even more intriguing, and a topic which I should probably explore further before acting as if I have. One fine consequence of the HIP movement has been the rediscovery of rich sonorities in the smaller scale works leading directly toward codification of the symphony proper. Of course, the Baroque operas of Monteverdi and especially those of the later French composers already made use of a rich variety of instrumental resources, and this practice apparently dates back at least as far as the Renaissance with e.g. Lassus in Munich or even Josquin in Ferrara. I see the development of the abstract symphonic form at least partly as a reaction to the extremely involved text setting techniques of the later Baroque, something which in effect transfigured the ever-widening gap between individual words.

Constraints of some kind are often viewed as necessary for artistic production at the highest level, and indeed one can pose a complementary music history by specifically tracing changes in constraints. Composers are often most appreciated for their least constrained works, an indulgence which the major figures were only rarely allowed, and which must be seen in relation to more ordinary circumstances. While the orchestra is the least restrained sonic medium, especially given that it has not been necessary to write interesting parts for every instrument, other constraints surrounding it have grown substantially. Most basically, it is extremely difficult to get preparation and performance time from an orchestra. I believe this has been a major motivation toward the composition of music for eclectic chamber ensemble, because the barriers to entry now presented by the standard orchestra give added incentive to write exactly for those instruments for which one has independent parts conceived. Before this, standardized forces were more practical. The resulting variety in ensemble scoring is both intriguing for its diversity, and serves to fracture the basic constraints which had served to frame tradition. The solution to this problem, if indeed it is a problem, is entirely unclear.

Orchestras in other traditions

Another amazing thing about the large-scale orchestra is that it is absent from traditional music nearly everywhere else. Perhaps this is related to the development of harmony, and perhaps to the West's singular economics, but no one explanation serves to explain the phenomenon very well. Hopefully a brief survey will be interesting. The other substantial orchestral tradition is the percussion dominated gamelan, centered in Southeast Asia. Among these, the Javanese is the most developed in sonic terms, while the similar Balinese is the most famous. The basic style extends through continental Southeast Asia where it existed on an equally large scale in Cambodia, continues in a more folksy style in Thailand, and gives way to reed dominated ensembles of smaller size in southern Burma and even to austere percussion examples in outlying regions of the state of Kerala in India. Similar orchestras existed in previous eras in China, but have long since been displaced. The present Chinese "traditional orchestra" is a more recent invention, combining instruments which were primarily used for solo or small-scale performances. Finally, Japan & Korea have fairly unique examples, respectively wind- & string-based, but similar in many metric and formal features. Moving farther afield, Ottoman styles developed in close contact with the West, and the later Iranian styles make use of some Western ideas but retain a strong traditional flavor. Of course, fusion pieces which use some traditional instruments or themes in a Western-style orchestra are becoming fairly common today.

Smaller ensembles of mixed constitution are much more common in other traditions, and indeed some of the examples above might be more accurately called mixed chamber ensembles. With the exception of Java & Cambodia, the scale of Western orchestral music is almost unprecedented. With trends in HIP & world music, and given the issues surrounding orchestras, new music for mixed chamber ensemble is composed in abundance. However, many orchestras are becoming more aggressive, and I expect to see a resurgence there, as the medium continues to hold a fascination.

Administrivia: Vacation next week. The next column will be in three weeks.

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Todd M. McComb