Picking Up the Pieces

Explaining what happened to the orchestra in the 20th century is not easy.  Orchestral growth completely stopped, and orchestras and most composers refused to even push the size of the orchestra to where it had been at its climax again.  A new composition for orchestra for most of the 20th century was based on woodwinds in threes and brass with (four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, and one tuba).  This, to a modern composer, is a big orchestra.  Yet, orchestras readily will perform works like the Rite of Spring with its quintuple woodwinds, eight horns, five trumpets, the trombones, and two tubas, without any hesitation.  Orchestras jump at the chance to play Mahler and Strauss.  They are sending a message to composers that they are not worthy enough to experiment with the orchestra, and only the great old masters could be the creative geniuses.

Reinvigorating the Strings

            The string section is the foundation of the modern orchestra.  It has also remained unchanged since the inception of the orchestra: two sections of Violins, and one each of Violas, Cellos, and Basses.  It’s the most stagnant part of the orchestra.  Only the numbers have changed over the years.  Let’s change it up.

Tenor Violin

            The string section, as it currently stands, is an unbalanced choir: soprano, soprano, alto, bass, contrabass.  Somehow, the tenor voice was left out.  No one seems to know why this is.  Tenor Violins have existed in the past, and a few luthiers make them today.  Why has this gap between the Viola and the Cello never been filled?  It shouldn’t be any harder than the Cello to play.

Treble and Octave Violins

Instruments higher than the standard Violin have been around in the past as well.  Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto 1 has a part for Piccolo Violin pitched a 3rd higher than normal, but only recently, through new materials technology, has it been possible for these instruments to become a usable reality.  They smaller instruments have a brighter and more piercing sound.  They could add a shimmering quality to the whole orchestra.


The rarest of all string instruments is the Octobass.  Berlioz knew it and praised it, but it languished in obscurity for well over a century.  A few brave luthiers and players have recently taken up the challenge of a string instrument 14 feet tall and an octave below the standard Bass.  The results are visually and sonically amazing.  Were this instrument more widely available, it would give a whole new octave of the sound of the orchestra.

The New String Section

I will take a typical large symphony orchestra of (total of 64 players) and redistribute those players for a wholly new string section.

2 Octave Violins

4 Treble Violins

12 1st Violins

12 2nd Violins

8 Violas

8 Tenor Violins

8 Cellos

8 Basses

2 Octobasses

64 total strings

We now have from a total of 5 sections of strings to a total of 9 sections.  We have 4 wholly new sounds and colors.  The only section of the strings that remains unchanged is the Basses, whose tone is always lacking in volume.


The world’s most popular instrument is also permanently shunned a spot in the orchestra.  Only a few brave composers have chosen to include a guitar in their orchestra as anything other than a featured soloist.  Mahler’s 7th Symphony is one of the only examples of this.

It is true that the sound of an unamplified guitar is delicate, but we live in an age of electronics and creativity.  Imagine with me now an orchestra with a full section of guitars.  The players could alternate back and forth between Classical, Acoustic, and Electric.  We shouldn’t even stop at just the guitar.  There’s a whole family of guitars.  Why not use them all?

The New Guitar Section

4 Guitars (Classical/Acoustic/Electric)

2 Baritone Guitars (Classical/Acoustic/Electric)

2 Bass Guitars (Classical/Acoustic/Electric)


That’s just bandestration!

What Happened in 1913?

As musicians, we all know the story.  It was a fateful night in Paris in 1913.  The Ballet Russe was premiering a new work by the young Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.  The piece was the Rite of Spring.  The riot it caused is legendary (even if it is apocryphal).  What most people don’t realize though is that the Rite of Spring solidified the end of orchestration.  After its premier we can find no advances in the symphony orchestra.  What happened?

The Rise of Orchestration

From the beginning of the orchestra, musical progress was dependent on the musical instruments themselves.  Our modern string instruments were perfected by the 1700s.  In fact, performers today still play on instruments 300 years old, or older.  The only change seen in these instruments is a slightly different angle to the neck and the cello got an endpin.  String instruments have been stagnant for a long time.

Wind instruments, on the other hand, went through radical development in the 1700s and 1800s.  I will take my own instrument, the bassoon as an example.  Around 1700, the Bassoon has only 3 keys on it.  A few decades later a 4th key was added, and near the end of the century, the Bassoon had 7 or 8 keys in total.  By 1820, there had been major advancements, and the whole instrument was overhauled.  It was much better, but not perfect.  Small changes occurred over the next few decades until about 1900.  Today, I can go and pick up a Bassoon from the early 20th century and it is nearly identical to a Bassoon made today.  In fact, when I was in grad school, the best Bassoon that the university owned was made in 1912.  People fought to get to use that instrument.  1912: one year before Stravinsky shattered things.

It has been instrument development, and not advances in theory, that has driven composition.  Beethoven’s music is more complex than Mozart’s because the instruments he used were more advanced.  Berlioz, in his Symphonie Fantastique written just 3 years after Beethoven’s death, is far more advanced, because Berlioz took advantage of the very latest in instrument technology, Cornets with valves, harps, English Horn, and various percussion.  Wagner is more advanced than Berlioz because he had access to all fully chromatic brass instruments.  Brahms is less advanced than Wagner because he chose to reject the development of the valve on the Horn.

Let’s talk some specifics.  An orchestra of Haydn would have 2 Flutes, 2 Oboes, 2 Bassoons, 2 Horns, 2 Trumpets, and Timpani.  An orchestra of Mozart would be nearly the same, except he would add 2 Clarinets (which Haydn would later adopt).  Beethoven would add to this first a 3rd horn player in his 3rd Symphony.  In his 5th he adds a Piccolo, a Contrabassoon, and 3 Trombones.  In his 9th he added 2 more Horns (a total of 4 now) and various percussion.  Berlioz, in Symphonie Fantastique, would add to this an English Horn, the small E-flat Clarinet, a 2nd pair of Bassoons (but no Contra), Cornet, Ophecleids (later Tubas), Harps, and even more percussion.  Wagner would add even more instruments;  four of each of the woodwinds (plus one of the first doubles), a second quartet of Horns (for a total of 8), the Wagner Tubas, Bass Trumpet, and the Contrabass Trombone.  Mahler would increase numbers to 5 woodwinds.  Older instruments were being rediscovered by the early 20th century, so we can see appearances of the Oboe d’Amore and the Basset Horn in works of Strauss.  Strauss also added the Heckelphone and Tenor Tuba to several of his works.  The new Alto Flute appeared in Daphnis and Chloe of Ravel and fatefully, the Rite of Spring.  Stravinsky’s work makes use of many of these new instruments: Alto Flute, Wagner Tuba, Bass Trumpet.

Britain, ever lagging behind the continent in terms of concert music came late to the party.  Holst’s The Planets finished in 1916 makes use of many of these same instruments as well in an orchestra slightly smaller than that of the Rite of Spring.   In fact, the culmination of orchestral growth occurred in Britain in 1927 when the obscure composer Havergal Brian completed his Gothic Symphony; a work which utilizes all the old and new instruments and the largest orchestra ever used on a concert stage.

The Fall of Orchestration

Too often, the demise of the orchestra has been blamed on economics.  While economics plays a large factor, it is not the ultimate driving force.

World War I did much to hamper the orchestral growth.  The European market was devastated.  Directly after the war, there is little to no innovation from European instrument manufacturers.  In the United States though, business was booming.  The US had never been a powerhouse in the musical world.  We imported our musicians and our instruments from Europe.  When instrument manufacturers in the US finally got off the ground, they found that their market was not for orchestras, but for bands.  The military band was king here.  By the 1920s, business was booming, and the public wanted saxophones, lots and lots of saxophones.  The instruments produced in the 1920s by the Conn and Beuscher factories are still some of the best saxophones ever produced.

However, while the public wanted saxophones, the orchestra wanted nothing to do with them.  Adolph Sax had been a hard man to get along with.  The orchestra begrudgingly accepted his new Bass Clarinet into the orchestra, as there was a clear need for it, but they stayed far away from his mongrel instrument.  Shunned by the orchestra, the saxophone took to jazz.

Then, in 1929, the saxophone craze ended.  The Great Depression began, and the factories struggled to stay in business.  Ten years later, the world is still in depression, and Europe has begun the greatest war of the 20th century.  Even some of the most storied instrument manufacturers barely survive World War II.  The Heckel bassoon company narrowly avoided being bombed by the Americans due to a sympathetic American bomber who happened to be a bassoonist.  To survive, they hide most of their supplies in a nearby cave.

In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, survival is the most basic step.  You cannot be creative and innovative if you are just struggling to survive.  By the end of the war, very few instruments were being made of any kind.

The only wind instrument innovation that happened during the middle of the Twentieth Century was the further development of the Contrabass Clarinets.  Leblanc led the way with their new B-flat Contrabass, while Selmer pushed their E-flat Contra-Alto.  Both of these instruments were derived from far older instruments.  The B-flat Contrabass was actually first seen in the late 1800’s and was used by Dvorak, Richard Strauss, and Schoenberg.  The E-flat Contra-Alto was first developed by none other than Adolph Sax himself.

Rise of the Percussion and the Guitars

            Outside of the orchestra, huge musical innovations were taking place.  The most popular instrument of the 20th century is the guitar, both electric and acoustic.  More development went into guitars than into any other musical instrument.  Pop music drove the design, and orchestras shunned them.

Percussion, on the other hand, flourished.  Once composers and performers realized that percussion instruments were a nearly limitless source of new sounds, the percussion section in the orchestra exploded.  Unlike guitars, which had never had a place in the orchestra, there was already a well-established percussion section at the back of every orchestra.  Percussionists got new toys.

Percussion in: guitars out.

Why do orchestra nowadays shun new instruments?

Cutting Edge to Blasé Conservatism

Every great individualistic composer we can think of was on the cutting edge of their medium.  Beethoven added punch to the orchestra.  Berlioz codified what it could be.  Wagner expanded it to huge forces.  Mahler and Strauss pushed it even further.  Ravel and Debussey shimmered in color.  And Stravinsky broke the machine.  Did he push it too hard?

For centuries, Western art music was the cutting edge.  It was the pinnacle of artistic endeavors.  Now, it is reserved for quiet evenings for the rich, stogy upper class.  They only care to hear that which is familiar.  The concert goer doesn’t want the new.

Don’t believe me?  Here’s a hard fact, my local major orchestra, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, in its current season, has programed not a single work from later than 1910 (Stravinsky’s original Firebird).  They have done this to appease the old blue-haired ladies, and the beautiful socialites who know very little about Western art music.

New music is dead.  With no outlet for performance, composers can’t and won’t write for the orchestra.  I saw an advertisement today for a composition contest for a major symphony orchestra.  One of its limitations was the use of a conservative, traditional orchestra.  There was no room for a composer’s creativity to explore new sounds.  No room for creative artistic expression.  This is the case with every single composition commissioned by the few orchestras that do still request new music.

A composer should not be required to paint on the same canvas that Tchaikovsky or Brahms painted on.  An orchestrator should not be forced to sculpt out of the same stone as Beethoven or Wagner.  We need the new and exciting.

The symphony orchestra is dead.  It died a long time ago.  We have just yet to have its funeral.


The Symphony Orchestra

d. 1913