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