Thursday, June 30, 2011

Music and Technology: Bigger is Better

Technology of various kinds has always played a role in the creation of music, but the importance of it has increased enormously in the last couple of centuries. In the 19th century the shift of power from the aristocracy to the new middle class changed the nature of musical performance. Instead of the typical performance being for a small group--chamber music--it moved to the concert hall seating one thousand or more people. This transformation began in London in the 1790s. Haydn’s string quartets op. 71 and op. 74 came about as a result of his very successful trip to London in 1791-2. Previously his quartet music was written for true chamber or semi-private performance, but after hearing some of his quartets played in the Hannover Square rooms in London, which seated 800 listeners, he crafted his next quartets for this more public setting. They are more open, sonorous and more boldly and expansively conceived with more flamboyant contrasts. Here is the last movement of op 74 no 3:

As the size of concert spaces and audiences grew it became necessary for the instruments to produce more volume. This happened in two ways: the instruments themselves were modified to increase the sound; the violin, for example, had the fingerboard tilted, the bass bar made heavier and gut strings replaced by steel ones. Secondly, the number of instruments in the orchestra was increased from around twenty in the early 18th century to over one hundred players by the early 20th century. The piano, at first rather feeble sounding, was beefed up enormously to the steel-framed nine-foot grand we see today and the whole woodwind and brass section was re-engineered for better tuning and more volume.

The development of the orchestra went hand in hand with the creation of a new orchestral repertoire by composers such as Wagner, Bruckner, Richard Strauss and Mahler. It uses enormous orchestral forces, as many as a hundred players on stage, and resonates well with the nineteenth century idea of progress. We can also link it with developments in naval technology that resulted in the enormous fleets of Germany and Britain at the time of the First World War. Why do I want to link these? Both were essentially developments in mechanical technology typical of the nineteenth century and Germany was in the forefront of both the orchestral and naval projects, though the British had the lead in naval technology. Paralleling the growth and improvement of the orchestra were the improvements in warships typified by the development of steam-powered ‘ironclad’ ships with large rotating turrets for the guns—by WWI they were called ‘Dreadnoughts’, named after the first of the new ships.
HMS Dreadnought, launched 1906
  In both the naval and orchestral instances size was all-important. For the orchestra, louder instruments and lots more of them; for the navy, bigger ships and lots more of them. As an interesting sidelight, Arnold Schoenberg, the Austrian composer who developed the idea of serial atonality, opined in the 1920s that his discovery of twelve-tone theory would enable the dominance of German music for the next hundred years.

Alas, both the naval and the musical projects ended rather badly. The enormous German navy did not defeat the British navy and in fact spent most of the war in port. Neither was the Royal Navy able to prevent the horrible slaughter in the trenches in WWI. The reality was that the technical developments merely made possible the wholesale slaughter of soldiers and civilians. In music, the giantism of the late nineteenth century turned neurotic in the symphonies of Mahler and later went very sour with the atonality of Schoenberg and his followers. The excellent recent book The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross, vividly describes the connection between classical music and German nationalism in the 20th century.

Anton Bruckner's Symphony No. 8 in C minor is the last symphony the composer completed.  It was premiered under conductor Hans Richter in 1892 in Vienna and dedicated to the Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria. The symphony is sometimes nicknamed The Apocalyptic. Here is the last movement:

There was an echo of the 19th century growth in the size of the audience in the second half of the 20th century. On August 15, 1965, at the height of 'Beatlemania' the Beatles performed for 55,000 people at Shea Stadium in New York. It was the largest concert ever staged up to that point. Nowadays 'stadium' concerts are common and Paul McCartney often performs for audiences of 100,000. But this was the beginning. The event required 2,000 security personnel. 100-watt Vox amplifiers had been specially designed for this tour, but they were grossly inadequate and the Beatles could hardly hear what they were doing. Since then sound engineers and designers have increased the amount of power enormously. By the early 70s, groups had access to large, very powerful, portable multi-channel mixing desks and PA systems, as well as lighting rigs of ever-increasing size and complexity -- systems that could easily project sound to an audience of tens or even hundreds of thousands.

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