Friday, April 11, 2014

Bach and the Orchestra

Yesterday I put up a post on what composers and pieces are performed the most by American orchestras. This was just for one year, the 2010/11 season, so it probably changes a bit from year to year. But I threw in a little explanatory remark about why Bach didn't appear on either list. It is a bit odd that the composer that usually appears at the top of any list of the greatest composers made no appearance on either of these two lists, isn't it? The answer is, as I said, "the reason that Bach does not appear on either list is that little of his music is really suitable for performance by a 19th century type orchestra." From the subsequent kerfuffle in the comments, I see that, as happens sometimes, what I think is a perfectly innocuous observation, rubs some folks the wrong way. So, let me explain!

First, a bit of history. The development of the symphony orchestra is quite a fascinating story. The modern orchestra is really a miracle of technology, aesthetics and training. It is by far the most complex and sophisticated musical instrument ever developed (if you consider it as one very large musical instrument). But, like all instruments, it has a history. The history of, for example, the guitar or lute, is much of it lost in time, but we know all the history of the orchestra, at least in its modern manifestation, because it was quite recent. How old is the orchestra? Well, in the form we know it today, it dates from the latter half of the 18th century or just a bit over 250 years. There were various kinds of orchestras before then, but they differ from the one we know in significant ways. Have a look at the Wikipedia article for some details. There was certainly an orchestra for Monteverdi's early operas, but it is very different from what we would call an 'orchestra'. See here for some details.

I won't try to give you the whole story of the orchestra here, that would take a few blog posts, but I can sketch the relevant stages. The Baroque saw the development of the precursor to the modern orchestra, but with significant differences. Jean-Baptiste Lully was important: to the 24 violins of the king, plus continuo of bass instrument and chordal instrument (harpsichord or theorbo), he added flutes and oboes. Because of this palette and the different sonorities and playing styles of the time, the sound was quite different from a modern orchestra. Here is an example performed by an ensemble known for their historical approach:

Bach, in perhaps his most famous music for orchestra, the Brandenburg Concertos, uses this basic ensemble, but with each concerto using different instruments, particularly in the solo parts. The Concerto No. 2 uses as soloists natural trumpet, recorder, oboe and violin:

So those are a couple of ensembles typical of the Baroque orchestra. The next important development leads directly to the modern orchestra and that is the symphonies of Joseph Haydn. His early ones were written for an ensemble not much larger than that of Bach: sixteen or seventeen players who even so probably outnumbered the audience of Prince Nikolas of Esterházy and his guests. These were private, not public concerts. Here is an example:

The musical style is quite different from the Baroque. Early classical music is imbued with the textures and jauntiness of Italian opera buffa.

Here are the beginnings of the scores to the Bach and Haydn works so you can compare the instrumentation. First Bach:

And Haydn:

It looks as if the Bach orchestra is bigger, but it's not, actually. The top four staves are for the solo instruments. Then there are just two players per part for the rest of the strings. Add in cello and harpsichord and that brings you to about thirteen players. Just right for a chamber music concert. The Haydn score is a bit different. For one thing, he has a significant wind section including horns and trumpets. The horns are the main difference as they add considerable weight to the wind section. There is also a tympani part which would have existed in Lully's opera orchestra, but not in Bach's chamber orchestra. Also, each string part in the Haydn would have had more players than in the Bach. Mozart at one point said he would really like to have ten double-basses! But in early Haydn there were probably no more than three or four players on a string part. It was also still the practice, though we don't hear it in the above clip, for there to be a harpsichord playing along in the background, a bit of a holdover from the Baroque.

But as the musical texture was really different, so was the sound of the orchestra. And in terms of size, it grew rapidly. Here is an historically-informed performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3:

And here is the score showing the instrumentation:

With eight or ten string players on a part, we are up to an orchestra of about forty or fifty players.

We tend to forget how quickly the orchestra developed during the 19th century: it was really a 19th century invention. At the time of Beethoven's death in 1827, there was only one public concert hall large enough for orchestral concerts in all of Germany and Austria: the Gewandhaus in Leipzig. Yes, in Vienna itself, halls for orchestra concerts were all built after Beethoven's death. His music, of course, was crucial in creating the demand for these concert halls and the formation of professional orchestras to play in them.

As the century progressed, the orchestra grew to the point that by the late 19th and early 20th centuries a full orchestra demanded around one hundred players in pieces like the Symphony No. 1 of Gustav Mahler:

Here is what that score looks like:

Except for special occasions, that is pretty much where the modern orchestra tops out. And there are smaller, regional orchestras of around sixty to seventy players that can play most of the repertoire. Some pieces, like Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7, you don't hear a lot because most orchestras would have to hire a lot of extra players. I saw a performance by the McGill Orchestra (whose musicians all play for free as they are students) that had six trumpets, six trombones and six percussionists in addition to the usual forces.

So, at long last to answer the question of why don't the full size symphony orchestras in the US, or anywhere, play much Bach is that first of all, he didn't write for the modern orchestra. You might respond that he didn't write for the modern piano either, but if you program a Bach piece for your upcoming season if you are running a full orchestra, you are faced with two disagreeable alternatives: either you send 75% of the orchestra home or you beef up Bach's score by adding additional parts for all the players that he didn't write for. This was very common in the 19th century. Mendelssohn did this for his performance of the Matthew Passion. But with the growth of the early music movement, as people have gotten used to the sound of a Baroque ensemble, this is less and less popular. Quite rare in fact. There are a whole lot of ensembles that specialize in Baroque music, but I don't think that they were part of the orchestral survey.

So that's why we don't see Bach's name on those lists.


A.C. Douglas said...

Bryan Townsend wrote: [I]f you program a Bach piece for your upcoming season if you are running a full orchestra, you are faced with two disagreeable alternatives: either you send 75% of the orchestra home or you beef up Bach's score by adding additional parts for all the players that he didn't write for.


No self-respecting symphony orchestra today would even think of employing your latter alternative (if one could dignify such a practice by calling it an alternative), and your former alternative is a bit of a straw man. No need to "send 75% of the orchestra home" when performing a Bach orchestral work. One merely need have the unnecessary players sit out the selection as is regularly done today. If orchestral Bach were as popular in America with symphony orchestra concert-going audiences as he deserves to be (and sad to say, he is not as I've previously suggested), Bach's name on those lists would be right up there at or near the top.


Rickard Dahl said...

In my experience concerts that include Bach's music are rare here in Gothenburg, Sweden. I listened to Bach's Mass in B Minor and Bach's 2nd Brandenburg Concerto recently. The Mass in B minor used a fairly sized orchestra, not sure how many players there were, it's a vocal work anyways so the choir takes up much of the place. The Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 on the other hand was played with a properly sized ensemble. It was played during the first half of the concert (before the pause, after the pause it was Glass' Violin Concerto and Beethoven's 7th symphony) so basically the rest of the players came in during the 2nd half. I think A.C. Douglas has a point, it's very possible to play Bach with smaller ensembles in a concert without sending 75% of the orchestra home. The other players that don't play the Bach can either have reduced workload or better prepare for other pieces (especially if something extra challenging is going to be played later). It's probably a matter of organization too, can the orchestra switch around their positions during a concert? In orchestral concerts in Gothenburg there can for instance be 2 pieces during the first or second half of the concert and there sometimes is a need to change the layout and if the layout changes aren't too big then it's done in a matter of a few minutes between the 1st and 2nd pieces during a half while the audience is waiting.

Btw, I have a new finished piece:

Bryan Townsend said...

I think you are both, in different ways, proving my point. It is no longer desirable to beef up the orchestra, and orchestras prefer to only occasionally cut down their forces to ones suitable for Bach performance, so while we certainly get some, we don't get a lot of Bach performances by full orchestras.

A.C. Douglas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bryan Townsend said...

Just had a chance to listen to your variations piece. Wow, I'm impressed with how much progress you have made! The bass lines especially are far more dynamic and engaging. Good piece.

Rickard Dahl said...

Thanks! I admit it isn't easy but I try to do my best. Like your composer friend you mention sometimes roughly said: I try to find what sounds good.

Recently I've been slacking when it comes to practicing the playing itself (haven't practiced piano playing for some months now!!!) so that's certainly a bad thing. I need to focus more on the playing as it can become a limiting factor in improvisations and when finding good sounding parts. I think I basically got out of my practice habits when the bachelor thesis project started and I had to work with it with my group at times that didn't fit me (I basically had specific times reserved in the evening for ear training, piano playing and composing but couldn't keep it). My goal is to get back to normal state of things tomorrow (I keep telling myself that I will get back to it tomorrow but it never happens, this time (since I've wrote it here) I mean it).

Bryan Townsend said...

Time is our most valuable possession! I know what it is like trying to find time for everything. You can understand why Elliot Carter went to live in the Arizona desert for a year.... No interruptions!