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The Birth of the Orchestra — History of an Institution, 1650-1815
28 Dec 2005

SPITZER & ZASLAW: The Birth of the Orchestra — History of an Institution, 1650-1815

At a time when the press has made the public aware of the difficult circumstances that exist for the symphony orchestra in the United States, it is refreshing to find a book that demonstrates unequivocally the nature of that institution and, as a consequence, its power in culture.

John Spitzer and Neal Zaslaw: The Birth of the Orchestra — History of an Institution, 1650-1815.

Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

ISBN13: 9780195189551 | ISBN10: 0195189558

$45.00  Click to buy

The Birth of the Orchestra — History of an Institution, 1650-1815 by Spitzer and Zaslaw is an outstanding study of the origins of one of the defining ensembles for serious music. As the authors summarize the various elements that play into the evolution of the orchestra succinctly:

Besides the instruments and performers in the pit or on the stage, the process [that culminated in the modern orchestra] involved repertories, performance practices, administrative structures, system for training players, techniques of scoring and orchestra, the acoustics of theater and concert halls, and many other things. Finally, the birth of the orchestra as a matter of people’s beliefs – what people thought orchestras were and what orchestras meant. (p. 531)

In light of the rich traditions that combine in the modern orchestra, those beliefs mean a lot and evoke much fine music. The evolution of the orchestra into the ensemble as it is known today is part of a tradition that continues, and this book is evidence of its persistence in culture. At the same time, this book addresses a need in music history to trace the evolution of the orchestra from the seventeenth century to the early nineteenth, as this grouping took shape for various kinds of music in multiple venues. At the same time the study benefits both from fine research and excellent writing, two aspects of scholarship that do not always coincide as well as they do in this volume.

While the focus of the book is the period identified in the subtitle, the authors have wisely chosen to begin with a consideration of the idea of the “orchestra” as ensembles were envisaged as part of opera at the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Taking as a point of departure various operas that dealt with the Greek myth of Orpheus and Euridice, Spitzer and Zaslaw identified the scope and size of the instrumental ensembles involved, from the relatively smaller forces associated with Peri’s Euridice (1600) to a slightly larger grouping for Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607). In moving through the seventeenth century, composers returned to the story to create their version of the story in opera and in doing so involved increasingly larger and diverse ensembles to accompany their works. Thus, the orchestra that Lully required for Le ballet des muses (1666) presumes a more clearly defined core of string instruments, the sound of which would be enhanced by winds, brass and percussion for Haydn’s opera Anima del filosofo (1791) – the forces required for the latter work resembling more the sound associated with the so-called classical orchestra.

This exploration of the nature of the orchestra begs the questions that authors address about what to call the earlier ensembles that functioned in the manner of a modern orchestra. The historical perspective that emerges from this discussion is important for distinguishing between the groups of instrumentalists that were used to accompany opera and discussing in substantively the nature of the orchestra as it became understood in the Common Practice Era. At the same time, the discussion of the word “orchestra” offers some insights into its meaning, as the ensemble took shape as a vehicle for music performance that also served as a focal point for a critical body of music literature.

The authors also discuss the transition to the formal orchestra in the chapter on “Pre-orchestral Ensembles,” a deftly written article on the growing place of instrumental performance from the late-sixteenth century to the late seventeenth. This chapter offers a masterful perspective on the stylistic choices that helped to shape the evolving orchestra, as decisions about performing the music influenced the literature that also took shape at the time. While the annotations document the information, they should also point the reader to exploring the volume of research on this topic.

In the subsequent chapters, Spitzer and Zaslaw discuss the various ways in which both composers and conductors dealt with orchestras. After discussing the role of two major figures, Lully and Corelli, the authors review the various national styles one by one, so that the reader gains a sense of the treatment of the orchestra in Italy alongside the function of the ensemble in France. The chapter on Germany is notable for the distinctions the authors make about the circumstances in the orchestra found its place in the German courts and principalities as the various groups changed from emblems of modernity based on Italian and French models to increasingly strong components of native German culture. The strength of their influence was such that by the late eighteenth century the German orchestras were a model for the rest of Europe.

Likewise, the discussion of the orchestra in England offers some insights into the cultural milieu in which it gained ascendancy as part of the country’s contribution to music-making. The inclusion of references to the state of orchestras in the colonies is welcome, as it shows the ways in which music arrived in North America. Such connections are known, but not often expressed well enough to suggest the continuity which existed as the arts took root in the new world. The situation resembles that which exists in South America, where opera took root from the Iberian colonization and developed quickly in that soil. At the same time, the discussion of festival orchestras and their place in the musical culture of England and on the Continent is another element of this study.

At the center of the book, the authors expound upon makeup of the classical orchestra (pp. 306-42) which is supported by several chapters that deal, in turn, with seating arrangements and acoustics (pp. 343-60), performance practices (pp. 370-97), the role of the orchestral musician in the eighteenth century (pp. 398-435), and the technique of orchestration (pp. 436-506). This section of the book stands apart form other studies for the clarity which guides the writing. While some might quibble with a few details, the exploration offers a sound treatment of the topic that should be a model for other, similar studies.

In addition to the tables and graphs that support the research, the authors have selected some excellent illustrations to reinforce the points that they make in their texts. Their comments about the various plates offer some guidance toward understanding the images, especially the ones that have some telling iconography about the placement and relative size of ensembles (a useful point occurs on pp. 345-46). In fact, it is laudable that Oxford University Press used a relatively larger size for this book than some of its other monographs, since it afford a more comfortable presentation of the various illustrations in the book.

The music examples are equally well-chosen and reflect the focus that occurs elsewhere in the book. Eschewing some recent tendencies to publish extensive passages in monographs and articles, the authors use the examples to fine effect. It is laudable when the examples invite further exploration of the very points that the authors want to make. The authors and the Press wisely chose to have the examples set uniformly, thus making them immediately legible. Again, they avoid the temptation of inserting facsimiles of historical prints that represent a variety of hands and styles. With the uniform presentation that occurs here, the examples comfortably support the text and the points that they authors want to make.

Further, the bibliography (pp. 553-91) is significant for the depth of scholarship it represents. The literature represents some of the finest research on the orchestra for the period discussed, including some classic articles by such figures as Emanuel Winternitz, Thurston Dart, Mary Cyr, Henry Prunières, and others, along with some fine recent writers as Luca Della Libera and Kate Van Orden. As lengthy as the references are, the authors wisely choice to avoid segmenting the information into what are ultimately arbitrary categories. Thus, readers will find in the bibliography literature from the period, like Charles Burney, Samuel Pepys, Johann Mattheson, Leopold Mozart, alongside more modern sources. In some cases there citations refer not to only primary and secondary literature, but also, editions, like the oeuvres of Arcangelo Corelli. Those intrigued by this book may want to explore the bibliography to become acquainted further with other research and materials on the topic covered in this volume.

All in all, this fine study should be of interest to scholars, performers, and anyone interested in understanding more about the origins of the orchestra and the way it evolved. Thoroughly documented, with much information in tabular form, the scholarship is highly accessible. As valuable as this work is as an exemplary piece of scholarship, its accessibility makes it useful to anyone interested in the orchestra as a cultural institution. To see the directions that intersected in Western culture as the orchestra took shape gives a glimpse at the incredibly rich traditions that tie together generations of lives, inestimable talent, social and political forces, and other elements. Besides the extraordinary literature that it produced, the strong tradition of orchestral performance is a crucial part of culture. It is fortunate, indeed that Neal Zaslaw and John Spitzer devoted years to distill that sense in this important new book.

James L. Zychowicz
Madison, Wisconsin

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