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We have been treated to glorious music for almost a year on Thursday nights.  Here is an example of the music that has washed over our souls:

That, of course, is the Third Movement from Mahler's Symphony Number Two:  Resurrection.  As you listen, watch the orchestra.  Look how they are playing together.  Listen to the blending of sounds.  Hear the dynamics, the changes from large to small groups, all the subtleties of the orchestration.  Look at all the different instruments.  Look at the SIZE of the orchestra.  Here is the instrumentation for the symphony:

    4 Flutes (all four doubling Piccolos)
    4 Oboes (3rd and 4th oboe doubling English Horns)
    3 Clarinets in B-flat, A, C (3rd clarinet doubling Bass Clarinet)
    2 E-flat Clarinets (2nd E-flat clarinet doubling 4th clarinet) [6]
    4 Bassoons (3rd and 4th Bassoon doubling Contrabassoon)
    10 French Horns in F, four (7-10) also used offstage (preferably more)[7]
    8-10 Trumpets in F and C, four to six used offstage [8]
    4 Trombones
(Requires total of seven players)
    Timpani (2 players and 8 timpani, with a third player in the last movement using two of the second timpanist's drums)
    Several Snare Drums
    Bass Drum
    3 deep, untuned steel rods or bells
    Rute, or "switch", to be played on the shell of the bass drum
    2 Tam-tams (high and low)
    Offstage Percussion in Movement 5:
        Bass drum with cymbals attached (played by the same percussionist), Triangle, Timpani
    Organ (used in fifth movement only
    Soprano Solo (used in fifth movement only)
    Alto Solo (sometimes credited as and sung by a mezzo-soprano) (used in fourth & fifth movements only)
    Mixed Chorus (used in fifth movement only)
    Harps I, II (several to each part in the last movement and possibly at one point in the Scherzo)
"The largest possible contingent of strings"
  First and Second Violins
    Double basses (some with low C extension).

How did we get there?

This diary will begin to tell that story, albeit briefly.  

There have always been groups of musicians playing together.  All performers will tell you that there's something special about it.  It's kind of like a zen-telepathic-kumbaya-one-with-the-universe thing.  If you haven't done it, it's hard to describe to you.  

But I digress.  

Our story begins with Troubadours, Bards, and Minstrels.  Wandering the land, playing songs and telling tales, they were always welcome wherever they went.  Now, seeing this, the rich and landed gentry thought "If I had my own personal group to play for me whenever I wanted, well then, that would be pretty cool".  And so it began.  At first, composers hired by the gentry would write for whatever the Lord had on hand.  So what are some examples?  Here ya go:

That was a piece by Gabrieli.  Notice the sackbuts and serpents.  Those were early forerunners of modern day brass instruments.  In the back you can also see a dulcian, an early form of bassoon.

Much music of the Renaissance was written for consorts --that is, a group of similar instruments.  Here are two examples of such music.  The first is a consort of recorders.  Yes, the instruments you learned how to play in 3rd grade music.  Betcha didn't know they were serious instruments, didja?

As far as strings were concerned, the earliest stringed instruments were rebecs. A rebec was a narrow bowed stringed instrument, usually played with one string as a drone and the other as the melody.  Later, the most common stringed instrument was the viol.  Here are a consort of viols playing:

Notice how similar to violins the viols look.  In fact, during the late Renaissance and early Baroque periods, there was a debate about which ones to use.  Violins became the norm, although the Viola da Gamba, which was the ancestor of the cello, continued to be the standard low stringed instrument.  The only modern survivor of the viol family is the bass viol--today's string bass.

So far, I've been talking about Renaissance music in general.  But let's get to the evolution of the orchestra.  As I've said, composers originally wrote for what instruments were available.  And, they were written in consorts.  This is important, because the first ensembles were vocal, and a lot of instrumental music was based on vocal stylings.  However, during the Baroque period, things began to be somewhat standardized.  In the beginning, there was a full consort of strings--that is, two violin parts, a viola part, and a violoncello part, with a keyboard (usually a harpsichord) to help with the basso continuo in the bass viol.  What's an example?  Here you go:

So, this is the basic start of the orchestra.  The core, if you will.  Occasionally, there would still be viola da gambas along with or instead of cellos in the orchestra as illustrated in these examples:

In the example above, there are no violins, and three different bass instruments--a cello, a viola da gamba, and a quintbass.  Now see a larger group.  If you look in the back of this group, you will see a gamba along with a cello.

Keep your attention on the above group playing the Fourth Brandenburg Concerto.  Notice the recorders.  For a long time, the recorder served as the flute of the day. And for a long time, it competed with the newer transverse flute.   We also begin to see more examples of baroque trumpets.  Similar to the serpents of the Gabrieli example earlier, they are just long tubes with which the player uses the harmonic series to change notes.  Holes in the bore allow for chromatic playing.  This first example is from the Second Brandenburg Concerto.  It still features recorders, but the shift to transverse flutes (basically the modern flute) was already underway.  

We see the evolution to the modern orchestra begin in France, with Jean-Baptiste Lully.  He was Court Composer to Louis XIV.  Nice gig, if you can get it.  He was able to write for Les Vingt-quatre Violons du Roi, or Louis XIII's personal orchestra.  This meant he was free to experiment with orchestrations and expand the orchestra, including making the shift to transverse flute, as seen here:

Which brings us to our final example, the opening of Bach's Magnificat, which, in this diarist's opinion, is a representation of the pinnacle of the Baroque orchestra.  We see a full string section, the keyboard continuo, a full wind section with transverse flutes replacing recorders at last, baroque oboes, a baroque bassoon, trumpets, and timpani as the percussion.

On a side note, look at the conductor and the musicians (but especially at the conductor).  The look--the joy, the (dare I say it) rapture--on his face is reflected in the musicians playing and singing, and also it is on my face as I play and conduct.  This is what I was talking about earlier.

So we have arrived at the High Baroque period, where not only musical forms begin to be standardized, but the orchestra itself becomes more uniform.  We see the central core of the string section, an embryonic wind section, and occasional brass and percussion.

And I will conclude with the last part of the Magnificat.  If I have concentrated mostly on Bach, well, I like the music and these particular groups.

Next time:  We travel to a small town in Germany that changed everything.

Originally posted to zenbassoon on Fri Jul 22, 2011 at 06:15 PM PDT.

Also republished by An Ear for Music and DKOMA.

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