The violin beaters who instilled group harmony

The Birth of the Orchestra
May 13, 2005

The large instrumental ensembles we know today as orchestras are the last refuges of absolutist rule, discovers John Deathridge

When is an orchestra not an orchestra? When it is a marching band at an American football game, a Balinese gamelan or a hundred Suzuki violinists playing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star in unison. Not even the "stromenti" at the head of Monteverdi's Orfeo of 1607 can be called an orchestra, according to this lavishly produced book, because each singer was accompanied by different constellations of instruments that did not play together or interact with one another as groups. Orfeo pleaded his case accompanied by a succession of instruments, including a pair of violins, a pair of cornets, two harps and finally a four-part bowed-string ensemble. But an orchestra, however minimal, it apparently was not.

So when is an orchestra an orchestra? John Spitzer and Neal Zaslaw's taxonomic analysis, coupled with lists of instruments in various contexts (including a fascinating one called "Orpheus orchestras, 1600-1671"), traces the gradual birth of the orchestra beginning at the end of the 16th century and continuing until the late 18th when most of the traits we associate now with orchestras could be found in many large instrumental groups: violin-based ensembles, the doubling of instrumental parts, standard repertory and centralised leadership.

Most of these traits appeared earliest in France, and the authors duly give that country credit for being the birthplace of the orchestra. When a desperate husband in Paris in the 1640s hired the King's famous string band, the Vingt-quatre Violins du Roy, to cure his melancholic wife, he already knew it would behave like one. The 24 musicians tuned their instruments in advance, crept behind a tapestry in the bedroom where the wife was sleeping and surprised her so completely with great strength of sound and unified harmony that she immediately recovered her sunny disposition.

The anecdote may or may not offer some insight into the treatment of depression. But it does suggest that the esprit de corps in any orchestra worthy of the name (at least in the authors' definition) also has a wider social dimension in the way listeners react to it, not just as individuals, but also as a group. Responses have not always been positive. Long before the scandalous premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring , Corelli's orchestra was asked by Cardinal Ottoboni in February 1691 to play a " bellissima serenata " outside the Vatican walls during the long conclave of cardinals following the death of Pope Alexander VIII. The marshal of the conclave did not approve of the secular music, and the performers were greeted with volleys of stones, hitting one of the instrumentalists in the leg. In this case, the orchestra was small (six violins, two violas, two basses and a lute), but Corelli was also known to lead far larger groups, including one of more than a hundred instrumentalists for an outdoor public performance of Alessandro Scarlatti's oratorio Il Regno di Maria Assunta in Cielo in August 1705. According to contemporary documents, the musical group featured "the most distinguished in Rome on both strings and trumpets and other wind instruments". This time, they performed on a large stage with painted backdrops, brilliant illumination with torches and coloured lights, a space for carriages to be packed side by side to serve as boxes for the cardinals, princes, ecclesiastical dignitaries and noble ladies in attendance, and a stepped platform for the instrumentalists. Apart from anything else, it was a superb feat of organisation.

Spitzer and Zaslaw's larger point is that the notion of the orchestra during the two centuries after its birth is inseparable from absolutist rule. The consolidation of leadership and unity of performance style made orchestras seem more monarchical and autocratic. And the authors have no hesitation in adopting Paul DiMaggio and Walter Powell's idea of institutional isomorphism, which states that a ruler or government can impose the same organisational structure on two or more institutions, that a new institution can model itself on an older successful one, and that people can move from one institution to another, recreating old structures in new surroundings.

Thus amateur orchestras in England were modelled on gentlemen's clubs and in Italy on learned societies when they were not mimicking the organisation of church choirs, like Corelli's more professional ensembles. The difficulty with this argument is that it tempts the authors into suggesting that the orchestra eventually escaped the web of metaphors surrounding absolutism in the 17th and 18th centuries to become an isomorphic translation of burgeoning democracy in the 19th. "Orchestras and other organisations of many people working side by side towards a common goal," they write, "became part of the everyday experience of a large proportion of European city-dwellers." Spitzer and Zaslaw are clearly not willing to accept the possibility that orchestras still hold their fascination today precisely because of their anachronistic appeal of absolutist authority.

This is an important book that will prove useful for music historians and students of cultural and political history alike. But in a sense it stops too early at 1815, just when the orchestra as we know it began to emerge, including its dependency on a new kind of orchestral leader directing with a baton, as opposed to those in its formative phase, who used an instrument (usually a violin) to indicate the beat by the way they played. The reason is obvious. Orchestras simply grew larger as a matter of course, in particular after the woodwind and brass instruments had been subject to a frenzy of experiment in the first part of the 19th century that vastly increased their range of expression and agility, not to mention their numbers.

That did not make orchestras more democratic. Under the authority of the conductor, they continue to deliver a unity and intensity of utterance that modern politicians can imagine only in their wildest dreams.

John Deathridge is professor of music, King's College London.

The Birth of the Orchestra: History of an Institution, 1650-1815

Author - John Spitzer and Neal Zaslaw
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 614
Price - £100.00
ISBN - 0 19 816434 3

to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments