Loud, Louder, Loudest: How Classical Music Started to Roar

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Loud, Louder, Loudest: How Classical Music Started to Roar

Post by lennygoran » Sat Apr 18, 2020 11:29 am

I've left the titles and orchestras involved inmy message. All of these can be clicked on to hear the audio. Regards, Len

Loud, Louder, Loudest: How Classical Music Started to Roar

As the world added decibels, so did orchestras.

By Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim

April 17, 2020

In 1813, Beethoven wrote a symphonic work so noisy and trite that most scholars consider it an embarrassment. “Wellington’s Victory, or the Battle of Vitoria” depicts, with the help of spatially separated brass and percussion effects, a rout of French forces at the hands of the British.

A hundred musicians played at the premiere — twice as many as at the first performance of the “Eroica” Symphony, in 1805 — with the audience seated at the center. Afterward, someone remarked that Beethoven had written a piece seemingly designed to make the listener as deaf as its composer.
The blast of “Wellington’s Victory”
Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)

By all common measures of musical value, “Wellington’s Victory” is schlock. But in his detailed instructions on the number and positioning of instrumentalists, Beethoven reveals how carefully he crafted this sonic assault on listener. “One has to imagine these performances not like an evening at the Berlin Philharmonie, but rather like a modern-day rock concert,” the musicologist Frédéric Döhl has argued.

Beethoven’s preoccupation with making the concert experience really, really loud may mark the beginning of a musical arms race for ever louder and ever more stimulating symphonic performance.

Before the Industrial Revolution, the principal sources of noise were thunder, church bells and cannon fire. In Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” dynamic peaks depict a thunderstorm in summer, and the barking of dogs and hunting horns in autumn. Changing dynamics could also be used to depict degrees of light, as in the opening bars of Haydn’s Symphony No. 6 (“Le Matin”), which render the measured magic of a sunrise by letting different instruments enter in incremental turns, along with a gradual melodic rise and a calmly radiant crescendo.
Vivaldi’s thunderstorm
Venice Baroque Orchestra (Sony Classical)
The opening of Haydn’s Symphony No. 6 (“Le Matin”)
Northern Chamber Orchestra (Naxos)

In her book “Haydn’s Sunrise, Beethoven’s Shadow,” the musicologist Deirdre Loughridge contrasts that passage with the drawn-out crescendo that links the end of the third movement with the finale in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The rise in volume in the Beethoven traces an exponential curve, with a long passage of tense quiet leading to a swift increase of volume.
Third movement into finale of Beethoven’s Fifth
Orchestre Romantique et Révolutionnaire (Archiv)

A contemporary listener compared this to “a ghostly shadow emerging from a great distance and finally looming toward one.” Ms. Loughridge argues that in Beethoven’s time, the moment evoked the public entertainment of the phantasmagoria, a newly fashionable apparatus for dramatically manipulating shadows and light.

Where Haydn’s sunrise was rooted in the observation of nature by the naked eye, Ms. Loughridge shows that Beethoven creates “a heightened sense of immersion in another world.” In “Wellington” that world is war: Beethoven uses loudness and sound design not to portray the violence of the battlefield, but to deliver it.

After Beethoven, fortissimos grew only louder. One reason was the development of instruments, which added decibels across the board. Steel replaced gut for strings; metallic flutes replaced those made of wood. The biggest changes occurred in the brass section, where changes in design increased not only the power of sound, but also range. The introduction of valves in horns and trumpets meant that instruments that had previously been limited to notes of the overtone series could now roam across the whole chromatic spectrum, adding oomph wherever a composer desired it.

And composers sought out new highs. In a treatise on orchestration, Berlioz fantasized about an orchestra numbering more than 400 players that would be capable of evoking not just weather phenomena but different climatic zones, transporting the listener into new worlds: “When at rest, it would be majestic, like a slumbering ocean. When in a state of agitation, it would recall tropical storms. It would erupt like a volcano. It would convey the laments, whispers and mysterious sounds of virgin forests.”

In his own “Symphonie Fantastique,” Berlioz orchestrated a form of sonic invasion. In the fifth movement, which culminates in an orgy of formidable loudness, he employs a pair of massive church bells. If Beethoven’s experiments in surround-sound broke down the fourth wall dividing musicians and audience, Berlioz tore down the separation between the concert hall and the city.

The church bells ring in the “Symphonie Fantastique”
San Francisco Symphony (Sony Classical)

One side effect of this escalation of power was a new emphasis on orchestral discipline. In the same treatise, Berlioz writes: “There is a common prejudice that large orchestras are noisy. But if they are properly composed, well drilled and well conducted, and if they are playing real music, they should be called powerful.”

The question of discipline gained urgency once certain instruments wielded so much power that their sound could smother their colleagues, along with audiences. Trombones and tubas in particular now had the power to obliterate other instruments — and composers were stacking them up in unprecedented numbers.

Wagner’s operas call for a massive number of brass instruments, with extra horns, trombones and the Wagner tubas he had built specially for his “Ring” cycle. In a high-wattage passage like the “Ride of the Valkyries,” an unchained brass section can drown out the assembled efforts of the string and wind players.

The trumpeter John Wallace, who played in the London Symphony and Philharmonia orchestras and also performs on period instruments, spoke in a phone interview about the responsibility of conductors and brass players to balance the sound. “If you have it loud, too much of the time you have the poor string section treated like galley slaves,” he said. “The poor things are sawing away and you can’t hear them.”

To be sure, there can be dramatic reasons for swamping certain voices. Consider the “Dies Irae” of Verdi’s Requiem, especially in a blistering rendition like that conducted by Toscanini in 1951. The movement features a cast of hundreds, but at moments, for example at 3:20 in this YouTube video, the brass trumps everything.

The fact that you can barely hear the chorus, singing full throttle — let alone the strings and winds — evokes the apocalyptic image of sinners being pulled under in a caldron of noise. Only the shrieking piccolo peeks out, like a terror-gripped face in a painting of the Last Judgment. Live, the visual spectacle of human effort rendered powerless by overwhelming force speaks volumes.

As the world grew louder in the 20th century, so did orchestras. The formidable brass section of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under George Solti spawned high-decibel imitators.
Solti’s Chicago brasses play Bruckner
Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Decca)

“When we over in Europe heard these American orchestras, we were stunned by the sheer power and volume of the brass section,” Mr. Wallace said, recalling a rush on American-made large-bore brass instruments. When he joined the London Symphony in 1974, the trombone section there was anchored by two players humorously known as the “oxyacetylene twins,” after the material used to cut through metal: “The whole volume of the orchestra went up.”

Even so, the advent of amplification and rock music put symphonic musicians on the defensive. The conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen said in an interview that in an ever louder world, moments like the opening of Mozart’s “Haffner” Symphony, with its boisterous double octave jumps and timpani, have lost their power to shock. In terms of sheer volume, rock wins out.
The boisterous opening of Mozart’s “Haffner” Symphony
Concentus Musicus Wien (Sony Classical)

“Today in the classical world, we have lost the edge in terms of loudness,” Mr. Salonen said. “For me, the important thing is more the extreme range of dynamics. Because that’s the one area where we are superior.”

Douglas Yeo was the principal bass trombonist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for decades. In an interview, he warned of excessively loud fortissimos, both on aesthetic grounds and for health reasons. He has seen careers cut short by the strain of overplaying.

Mr. Yeo recalled a series of concert performances of Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” in 2006, under the direction of James Levine. At a pivotal moment in the opera, Bartok calls forth a massive outburst, with blinding brass. Each time, Mr. Yeo said, Mr. Levine would rooster his index finger at his own forehead, and mouth the words “Brass, burn it.”
The massive brasses of “Bluebeard’s Castle”
Berlin Philharmonic (Warner Classics)

And so, Mr. Yeo said, “we played it so loudly that if we had played it with one degree more we would have ended our careers there and then.” Looking out into the auditorium he noticed the impact of the sound he produced: “I saw every person in the audience had their fingers in their ears.”

Mr. Yeo said the experience gave him pause. “When I see people with fingers in their ears because what my colleagues and I have done is painful to them,” he said, “I have to ask: What did we just do? And what is it for?”

The pendulum may be swinging back. The historically informed performance movement has reintroduced instruments like the serpent and ophicleide: brass instruments that add wonky color rather than sheer decibels to fortissimo outbursts.

And labor laws are doing their bit. Noise trauma affects players in orchestras, who weather the brunt of the brass assault, much more than audiences. Lawsuits and regulations are forcing conductors and administrators to confront the subject of orchestral loudness head on. In 2018, a violist in the Royal Opera House orchestra successfully took his employer to court over hearing damage incurred during a rehearsal of Wagner’s “Die Walküre,” during which noise levels reached 130 decibels — about the level of a jet engine.

Still, to some composers, loudness remains elemental. Orchestras stocked with electric guitars and other amplified instruments create new sonic hybrids in the music of Louis Andriessen. The decibel burn of the hammered chords at the opening of his “De Materie” is not a side product of the music; it’s essential to conveying the sheer materiality of sound.

Works by Phill Niblock require extreme dynamics — sustained at a rock concert-like 120 decibels — because only when played at high volume do seemingly static chords reveal a dazzling spectrum of overtones, interacting in complex rhythms. In a video accompanying a 2014 performance, Mr. Niblock explained how expanding the volume and duration of a sonic event affects a listener’s perception. “To lose yourself in a piece,” he said, “is partly losing yourself in time.”
“Hurdy Hurry”
Phill Niblock

We are, then, still not so far from the orchestra envisioned by Berlioz. “The most recalcitrant temperaments,” he wrote, “would shudder at the sight of its surging crescendo, like the roar of an immense and sublime conflagration!”

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/17/arts ... dness.html

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Re: Loud, Louder, Loudest: How Classical Music Started to Roar

Post by Modernistfan » Mon Apr 20, 2020 10:08 am

Yes, sure enough, this started with Berlioz (if you exclude the Beethoven one-off "Wellington's Victory"). Berlioz definitely altered the balance of the orchestra away from the strings, with a much greater emphasis on the brass and much greater use of percussion than had been the norm heretofore. This of course continued with later 19th-century composers and even more into the 20th century.

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Re: Loud, Louder, Loudest: How Classical Music Started to Roar

Post by maestrob » Wed Apr 22, 2020 11:23 am

Very informative article, Len, thanks.

I once attended a concert in Lincoln Center in then Avery Fisher Hall when, sitting in an upper balcony in the rear, we were overwhelmed by the brass in Respighi's Roman Trilogy. Yes, it was so loud that we had to put our fingers in our ears. Pity the poor violas sitting in front of the brass!

Another example would be the Berlioz Requiem, led by Robert Shaw in Carnegie Hall where the same thing happened. When Dutoit led the same piece in AFH in 2002, he managed to balance things much better as I remember, and it was not so painful.

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Re: Loud, Louder, Loudest: How Classical Music Started to Roar

Post by some guy » Thu Apr 23, 2020 12:04 am

Another example of a thesis supported only by ignoring all the evidence that doesn't support it. Which is great if you can get only people who don't know about what you're suppressing to read your stuff.

The world is more ragged and more complex than the childish simplicities advanced here, and advanced, oddly enough, to no discernable purpose. That is, the thesis is not much of a thesis. "As the world got louder, music got louder." Pretty flimsy. And that's not even the real thesis as presented in the article. That one is even flimsier: "As instruments improved, music got louder." So flimsy, that an eloquent "so what?" conveyed by elevating one's shoulders is a valid response. Except for all that evidence that doesn't support the thesis that wants to be heard.

So tempting though a shrug would be, the missing evidence should really be given a bit look in, too, no? Here's a question to start things off: did music get louder and louder after Beethoven? And immediately, one begins to think about all the music after Beethoven that's very, very soft, even in the pieces, in the composers, lined up to advance Fonseca-Wollheim's thesis. Berlioz did make some loud music, it's true. Mostly it's not, however. Which contrast makes the loud bits seem even louder. And loud, apparently, is more memorable than soft, even when soft makes up the bulk of the piece. If you really listen to a super loud piece, like maybe that requiem of Verdi's, you will notice right away that the super loud moments are just that, moments. Moments of extreme volume in a vast sea of very quiet music.

And as well, it's good to note that Berlioz did not disrupt the balance of the orchestra in favor of more brass and percussion. No, knowing the power that would result from expanding those two groups, Berlioz called for larger bodies of strings and winds to offset the power of having more and better brass. He wanted more power, sure, but not at the expense of balance. Besides, larger doesn't necessarily mean louder, either. Berlioz often called for large forces in order to achieve silky smooth pianissimos. Individual variations in the sounds each performer makes being ironed out the more performers one has. And listen intently to practically any piece by Berlioz. What do you get? An orchestra that is huge not so much to make a lot of noise, though sometimes that does happen, but that is big enough to give you many, many combinations of chamber ensembles. That has many players as much in the service of pianissimo as in the service of fortissimo.
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Re: Loud, Louder, Loudest: How Classical Music Started to Roar

Post by Heck148 » Sat Apr 25, 2020 3:18 pm

It's true that orchestras have gotten louder....this is certainly true post WWII - this was definitely true in America, but it occurred in Europe as well...
Imo, this trend began developing before the war - orchestras like NBC, NYPO, and then Chicago began producing unprecedented sound levels...some very great, trend-setting musicians had arrived on the scene, and set the pace.
the woodwind and brass players began using louder instruments - the Heckel bassoon factory began producing bigger diameter bore, bigger tone hole instruments post war, which produce a bigger, louder sound. Metal flute, metal head jonts on flute became virtually mandatory - wooden instruments simply didn't have the projection.....brass players used larger bore instruments - Conn 8D horns, 88H trombones came into use, and othe rmanufacturers followed suit...brass players began using larger cup mouthpieces - iirc, Wm. Vacchiano, and the NYPO trumpet section started using Bach #1 mouthpieces [the largest, deepest], and the great Bud Herseth [Chicago] used a #1, drilled out to make bigger sound!!
I heard Chicago several times at Carnegie Hall in the early 70s...unbelievable sound level!! once, after performing Ein Heldenleben - Solti offered up the Berlioz "Rakoczy March" as an encore, using all the extra brass players....geezus!! what a sound!! if you had set nails in the back wall of the Hall, they would have been pounded in by the end!! :roll: :shock:
As the winds got louder, naturally the string sections became larger to maintain the balance...
I don't know for sure, but it used to be a string section might be 12-12--8-8-8/ vlnI -vlnII-vla-cllo-bss
Recently, I've seen the Chicago SO perform with 16-14-12-10-10...Boston uses a similar lineup...
This situation is not limited to just the top tier major orchestras...I played principal for 36 years in one orchestra, and we could definitely pump out the decibels - at one concert series, we performed Shostakovich Sym #7 - at the ultmate finale, one of my section mates - who had brought a decibel meter on stage - measured the sound level at 118db...that's industrial strength!!

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Re: Loud, Louder, Loudest: How Classical Music Started to Roar

Post by Modernistfan » Sat Apr 25, 2020 5:31 pm

118db!!! Let 'er rip (or maybe Ripsky-Korsakov)!

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Re: Loud, Louder, Loudest: How Classical Music Started to Roar

Post by barney » Sat Apr 25, 2020 8:05 pm

Modernistfan wrote:
Sat Apr 25, 2020 5:31 pm
118db!!! Let 'er rip (or maybe Ripsky-Korsakov)!

Thanks for the information Heck148 about the growth in orchestras. My orchestra, the Melbourne Symphony, has 16, 14, 12,10, 8 as standard but smaller for earlier works, such as Haydn and often Beethoven.

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Re: Loud, Louder, Loudest: How Classical Music Started to Roar

Post by maestrob » Sun Apr 26, 2020 11:10 am


Thanks for such a deeply informative post! Glad to know you're still lurking. Please post more often, when you can. :)

I would say that, as halls have gotten larger, especially in America, the decibel level to fill them has also grown.

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Re: Loud, Louder, Loudest: How Classical Music Started to Roar

Post by Heck148 » Mon Apr 27, 2020 9:05 am

maestrob wrote:
Sun Apr 26, 2020 11:10 am

Thanks for such a deeply informative post! Glad to know you're still lurking. Please post more often, when you can. :)

I would say that, as halls have gotten larger, especially in America, the decibel level to fill them has also grown.
Yes, indeed!! larger concert halls have certainly made for louder orchestras.

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