This paper reviews the major developments of the symphony orchestra in the 19th and 20th century, with particular emphasis on the addition of certain instruments and the removal of others, as well as the influence of composer Ludwig von Beethoven, whose influence still endures. The paper also highlights the orchestral innovations of Russian born composer Igor Stravinsky from the period 1908 to 1919, and discusses his influence on the symphony orchestra through his works Fireworks, The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring.
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The long history of the symphony orchestra resembles a story of ever expanding creativity, with quite literally hundreds of artists contributing their personal innovation over centuries, to establish the symphony orchestra we know today. For the purposes of this paper, the focus will be fixed on the period of the 19th and 20th centuries.
However, some background will help contextualize and narrow this broad and potentially unwieldy topic for the reader. This paper is organized as follows: section one will review the major developments of the symphony orchestra in the 19th and 20th century, with particular emphasis on the addition of certain instruments and the removal of others, as well as the influence of composer Ludwig von Beethoven, whose influence still endures.
Section two follows the Russian born composer Igor Stravinsky from the period 1908 to 1919, and discusses his influence on the symphony orchestra through his works Fireworks, The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring.
By the time the symphony orchestra’s fundamental make up was established in Beethoven’s time, composers continued to evolve its form in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Composers and innovators such as Beethoven set the precedent for future artists to compose more emotionally rich sonic arrangements, epic, highly moving, and resonating symphonies which stirred audiences then, as they do now. Beethoven also has been recognized as the progenitor of the fervent style of conducting that we expect to see from symphony orchestra conductors today.
Equally, Igor Stravinsky’s works remain fresh, original, and imaginative pieces which made revolutionary use of the orchestra in his time, and produced some of the most explosive and ground-breaking symphonies in the 20th century.
Main Developments in the 19th Century
Many of the developments of the 19th century, as far as the symphony orchestra is concerned, have been attributed to the composer Ludwig von Beethoven (Randel, 1986). As he created his nine symphonies, Beethoven simultaneously expanded the orchestra to suit his needs. In order to compose and perform the Fifth, Sixth, and Ninth Symphonies, Beethoven added the trombone to the orchestra, and exchanged the minuet for the scherzo (Randel, 1986).
Interestingly, many biographers and aficionados of Beethoven conclude that his so-called Middle Period, characterized by incredible innovation, pain, and passion, including the Third through the Eight symphonies, owes much of its creative genius to Beethoven’s Herculean struggle with his progressive hearing loss (Cooper, 2000).
One of the major advances that Beethoven affected in the symphony orchestra occurred when he began emphasizing wind instruments in his First symphony. Herein, Beethoven created what Cooper (2000) called a “new approach to orchestration in symphonies, where wind and strings were equal partners” (Cooper, 2000). The composer also became more and more interested in the use of the timpani.
In the Fourth symphony, for example, Beethoven created what Cooper (2000) explains as “a new approach to the links between sections, ” and a “raised profile of the timpani,” further “integrating the timpani into the thematic design” of the symphony orchestra (Cooper, 2000).
Cooper also credits Beethoven with the creation of a much more passionate relationship between the orchestra and its conductor, as Cooper explains, “designed to draw out maximum expression from the orchestra [that] were in some ways far ahead of their time” (Cooper, 2000).
Beethoven also added innovation to the style of music which symphony orchestras of his time played. Prior to Beethoven, many symphonies ended with a light finale, whereas Beethoven’s Fifth, Ninth, and Third symphonies introduced a “highly influential development of…finales…[that] function as a climax or apotheosis of all that has gone before…This shift in the center of gravity from the beginning to the end of the symphony…is designated by the term finale-symphony” (Randel, 1986).
Beethoven was able to use the symphony orchestra in a way no other composer before had: to plumb the depths of emotion musically. The symphony orchestra, in Beethoven hands, became a means to depict “heroic character…struggle and ultimate triumph,” not to mention fear, anger, and loss (Randel, 1986). Beethoven’s “cyclic” approach to the symphony orchestra combined with his addition of the aforementioned instruments gave tremendous power to his compositions.
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Significantly, Beethoven adapted the orchestra to meet his creative needs, as opposed to bowing to the conventional standards of the symphony orchestra make up of his day and creating static, derivative works for a pre-existing orchestral model (Cooper, 2000). Beethoven’s willingness to take these kinds of risks in turn laid the foundation for future composers, such as Stravinsky, to create similarly emotionally fiery pieces of music.
The 19th century symphony orchestra saw an increase in the use of percussion within the symphony orchestra, according to Randel (1986), and this innovation was heavily influenced by “Berlioz’s pioneering use of percussion,” a tradition which Stravinsky paid homage to in many of his symphonies (Randel, 1986). Interestingly, Randel (1986) points to the influence of Beethoven’s earlier orchestral innovations in Stravinsky’s later works, especially the choral symphony works.
Randel (1986) explains that one of the most vital innovations attributed to Beethoven was “the use of the chorus in his Choral Fantasy and Ninth Symphony…[which]…suggested a new concept of symphonic work with chorus that was pursued by many later composers in a variety of ways, from the use of a wordless chorus as adjunct to the orchestra…to the choral symphony” later used by Stravinsky (Randel, 1986).
One of the first to draw attention to Stravinsky’s startling orchestral originality was author Aaron Copland in his seminal work Music and Imagination. Copland described Stravinsky as a “master of the orchestra”, and carefully delineated the extent of Stravinsky’s genius when describing The Rite of Spring:
After 40 years [The Rite of Spring] remains the most astonishing orchestral achievement of the twentieth century. We must not underestimate the importance of the new rhythms and polytonal harmonies in the creation of this amazing orchestral sound…for the most part it depends on an unprecedented degree of virtuosity in the marshaling of orchestral forces.
The pitting of energized strings and piercing woodwinds against the sharp cutting edge of brass, the whole underlined by an explosive percussive wallop…inaugurates a new era in orchestral practice (Copland, 1952).
The Rite of Spring, which Stravinsky began composing in 1911, was initiated by one of the composer’s dreams. The Rite of Spring is perhaps Stravinsky’s most famous piece, in no small measure because it was met with outrage during its premiere in Paris in 1913. The performance produced a riot, punctuated by guests pummeling each other in the aisles and hisses, yet its controversy launched Stravinsky’s work onto the international scene (White, 1996).
Stravinsky’s use of the orchestra became more and more personal and idiosyncratic as his career progressed. As his fame grew, he seemed more able, like Beethoven, to take certain calculated risks with the make up of the orchestra and to demand more from it (White, 1996).
Also, as White suggests, earlier in his career, some of Stravinsky’s touring compositions had suffered some indignities, as the “scores of The Firebird, Petrushka, [and] The Rite of Spring were written for an orchestra of nearly a hundred players – a formidable requisite when there was no resident full scale orchestra [where] the company was visiting – and occasionally some very bad musical performances resulted” (White, 1996).
As a result, White (1996) suggests, Stravinsky began to “search for the right combination of instruments” (White, 1996). The composer also began to experiment with the size of the orchestra and become extremely specific as to which instruments were included in the symphony orchestra make up (White, 1996). An example occurred when Stravinsky adapted The Nightingale as a “symphonic poem for orchestra” (White, 1996).
Stravinsky “chose a slightly smaller orchestra for the purpose…with double instead of triple woodwind, and other instruments scaled down in proportion…[and] also changed his attitude to the principle of orchestration” (White, 1996). Stravinsky became fascinated with diminutive groups of instruments, or instruments by themselves, which drew attention to certain sounds at key moments in the symphony, while simultaneously underscoring the absence of others (White, 1996).
The result, according to White (1996), was that the orchestra no longer served as “padding, or merely to fill in and inflate” (White, 1996). Rather, says White (1996), Stravinsky’s individual attention to instruments in the orchestra created “a purer palette of instrumental colours, lighter orchestral texture, greater variety and contrast in the use of tones, and less insistence on the importance of blend” (White, 1996).
Stravinsky appeared to have a somewhat antagonistic relationship with the orchestra. He seemed always to want to challenge it, to test its limits, and even its patience.
This fact is made evident in Stravinsky’s own correspondence. When discussing his work Petrushka, Stravinsky wrote that he “wanted to refresh myself by composing an orchestral piece in which the piano would play the most important part…I had in mind a distinct of a puppet, suddenly endowed with life, exasperating the patience of the orchestra with diabolical cascades of arpeggios” (Hill, 2000).
Another of Stravinsky’s innovations occurred, similar to Beethoven, when he used the symphony orchestra differently, according to his creative needs and the needs of the particular symphony. As White (1996) points out, Stravinsky often called for a symphony orchestra and yet deliberately avoided using all of the instruments:
Although a big symphony orchestra (with triple woodwind) is specified, the full orchestra is hardly ever used as such. Even at important climaxes…certain instruments are withheld, particularly those that are going to be heard immediately after the climax, and this helps to lighten the texture and refresh the ear…[Stravinsky] uses the symphony orchestra both as a symphony orchestra and as a chamber orchestra, and a considerable part of the musical argument is carried out by small groups of instruments or single instruments conversing on chamber music lines” (White, 1996).
Stravinsky’s Fireworks, composed in 1908, was described by White (1996) as a “fantasy for large orchestra,” one that contained the “timpani, triangle, cymbals, big drum, celesta, campanelli, two harps, and strings” (White, 1996). In Fireworks, according to White (1996), Stravinsky overcame his last creative hurdle and “broke away from the four-plus- four-plus four-plus-four barring that had given his previous works a stamp of monotony, and for the first time achieved a satisfactory degree of asymmetry” (White, 1996).
Fireworks was praised for its “compact, explosive force” and “whirling movement” (White, 1996). In Fireworks, Stravinsky makes full use of the brass section, particularly the trumpets that “echo the horns bar by bar,” as well as the woodwinds, all of which culminates in a “series of instrumental explosions” (White, 1996).
The Firebird, composed from 1909 through 1910 in St. Petersburg, Russia, is an example of Stravinsky’s thematic use of the orchestra to create emotion. Based on Russian fairy tales, the music that Stravinsky composed for The Firebird had to somehow “differentiate in musical terms between the natural and supernatural elements” (White, 1996). To achieve this, Stravinsky used the orchestra to associate “the human element…with diatonic themes and the magical element with chromatic arabesques of an oriental character” (White, 1996).
In conclusion, the 19th and 20th centuries saw tremendous innovation in the area of the orchestra. Part of this innovation happened in standard ways: orchestras were scaled back or plumped up according to individual composer’s needs, instruments were added, deleted, held back, or substituted, percussion became more prevalent, and largely as a result of Beethoven’s earlier innovations in the 18th century, the emotional palette of the symphonies themselves became richer and dealt with more complex ranges of emotions.
However, another innovation began in the 20th century, mostly under the influence of composer Igor Stravinsky, wherein the relationship with the orchestra became more personal and more demanding. As the complexity of Stravinsky’s compositions intensified, he proved that the orchestra itself could be manipulated to serve the composer’s artistic vision.
Cooper, B. (2000). Beethoven. New York NY: Oxford University Press.
Copland. A. (1952). Music and Imagination. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Hill, P. (2000). Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Randel. D.M. (1986). The Harvard Dictionary of Music. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Spitzer, J. & Zaslaw, N. (2004). The Birth of the Orchestra: History of an Institution: 1650-1815. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
White, E. W. (1996). Stravinsky: The Composer and his Works. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.