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Orchestras on the Edge

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From amid a vast sea of players comes the sound of a single flute. It is joined by a harp, a bassoon, and then a strange collection of percussion instruments. In between there are jagged brass fanfares, flurries of notes from the wind section, and eerie chords from the strings.

The modern symphony orchestra was born in the European courts of the 17th century, for the entertainment and vanity of princes and kings. In the 18th century it began to serve a more public function in theatres and concert halls, and in the 19th century it grew into the world’s biggest and most complex music-making machine. It is rarely bigger than in Varèse’s Amériques (1918–21, rev. 1927), which calls for a truly enormous ensemble of more than a hundred instruments. Among them are real oddities like sirens, contrabass tuba and hecklephone (a sort of bass oboe).

Yet Amériques, described above, is the sound of the orchestra remixed and repurposed. No longer a slick ensemble working as one, Varèse’s orchestra seems determined, even glad, to pull itself apart. Amériques was the first work Varèse completed in the United States, having left war-torn Europe in 1915. Begun at the end of World War I and at the beginning of the American Century, it captures something of both the social collapse of home and a vision of a possible new world.

In its dismantling of a venerable institution it is as radical and of its time as Picasso’s cubism, or New York’s blocks of skyscrapers. Its spirit continues in Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie-Woogie. Or even – though the geometry is different – the disconnected swoops of Pollock’s paint drips.

Later composers – Bartók in his Concerto for Orchestra) (1942–3, rev. 1945), Stockhausen in Gruppen (1955–7), Cage in Atlas Eclipticalis (1961–2) – continued the dismantling, but before Varèse came Mahler. No one better than Mahler captured the tipping point between a 19th-century norm and 20th-century modernity.

Mahler loved to play with scale and as a result his orchestras are massive. But he uses that size as much to create delicate sounds as great walls of noise. It is a paradox that a really quiet orchestra needs lots of violins; the sound of one on its own is too scratchy to be clear.

Often Mahler breaks the orchestra into little groups of instruments, or even lone soloists. They might be clustered together – a few string players at the front of the stage, perhaps – or scattered far apart. The solo trumpet that opens his Fifth Symphony plays from the back of a stage filled with 80 or so other musicians. All of them sit silently, waiting for their moment. The trumpet’s fanfare – the beginning of a funeral march – sounds across a great distance. The rest of the orchestra, waiting to lift its instruments is pure theatre. When they do come in, they overcook it, with a bombastic crash. It’s an attempt at affirmation, but we already hear it as the beginning of an end.