The Role of the Orchestra in Opera

By Erich Leinsdorf.  

I. A Conductor’s Make-Up   

WHEN you are seated in a theatre and look at the stage you are aware that it is morning or noon, evening or night, and observe the transition from one time of day to another. These changes are produced by means of a vast lighting apparatus regulated by a man at a switchboard, who directs a corps of assistant lighting operators. You are watching the effects of an ingenious mechanism, but both director and machinery are invisible to you. 

It is exactly the same in the case of the opera’s orchestra and its conductor with one solitary difference: you see this machinery and its director and can watch them in action. There is only one great theater in the world, the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, where the orchestra and conductor are completely invisible to the audience, though this arrangement has been imitated by a few smaller houses, notably the Prinzregenten Theatre in Munich. Wagner was the first to realize this idea, but not the only one of his time to conceive it. Verdi, in his letters, earnestly recommended having an invisible orchestra. 

It would be an immense advantage, in my opinion, if the conductor of an opera performance were always concealed from the audience. It would enable him to be appreciated for his work alone, without any consideration for his idiosyncrasies. It would develop greater efficiency among conductors in general and discourage the spectacular theatrical accomplishments noticeable in some of them. When unnecessary mannerisms cannot be seen, they are apt to cease. It would also arouse more concentrated attention in the opera by concealing the distracting movements of the conductor and players. 

Why should the director of the musical machinery be visible to the audience, while the director of the scenic machinery is never seen? For the basic reason ew must give a backward glance into the history of the theatre. 

During the Baroque period, the seventeenth century, this invisibility of the stage manger initiated the idea that the world was a theatre and the destiny of men a play that was enacted on its stage. An example of this is the Jesuitenspiel, or drama of the Jesuits, whose great dramatic importance was not recognized for a long time, though it is beginning to be appreciated today. The basic idea of these Jesuit dramas was that humanity plays on the stage of the world as an actor holds forth on the boards of a theatre, and that the tragedy of human existence lies in being bound boy the will of the eternal, invisible stage manager, God, who must be obeyed as the puppeteer is obeyed by his puppets. All the scenic and technical resources of the time, and they were by no means slight, were used to project this idea, and the action was emphasized by solo and choral singing and ballet and orchestral accompaniment. The authors, actors, musicians and stage hands never forgot that they were serving to project a basic idea. 

Today, interest n technical affairs is uppermost because great underlying ideas are missing in modern theatrical production. Real art ought to be the expression of ideals, or principles, or religious beliefs. The inspiration of the Greeks to produce masterpieces sprang from the ideals underlying their mythology. The supreme work of the middle ages, the Divine Comedy, was the outgrowth of Dante’s belief int he philosophy of Christianity. A revival of interest in antique art was responsible for the art of the Renaissance. The pure vital art of Bach and Handel reflects the sturdy Protestantism of their time. The humanism of the German classic period is the very essence of Beethoven’s music. His Ninth Symphony, with its inclusion of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” is an overwhelming proof of this. 

In contrast with this attitude our present standard are unified by no centralizing idea…”Es fuhrt keen Brücke mehr von Mensch zu Mensch,” says a modern German poet. No bridges lead form one man to another, uniting their creative ideas. This lack of fundamental conceptions has caused a decline in art, because it has encouraged individualism. There is no longer respect on the part of the interpreters or public for a work of art in itself, or for the intentions of its creator, while the technical side of its production is held of the greatest importance. 

As long ago as the Renaissance, when individuality first began to assume significance,  self esteem developed among interpreters of music. The expression found so often in records of the period, “Uomo virtuoso,” which originally meant a cultivated courtier, began to be applied as well to a musical interpreter. 

In a sixteenth century treatise on etiquette, we find the following passage, “for a nobleman who seeks praise and high standing, it is unseemly to sing in the choir, since his voice would be lost among the others. He should sing nothing but solos.” He is further cautions not to play the flute, because it causes the cheeks to puff out, which from an aesthetic point of view makes an unpleasing impression on the audience. Men of reaper years are cautioned not to sing love songs, for the subject does not become their age and cannot be expressed with the maximum effect. 

From these few examples it is obvious that it was not the expression of the inherent value of a work of art that was esteemed, but its power of external suggestion, which depended largely on individual interpretation. This individualistic tendency grew steadily  during the period of Gluck and Mozart, and by the time Rossini had come upon the scene, composers’ intentions ceased to be given any consideration at all. Since then the have continued to be overlooked to such an extent that it is not surprising that the interest of present day audiences is inclined to concentrate on the interpreter more than on the work of art. 

It is inevitable that a good performance requires strong personalities. In the theatre we could not succeed without them. But collaboration among strong personalities calls for personal effacement, and this sometimes presents difficulties. Few artists in operatic history, for example, have managed fully to meet the demands of Wagner’s operas. These were conceived as universal works of art and in their very nature exclude the existence of stars of the predominance of any single personality. We all know that it is characteristic of strong personalities to interpret themselves first, and the work of art, no matter how great, second. Thus the conductor has to cope with divided forces and interpretive concepts with an inevitable conflict as result. Fortunately the conductor is usually able to influence the artists to subordinate their personality without effacing it toward the basically ideal of the work of art they are interpreting. 

The vital essence in the art of the conductor of opera is not limited even today to a matter of personality, but is considered as the technique or mechanics of conducting. An analysis of this technique reduces it to one primary factor, the beating of time. Among the ancient Greeks it was customary to have a special person, known as the corypheus, mark the passage by stemming his feet. Among the Romans this functionary was known as the pedarius. He wore sandals of wood or metal stamped on hollow places like well heads that were covered over by boards in order to increase the resonance. When the custom changed and he beat time with his hands, he was called a manuductor. The instruments he employed were sometimes more unusual, for records describe the use of oyster shells and animal bones, the impact of which must have marked time in a bizarre manner. 

As instruments became more numerous and complicated, and as melody was born, the mandator became known as a conductor or leader in a more revelatory sense, whose function extended far beyond the mere beating of time. Eventually his task few to be a spiritual one, but it was not until comparatively recently that time-beating ceased to be the most important element of conducting, and one of the noisiest. In 1768, Rousseau mentioned that Parisian audiences complained of the disturbance caused by French conductors, who all but drowned out the music. The great Lully himself marked the measure so violently on one occasion that he accidentally inflicted on himself an injury with his baton which caused his death. 

Richard Strauss was asked by an aspiring amateur how conducting could be learned. He replied, “The whole thing is nothing but a racket. If you just know how to do this: 1-2-3, and 1-2-3-4, you know how to conduct.” A few additional conventions amount to no more than the rules of motoring: drive right, pass left, etc. 

The basis of conducting, as I see it, is the expression of the conductor’s convictions and musicianship. An orchestra, like a highly strung thoroughbred horse, gauges its rider at once. Put a poor horseman on its back and it will not obey him. It will follow its own will, establish its own pace and in the end probably throw its rider to the ground. 

Place a bad orchestra rider at the head of this instrument and the orchestra will go its own pace, enforce its will against that of the baton and probably bring the performance to a sudden and disastrous stop. 

An illustration may be found in Vienna where an amateur conductor came to lead the Philharmonic. The members of this world famous orchestra are engaged for life and receive a pension. Perhaps because of this artistic and financial security, they have developed a strong cynical sense, and their wit is apt to be insolent. The amateur conductor engaged the orchestra for a concert, and planned a program of routine pieces which he musicians could play in their sleep. Even so, the conductor arranged for a rehearsal, and, in the course of it, interrupted frequently to express his wishes about interpretation. The orchestra quickly became restless, for the musicians realized that they knew the pieces better than the conductor did. Finally, the first cellist said, “My dear sir, if you stop us once more, we shall be sure to play the piece exactly as you conduct it.”


II. The Development of the Modern Orchestra   

THE APPARATUS of the modern orchestra began with the experiments of the so-called “Camera Fiorentina,” that group of cultured Italian amateur musicians of the sixteenth century, who wanted to revive the drama of the ancient Greeks, which they knew had been accompanied by music. Their goal was poetry, not song, for to them song was merely exalted speech. 

A typical example of their experimentations in Peri’s primitive opera Dafne, which consists of spoken lines intoned on specific notes, to an accompaniment of chords. Individual speech is expressed by solo instead of choral chanting, which was the only known method of singing until these Florentines invented recitative. As for the orchestral accompaniment, in the theatre it consistent of a primitive kind of piano, the clavicembalo, and in church it was the organ. Soon, strings were added to the accompaniment—first violas and gradually violins. With time, five different groups of strings were in sue. The rise of the great violin schools during the seventeenth century in Italy under Corelli, Legrenzi and Torelli, led to the quartet as we know it today, consisting of first and second violin, cello and contrabass. Up to that point the development of the orchestra apparatus was restricted to the string instruments. 

The next decisive step in the development of the orchestra was taken by Claudio Monteverdi, in Venice, where the first public opera house was opened in the year 1637. To him we owe the use of wind instruments—the flutes, trumpets and trombones. Two things are significant about Monteverdi’s reforms: it was he who originally made use of the orchestra to achieve tone painting, that is, to represent moods and situations by means of certain instruments. Then again his enlargement of the orchestra was no accepted immediately; in fact, the introduction of the trombone was forgotten for over a century, and it was a long time before wind instruments became a permanent part of the orchestra.

Lully, the creator of the French school of opera, in the mid-eighteenth century, was the first to adopt the regular trumpet and flutes, oboes and bassoons in his scores.  The hours were introduce comparatively early. We find them for the first time in the Scarlatti operas, of the founder of the Neapolitan School, about a quarter of a century later. The clarinet, which was only invented in 1690, by an instrument maker from Nuremberg named Demmer, was almost never used  by orchestras util the middle of the eighteenth century. Its absence is noticeable conspicuous in the scores of Mozart. 

By adding these instruments, one after another ,the symphonic orchestra of the classical masters was developed. We see that it grew out of the little orchestra of strings of the sixteenth century Florentines into the so-called “miniature orchestras” of the seventeenth century, which were maintained at various princes’ courts. A typical miniature orchestra is the one directed by Bach. It had form twenty to twenty-five instruments: two to three first violins, two to three second violins, four violas, two cellos, one contrabass, one to two bassoons, two to three oboes, three trumpets and two flutes. 

By the year 100 the large orchestra, as we know it, had been formed. The trombones, found only occasionally in Monteverdi’s operas, became a permanent part of the opera apparatus. Gluck and Mozart introduced them into the opera, and Beethoven into the symphony. It is to Beethoven, too, that we owe such innovations as the 

ottavina, a small high-pitched flute, and the deep-toned contrabassoon. Up to that time operatic and symphonic orchestras developed in nearly parallel lines. 

In the year 1840, however, they began to move in divergent paths, until they became almost completely separated. The romantic school of Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Liszt continued to compose for Beethoven’s apparatus, while theatre orchestras began to employ a valve invention, which led to the development of chromatic wind instruments. 

Some time between 1851 and 1830 a valve had been added to horns, which enabled them to produce chromatic scales. Meyerbeer, Berlioz and Wagner led in the development of these vales and their chromatic effects. Wind instruments which until then and been of minor importance in the orchestra apparatus became sovereign through these composers. Berlioz and Wagner also added the harp, bass-tuba and English horn to the orchestra, while Meyerbeer, in his Huguenots, made use of the bass-clarinet for the first time, an invention of the Belgian instrument-maker, Sax. 

The climax of this chromatic tendency was achieved by Wagner. He it was who initiated the orchestra go gigantic size for which German composers have written ever since, notably Richard Strauss and Mahler and all all of their important contemporaries with the exception of Brahms. The Italian and French schools, including Saint Saëns, César Franck, Debussy and Dukas, and the Russian school including Borodin, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakoff, have followed Beethoven’s apparatus. Their aim was not power and sensuousness of sound but, rather, refinement and delicacy of shade. 

In contrast to the miniature orchestra of the past, we see the gigantic modern orchestra of Wagner or Schönberg. Without even mentioning the string instruments, Wagner calls for as many as three flutes, three oboes, one English horn, three clarinets, one bass-clarinet, three bassoons, eight horns, three trumpets, one bass-trumpet, three trombones, one bass-trombone, give small so-called “Wagner” tubas, two kettle-drums, four bass-drums, and six harps; while Schönberg uses the same or an even greater number of these instruments. 

Instruments have changed very little since the eighteenth century. The most important change resulted form the addition of valves to the horns and trumpets. Then came the various inventions of Herr Sax: the bass-clarinet, bass-horn and saxophone, which were used at first by military bands and alter for jazz music, but rarely for symphonies or operas. The first Arlésienne-Suite of Bizet and the “Sinfonia Domestica” of Richard Strauss are the only notable examples of their use. 

The only radical change was in the percussions: their field was enlarged in the most fantastic ways. Cymbals, big drums, triangle and kettle drums were already in use in the eighteenth century, but by the nineteenth century there appeared musical bells, xylophone, tamtam, castanets, tambourine, klaxon horns, rattles, cracking whips, and Heaven knows what other possible and impossible contraptions. The Italian-American composer Edgar Varèse uses fifty different percussions alone in his nerve-shattering scores. Since the World War, however, there has been a growing preference for the small chamber music orchestra, as it was known in the eighteenth century. The grand scale, Wagnerian orchestra is losing more and more interest as a model for modern composers. 

The orchestra pit originated in the first public opera house ever to be built, in Venice, in 1637. Before then, the small opera orchestras of the Florentines were concealed behind the proscenium arch of the private stages maintained in the palaces of princes. As the number of players was enlarged under Monteverdi, it became necessary for acoustic and practical reasons to have them placed in front of the stage, so that the signals of the conductor would still be visible to the singers. The seating arrangement int he concealed orchestra pit is just the reverse of the concert room, the players being placed on a serious of descending planes. 


III. Technical Considerations in the Conducting of Opera  

T HERE has been much discussion in recent years as to whether a conductor should sit or stand. One of the first to adopt a standing position was Toscanini, but it was entirely by accident. He had brought his opera company to Montevideo and during the rehearsal discovered that the orchestra pit was not large enough to hold all of his musicians. They were crowded as closely as possible, and Toscanini had his own desk removed, since he could conduct from memory and did not need a desk. In order to obtain still more space, he had his chair taken away, and conducted the performance standing. Afterwards he noticed that his arm was less tired than usual, because had had not be compelled to hold it quite so high as he had when seated. Conductors’ desks are rather tall, and the arm music be held high to avoid striking them. When standing, the arms can move in a more natural radius and they become less tired. Toscanini never sad to conduct after that. In Germany and France conductors still retain the habit of sitting, and it has become something of a tradition that Germans conduct from their chairs and Italians on their feet. 

Another disputed point is the presence of absence of the score. This is simply a matter of the conductor’s preference, no importance in the quality of the performance. An old Viennese conductor and excellent musician, Arthur Hellmesberger, once said, “There are two kinds of conductors: one has the score in his head, the other has his head in the score.” To conduct without a score may sometimes be interpreted as a wish to imitate Toscanini. To Toscanini, however, scores are useless in a performance because of his nearsightedness. For anyone without his phenomenal memory this involves such nerve-wracking labor that it cannot help, and may even mar, the performance. Few people know Toscanini’s attitude in this matter. He once told me, “If I had know the consequences of my conducting without score, I would have clutched it in my left hand and stared at it with both eyes, while brandishing the baton with my right hand.” This much is certain, that the quality of a performance need not be affected by the presence or absence of a score on the conductor’s desk. 

Two points are frequently forgotten by the public: the lamps on the musicians’ desks, and the conductor’s attire. They may seem insignificant, but they can help or hinder a performance substantially. It is very important for the orchestra players to see the conductor’s atom clearly. The score usually does not cover the whole surface of the desk and the empty area is covered with white glazed paper white throws light on the conductor and makes him more visible to the men. For the same reason it is advantageous for him to wear a dress suit, because the greater area of white in his costume sets off the movements of the baton. At matinees, when his costume is darker, the musicians always complain about poor visibility. The orchestra player has to see his part of the score and the conductor at the same time. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that the conductor’s movements, which are only seen indirectly, be as conspicuous as possible. 

The lighting of the musicians’ desks is especially important. Our musicians at the Metropolitan suffer because their desks are only lighted from above making the lower part of the music dim and causing a strain on their eyes. Their desks should be lighted on three sides: above, right and left. 


A NOTHER problem is the placing of the instruments. The disposition has to conform to two things: first, to the core that is being performed; second, to the acoustic conditions of the opera house in question. When the score calls for certain groups of instruments to play in unison, they should sit together in the orchestra pit if possible, because good acoustic contact helps musicians to synchronize their playing with the conductor’s baton. For example, if the cellos and bassoons must play a difficult passage together, precise execution is made difficult or even impossible if these two groups are separate. They follow the same signals from the conductor, but cannot hear each other, and do not make a special effort to surround certain peculiarities of their instruments. Because of the peculiar nature of their tone, cellos have a tendency to accelerate, while bassoons are inclined to retard. If the two groups sit together they can hear each other’s tempos and adjust these tendencies. This is impossible when they are separated by a large space. 

Last spring I experimented with different methods of placing the orchestra. Our pit at the Metropolitan is very long and narrow, and our musicians are placed as if they were in a horizontal shute. But the diversity of our repertoire and the difference ideas of our various conductors presented obstacles to my attempted changes, and I was obliged to compromise. 

Each score has its own instrumental laws, and calls for different placements of the orchestra players. In Italian opera the horns are placed in the midst of the brasses. In German opera, since Wagner’s time, they have been merged with the wood-winds. In Richard Strauss’ Elektra, we have the unique demand for a three-fold violin group, that is, first, second and third violins, and even first, second and third violas and, at the end of the opera, one of the groups of violas must transform itself by magic into a fourth group of violins. This obliges us to place these groups together, which quite upsets the usual order. Generally, it is best to have a permanent seating arrangement. You cannot make musicians change their seats every day without having it get on their nerves. The only way left, and this is the one we follow, is to have them sit as they are accustomed to, no matter what the score calls for, with the exception of very special works, like Elektra, where we cannot avoid changing the seating arrangement. 

Another problem is the height at which the orchestra should be placed in relation to the audience. At the Metropolitan we have the enormous advantage, which most theaters lack, or being able to raise and lower the orchestra pit. At its lowest level, the group of our pit is 36 inches below the first row of the parquet. It can be raised according to the acoustic and instrumental demands of the composers. Works of sonorous, complex instrumentation, like Wagner’s later operas and those of Richard Strauss, are played at the lowest possible level. Less complex works, like Wagner’s earlier operas and they last works of Verdi, are played somewhat higher. Lighter operas, like early Verdi and the French school, are played still higher, and when performing Mozart, the orchestra is on nearly the same level as the first row of the audience. 

During out 1939 spring tour, we played in a city which had a beautiful auditorium but a static orchestra pit which was on the same level as the first row of the parquet. As a result, the conductor stood so high that certain sections of the audience were almost unable to see the stage and the embarrassed conductor realized that he was more conspicuous than any of the artists. 


T HERE is no fixed number of musicians in the orchestra; it varies according to the opera. The number of wind instruments is always stated in the score, because each represents a different voice. The strings represent a chorus of five voices, that is, first and second violins, viola, cello and contrabass, and are increased or diminished according to the number of wind instruments called for by the composer. 

In the Ring, Wagner calls for a fourfold cast of wind instruments, that is, four flues, four oboes, four clarinets, four bassoons, four horns and four small so-called “Wagnerian” tubas, four trumpets, four trombones and one contrabass tuba. Among these thirty-five wind instruments, nineteen are brass, or as conductors call them, “heavy artillery.” It goes without saying that the number of strings matching such a cast of heavy artillery must be immensely larger than those required for a light, transparent Mozart score, like Nozze di Figaro. This work only calls for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets twelve wind instruments in all and needs only a few strings to offset them. This is why Wagner’s roles demand much more powerful voices than early Italian or Mozart operas. It is a mistake to think that the conductor has nothing to concern himself with but the orchestra. It is his responsibility to direct the soloists and choir on the stage, and, indirectly, the off-stage choirs, as well as the orchestra players, and to coordinate this mass of human and mechanical instruments into one vast composition. 

The distance between him and the stage complicates matters greatly. Soloists, as a rule, prefer to rely upon their ear for acoustic contact with the orchestra, instead of fixing their eyes continually on the conductor’s hands. This often leads to trouble, because if the singer happens to stand high up in the background of the stage, he is bound, according to certain acoustic laws, to hear the orchestra as a fraction of a second late, and if he is following with his ear rather than his eye, he begins singing a fraction of a second late. This frequently happens in Die Walküre, especially when Wotan, standing on a high peak, sings his farewell to Brünnhilde. He almost always sings it a little behind the orchestra, though timing it accurately in his own ear. The again, because of this distance, the singers do not always hear the orchestra loudly enough, and miscalculate their own volume. As a result, they sometimes sing fortissimo when they shouldn’t, or are drowned out by the orchestra’s heavy artillery. Only experience and instinctive taste can enable a conductor to keep a perfect balance between all of these factors in an opera performance. spacer 

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