Rocking out at the symphony
Oct 16, 2019 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
If live music is a special treat, a symphony performance is the sprinkles on top! Going to the symphony has always felt more theatrical to me than an average night out on the town. Firstly, there’s the venue – a space tailor-made for acoustics. Next, you get to share the experience with hundreds of people all gathered for a singular purpose. Lastly, you are freed from any outside distractions. The performance is a celebration of music, where you can see the graceful choreography of a song blossoming before your eyes. There are no commercial breaks, no cell phones, and no talking! The symphony is just as much a sanctuary today as it was for our ancestors. Let’s learn a bit more about this tonal tradition, shall we?
Our first order of business is related to terminology. Just what is the difference between a symphony and an orchestra after all? A symphony is the composition itself and it’s known for its epic length and instrumental diversity. (Hint: if it takes more than 15 people to translate a composer’s vision you’re in the presence of a symphony!) The word orchestra is a term for the group of musicians who bring compositions to life. This collection of talent leans heavily into the string department, so a quick shout-out to all you violin fans! If you hear the word philharmonic that is just a fancy way of saying “music-loving” and helps larger cities differentiate between competing institutions.
The ancient Greeks were much less specific with their vocabulary – a symphony meant a harmony of sound. I personally find this concept of sounds coming together at the center of the symphony’s power. The symphony as we recognize it today started in the early to mid-1700s. During this era (known appropriately as the Classical period), orchestras were playing longer compositions that involved a variety of movements. Music lovers were so enamored, a century later composers continued to build grander and longer works. All sorts of methods were employed to highlight emotional moments, transition to new movements, and engage with the audience. These years of experimentation were fruitful, but not sustainable. By the 20th century composers and conductors had to streamline, bringing with them a few core ideas from earlier arrangements. The economics behind music had shifted (the Victrola arrived on the scene in 1877 and the first global conflict arrived less than 40 years later). Community support for the arts remained, but orchestras had to adapt to a new environment.
While the 19th century was known as a more romanticized era, with works taking on a more fluid feeling, the 20th century was defined by contrast. Tension-filled pieces caused a bit of a revolution in the symphonic world and composers tended to experiment with transitions and simplicity. Dramatic pauses were the flavor of the day and an avant-garde campaign caught momentum across the world. With a history that reads in some ways like a roller coaster, for all its development the symphony remains true to its Grecian roots: it is a coming together of sound. The experiences may feel different given which decade you study, but the central focus on detailed harmony remains. That’s one of the extraordinary parts of stepping into history, it reveals all the connection points!
It’s hard to select one point in time that sums up the power of this musical genre (here’s a list of 50 to get you started), but let’s investigate one of the most sensational. The year was 1913 – Model T’s began rolling off assembly lines, Marcel Duchamp’s Armory show rocked NYC, and suffragettes were constantly being tossed in jail. In the midst of all these happenings, the city of Paris hosted a performance to commemorate the newest jewel in their cultural treasure chest – the Théâtre de Champs-Elysées. Igor Stravinsky’s composition called The Rite of Spring, was a ballet who took the interaction between sound and dance to a new (and shocking) level. As we mentioned, the 20th century soundtrack was one of experimentation and Stravinsky wasn’t shy when it came to pushing the envelope. His sounds came together, but in unexpected and sometimes incongruous ways. Quite the way to christen a new civic space!
These sonic sensations, which may have assaulted the Edwardian ear, were coupled with equally “jarring” choreography. Not only did Stravinsky challenge his audience’s senses, he also pushed the limits of the plot itself. In The Rite of Spring, the characters aren’t based on human nature. The composer himself is quoted as saying “there are simply no regions for soul-searching in The Rite of Spring.” One of these factors alone is eye-opening, but the trio created a scandal. The extent of the audience’s “violent” reaction is unknown for it was the type of cultural event ripe for gossip and aggrandizing. But, for me, isn’t that the litmus test for art? Shouldn’t it give you an emotional reaction and serve as a catalyst for further discovery (or self-discovery as the case often is)? Even if you attend a performance that doesn’t live up to your pre-defined expectations, you’ll have something to discuss and ponder. And who knows where your line of questioning will lead you. A select group of participants in the debut of The Rite of Spring took the experience to heart and wondered if there was beauty behind the brutality. Seeking the beauty (or the harmony) is a uniquely symphonic characteristic. Tell me, dear reader, what do you seek out when you hear your favorite symphony? Share with us in the comments…