Classical Music Rant: Renaissance/Baroque/Classical > Romantic/Modern -OR- “Why symphonic orchestras kind of suck”

INTRO

For this article, I will refer to European classical music by its eras: Renaissance (1400-1550), Baroque (1550-1700), Classic (1700-1800), Romantic (1800-1900), and Modern (1900-now).  These dates are very general, and these eras naturally overlap with each other.  Here are the two reasons why I believe that classical music from the Renaissance, Baroque, and Classic eras is superior to music from the Romantic and Modern eras.

ENSEMBLES

Before the Romantic era, there were few standards related to ensembles and anything as large as a modern symphonic orchestra was rare or nonexistant.  Composers often wrote for the ensembles and combinations that were available to them, which might even change over time.  There was little excess; each part was written because the composer deemed it appropriate and not because he knew there was a set number of musicians he had to write for, unlike today’s composer of symphonic works.  It’s true that composers of the classic era wrote ‘symphonies’ but to this day there is no official definition of a symphony.  Some of the pieces that were called symphonies in those days would be considered something less today.  Like an album compared to an EP, for example.  Many of Bach’s pieces don’t even specify instrumentation, allowing for a large degree of interpretation and instrument assignment.

Unfortunately, the symphonic orchestra was standardized during the Romantic era.  This unfortunate monstrosity provides the main face of classical music for most people today.  Many people think of classical music as overblown, boring music, and the symphony has a lot to do with that.  Compositions of previous periods have a more intimate quality that an ensemble of 8 musicians would naturally have over a group of 70.  And it’s not like the 70 members of an orchestra are adding much depth to music – many of them are simply doubling up on parts that could just as easily be divided among a few people.

The symphonic orchestra became an institution, rising up in every major and wannabe-major city across the Western world.  Unfortunately, the only way to hear many pre-Romantic era pieces is to hear them performed by a modern orchestra, including concerti originally performed by a dozen musicians, now performed by 70 with unnecessary quintupling of parts.

INNOVATION

Before the symphonic orchestra was standardized, classical music was always at the forefront of technology.  The fact that that statement likely draws smiles and laughs is sad but deserved.  Instruments were constantly being refined or invented before the Romantic era.  The instruments used in classical music in 1850 look and sound quite different from the instruments used in 1700.  But classical music instruments used in 1850 are IDENTICAL TO THOSE USED TODAY.  There are many modern masters that proudly and idiotically play 200 year old instruments.  The standardization of the orchestra essentially FROZE the whole movement in time.  After this point it became very unusual to hear instruments from outside of the symphonic orchestra included in mainstream classical works.  In previous eras, it was not uncommon to hear instruments like lutes and mandolins incorporated but there seems to be very little room for strummed, fretted instruments today, outside of soloists.

The saxophone had the misfortune of being invented shortly after the codification, ensuring that this innovative and versatile instrument is still uncommon in classical music.  Many years earlier, instruments like the trombone and piano were introduced and quickly identified as the breakthroughs they were, incorporated widely into compositions.  Unfortunately, the piano was very much still the rage when the codification took place, and has now supplanted every other keyboard instrument, including the once-mighty harpsichord.  Even worse, due to modern inflexibilities, pieces originally written for harpsichord are more often performed on pianos today.  Listening to pianos all the time and never harpsichords is like eating vanilla and never chocolate.

If classical music still sought out innovation like it once did, synthesizer keyboards would now be widespread.  Electric guitars would have been a fad and perhaps even faded away by now.  Ensembles might include trap kit drums, theremins, Chapman sticks, whatever.  The sky would be the limit, as it once was.  It’s really a shame that classical music decided to freeze itself in time but at least rock music and jazz have picked up the slack in some respects.

CONCLUSION

Unfortunately, public radio in America does a great deal to reinforce the lack of innovation, emphasis on orchestras, and obsession with the past.  Most classical music played on the radio comes from the ‘common era’, which includes Romantic, Classic, and late Baroque, but ignores anything earlier or later.  This means that most of the music on public radio is bloated, conducted by egomaniacs, and lacking the true sophistication and emotion of earlier eras.

4 responses to “Classical Music Rant: Renaissance/Baroque/Classical > Romantic/Modern -OR- “Why symphonic orchestras kind of suck”

  1. Lest ye forget, homogenization of ethnic variety and an overall anti-premium placed on personal instrumentalist virtuosity are both pathetic developments associated with the switch to “official orchestra” adaptation. And NUMBER of instruments isn’t the only swimming lil’ failure in the modern orchestral setup–CONFIGURATION is, too.

    Shit, man, you brought up Bach… He spent an entire period of his life devoted to guitar-ONLY suites as performed by quartets, sextets, and octets. Now, there are more violins ALONE in the average orchestra than he had in guitars in his largest ensemble.

    “Contemporary” or “underground” classical SEEMS to be where it’s at, nowadays. That’s the first thing I thought of when you mentioned today’s ideology of “exotic” instrumentation having nearly been banned from the orchestral framework. On the East Coast, they have entire “orchestras”–probably VERY few of them funded by stipends allotted them through annual public arts and education grants on nearly OBLIGATORY bases, mind you–that play nothing but found objects; trash cans, bicycle parts, glasses of water, etc. AND they seem to remember a little thing called “Eastern culture,” there, to boot.

    (Funny how, in the last 200 years or so, the very music that SPAWNED large-scale interest in mass compositional forays in the Western world has pretty much disappeared as a referential source. Now GYPSY music is FUN to listen to! Balkan music is FUN to listen to! Italian music…? Fuck off…)

    This reminds me: I need to send you some MIDI of my latest-arranged stuff. IF you’re interested, that is… Let me know, either/or, yeah?

  2. Yeah, I was thinking of writing a follow up post about some of the modern music that I like or am aware of that I feel is a truer successor to the classic era than today’s classical institution.

    Please send your MIDIs. If they’re small enough to be e-mailed send them to kicknz@gmail.com . Thanks!

  3. Do it TO it, Jessica Pruitt! I’d be interested to get an e-gander at your palate of late that ISN’T directly/indirectly associated with Brit-Pop or hip-hop.

    I think I PERSONALLY became (re-)fascinated with the aural arena you describe in this episode after having become a combinant fetishist of Gypsy jazz, Carpathian flamenco troupes, and, of course, Secret Chiefs 3. You can basically discern from those three sources the philosophical corner of the Eurasian landmass with which MY loyalties lie (answer: the one populated almost entirely with motor homes). But I AM curious as to YOURS…

    As per the MIDI: SENT!

  4. zeusiswatching

    I try to post something at my blog from the Baroque or earlier periods very frequently. There is so much out there to share.

    I agree with your basic ideas. I put it more bluntly: classical music went down a dead-end road in the Modern period. The lack of development in instruments that you cite is an obvious symptom of the problem.

    I think the rise in interest of earlier periods of classical music and of the rebirth of “period instruments” is actually a healthy reaction to this Modern Era cul-de-sac problem. There is the possibility that “ancient music” and it’s instruments will provide today’s composers with new possibilities. I hope it does.

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