The light orchestra has its roots in the bands of strolling
musicians that graced the streets of Vienna, Paris, and other musical cities of
Europe from the mid-eighteenth century. Made up of student, amateur,
semi-professional, and itinerant musicians, these small instrumental groups
entertained in squares and courtyards, visited wine and beer gardens, small
inns, coffee houses, and taverns, playing for tips or passing the plate, and
hired out for serenades and dances. Their music, intended for public enjoyment,
consisted of folk, popular, and operatic melodies mixed with charming dance
numbers and simple, short sonatas often composed by the musicians themselves. We
hear echoes, copies, elaborations, and expansions of their street style in the
works of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and other composers of this period.
The increasing success of the businessman, the independent mechanic, and the self-employed artisan in the early part of the next century led to the regular employment of these groups at cafes, restaurants, and dance halls that sought the patronage of the new economic classes. As these public entertainment venues grew in size, appointments, facilities, and splendor their orchestras were correspondingly enlarged from four, five, or six musicians to twenty and even thirty pieces.
The Viennese ensembles of Josef Lanner and Johann Strauss the elder began as dance orchestras in the climate of dance fever that gripped the city during the 1820s. Together and on their own these maestros achieved early popularity by investing the vigorous country dances of Austria with romanticism, elegance, and formal development, preserving the lightness, flexibility, and intimacy of a tavern quintet in a larger orchestra. Much in demand at prestigious dance palaces and court balls, they expanded their fame by touring and offering programs at parks, entertainment centers, spas, and concert halls, adding operatic selections, songs, and orchestral showpieces to their dance repertoire. The careers of other popular European leaders developed similarly, and soon the cities and resorts of the continent and England sparkled and glittered with the bright sounds of Phillipe Musard, Louis Jullien, Joseph and August Labitzky, Hans Christian Lumbye and sons Carl and Georg, Isaac Strauss, Josef Gungl, Philipp Fahrbach Sr. and Jr., Louis and Emile Waldteufel, Dan Godfrey, and Carl Michael Ziehrer. All fronted ensembles of thirty-five to fifty pieces. Many maintained agencies of up to two hundred musicians who could be assembled and dispatched to various engagements as needed, or massed into large orchestras for festivals and special concerts. All composed and built their programs around these compositions. Most aired each other’s latest successes as well, and many included works of a more serious nature – symphonic and concerto movements, concert overtures. Some had additional associations with other types of fashionable musical entertainment – the theatre, the ballet, and the military band. All possessed a personal magnetism that rendered their appearances especially attractive.
Johann Strauss Jr., the “waltz king” was perhaps the most celebrated of these popular conductors. Putting together his orchestra in 1844 and absorbing his late father’s in 1849 he proceeded from triumph to triumph in the cultural capitals of Europe, winning both popular and royal acclaim, and eventually conquered the theatre as well. His waltzes and polkas enlivened dance halls, concert saloons, stages, and family parlors alike for several generations in every corner of the world, and remain staples of the light repertoire. Pervasively influential too was the performance style of his orchestra. Victor Herbert and Arthur Fiedler, among other notables, pointed to experience with a Strauss unit as part of their musical pedigree.
Gungl, Jullien, Strauss (Johann Jr. and later his brother Eduard) and Ziehrer made appearances and toured in the United States. The former conducted a German ensemble at the inauguration of President Zachary Taylor. Their works and those of their above-mentioned colleagues were often played at American orchestral concerts through much of the nineteenth century. In America however it was the military concert bands that captured the public enthusiasm and adulation enjoyed earlier by the popular continental orchestras. Here the light repertoire, when not arranged for band or played for dancing, became the mainstay of Sunday programs at urban theatres and daily summer entertainments at resorts and concert centers. During the warm months of 1866 and 1867 conductor Theodore Thomas installed his New York concert orchestra at the Terrace Garden, then settled it at the Central Park Restaurant and Garden for eight years of seasonal programs. From 1878 to 1881 these months were spent at Gilmore’s Garden (later Madison Square Garden). Wagner associate Anton Seidl, coming to America to direct German productions at the Metropolitan Opera and later conductor of the New York Philharmonic, found several summers of work for his musicians offering the light repertoire at Brighton Beach Pavilion near Coney Island from the mid 1880s, while his countryman John Lund, director of the Buffalo Symphony, led similar entertainments at Saratoga. On the west coast, around the turn of the century, San Francisco programs by Paul Steindorff and his ensemble found a waiting audience.
Of the few regularly constituted American light orchestras Victor Herbert’s, from 1904 until his death twenty years later, found the most success, playing weekly engagements, touring, recording for Victor, and dividing summers between Willow Grove (near Philadelphia) and the Grand Union Hotel at Saratoga. By then the light classical repertoire, which now included formally simple romantic intermezzi, often of a descriptive or programmatic nature, and the tuneful concoctions, both effervescent and sentimental, of light opera, had become the province of symphonic orchestras for seasonal and special “pops” programs.
European wars of the twentieth century curtailed the genre’s native culture, although in England it flourished and developed, supported by the recording industry and the BBC, through the 1950s. The touring tradition, meanwhile, was maintained by a succession of occasional units under the direction of popular musicians such as Oscar Strauss, Rudolf Friml, Sigmund Romberg, Robert Stolz, and others. Mantovani’s forays from 1955, though often making use of local musicians, were in this lineage, as are the tours of the ensemble that now bears his name, the Japanese concerts by Paul Mauriat, Caravelli, the Percy Faith orchestra, and the current peppy Strauss revival troupe of Andre Rieu. We might also include the annual excursions of Arthur Fiedler’s sizable Boston Pops road orchestra from 1953 into the 1970s as well the symphony orchestra “composer nights” held in various cities under the batons Leroy Anderson, David Rose, Henry Mancini, and more recently John Williams.
To Part 9 to the Percy Faith Pages