Popular Music for Orchestra - A Brief History Part 1
Dick O'Connor
     The modern orchestra began to take shape in the courts, churches, court-sponsored theatres, and homes of the wealthy nobility of Europe, where greater instrumental forces were employed to indicate and display grandeur, splendor, pomp, and gravity. In imitation aspiring lesser nobles often organized to underwrite commercial opera companies in urban centers while free mercantile cities hired musicians for religious services and civic ceremonies. In many locales music clubs gathered amateur and professional players for fellowship, convivial music making, and the organization of concerts by members and traveling virtuosi. During the 18th century these concerts became increasingly commercial and were eventually undertaken by promoters as business ventures.
     Meanwhile open air concerts offered by certain parks and gardens of London and nearby rural health spas to ladies and gentlemen of English society for a small entrance fee provided efficient venues for introducing and popularizing songs and instrumental pieces. Similar summer garden soirees on this model were available to the inhabitants of New York and fashionable centers of the American south by the mid 1760s.The success of these entertainments presaged the establishment of the great 19th century musical pleasure gardens of Paris, Copenhagen, Vienna, Russia, and elsewhere as well as the later symphonic orchestra seasonal "pops" programs.
     In the 1830s Parisian conductors Philippe Musard and Louis Jullien brought together the music of the theatre, the subscription concert, the cafes and gardens, the restaurants, taverns, dance halls, court balls, and the drawing room in a series of grand and exciting performances that appealed greatly to the now significant French bourgeoisie and codified the popular orchestral concert. Overtures, marches, operatic excerpts and potpourris, songs, dance pieces, movements from symphonic works by the great masters, instrumental solos and tuneful descriptive intermezzi - served up with a modicum and mystique of showmanship, luxury, novelty, and extra-musical effects - remain the standard fare of promenade or pops concerts to this day. Both Musard and Jullien found the more politically stable England fertile ground for the cultivation and development of these programs, and there the latter spent most of the final twenty years of his life, bringing his musicians to the United States for a notable 1854 tour. Nevertheless it is to the theatre that we must look first and foremost for the origin and development of the popular orchestra.
     The stage is the most significant vehicle and purveyor of popular culture. Here is displayed the human character at its best and worst driven by human aspirations both high and low. Here stand revealed the full range of human strengths, limitations, quirks, and foibles. Here human prejudices of class, race, nationality, culture, and profession play themselves out in the affecting drama and humor of human relationships. Indeed, popular music has always been closely associated with the theatre in its various forms, be it opera, comic opera, ballad opera, operetta, musical comedy, music hall, vaudeville, or simple plays with music, its forerunners the Greek drama, the medieval liturgical and miracle plays, the renaissance intermedia or pastoral on allegorical or mythological subjects, and its modern extensions the motion picture, the rock concert, and the television music video.
     Significantly the very word 'orchestra' is a theatrical term. It was given to that part of the ancient Greek theatre between the auditorium and the stage reserved for the dancing of the chorus and for the accompanying instrumentalists, literally the "dancing place". The combination of drama, song, dance, and instrumental music here suggested is unique to the theatre as the primary elements of human expression are mirrored, illustrated, and heightened through music. Thus human speech results in song, human movement becomes dance and processional, and human emotion is reflected in mood or incidental music. Many specifically orchestral forms originated in, grew out of, or were inspired by the theatre. The overture, the symphony, the character intermezzo, the dramatic or narrative tone poem, the instrumental obbligato, derive directly or indirectly from opera. Others, the air with variations, the formal dance suite, the 'selections' medley, the operatic fantasy and paraphrase, were based upon or utilized popular arias. Still others whose origin lies elsewhere - the march, the the processional, actual dance music - often incorporated its tunes and were themselves incorporated and developed in countless stage works. Technical improvements in the construction of stringed instruments led to the streamlined violin-based Italian opera orchestra of the 17th century. Though small (Ten to twelve players which wealthy princes or court-sponsored companies might sometimes increase to thirty, forty, or even more by doubling, tripling, or quadrupling parts) the influence of these ensembles , with Italian musical culture in general, was soon felt in France and later in the Teutonic countries, including England. During the following century the size of the major theatre orchestras would increase to sixty or seventy pieces, but financial, space, taste, and use constraints would combine to limit such growth in smaller houses and those not inclined to continental opera.
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