Loud, Louder, Loudest: How Classical Music Started to Roar
In 1813, Beethoven wrote a symphonic work so noisy and trite that most scholars consider it an embarrassment. “Wellington’s Victory, or the Battle of Vitoria” depicts, with the help of spatially separated brass and percussion effects, a rout of French forces at the hands of the British.
A hundred musicians played at the premiere — twice as many as at the first performance of the “Eroica” Symphony, in 1805 — with the audience seated at the center. Afterward, someone remarked that Beethoven had written a piece seemingly designed to make the listener as deaf as its composer.
By all common measures of musical value, “Wellington’s Victory” is schlock. But in his detailed instructions on the number and positioning of instrumentalists, Beethoven reveals how carefully he crafted this sonic assault on listener. “One has to imagine these performances not like an evening at the Berlin Philharmonie, but rather like a modern-day rock concert,” musicologist Frédéric Döhl has argued.
Beethoven’s preoccupation with making the concert experience really, really loud may mark the beginning of a musical arms race for ever louder and ever more stimulating symphonic performance.
After Beethoven, fortissimos grew only louder. One reason was the development of instruments, which added decibels across the board. Steel replaced gut for strings; metallic flutes replaced those made of wood. The biggest changes occurred in the brass section, where changes in design increased not only the power of sound, but also range. The introduction of valves in horns and trumpets meant that instruments that had previously been limited to notes of the overtone series could now roam across the whole chromatic spectrum, adding oomph wherever a composer desired it.
And composers sought out new highs. In a treatise on orchestration, Berlioz fantasized about an orchestra numbering more than 400 players that would be capable of evoking not just weather phenomena but different climatic zones, transporting the listener into new worlds: “When at rest, it would be majestic, like a slumbering ocean. When in a state of agitation, it would recall tropical storms. It would erupt like a volcano. It would convey the laments, whispers and mysterious sounds of virgin forests.”
In his own “Symphonie Fantastique,” Berlioz orchestrated a form of sonic invasion. In the fifth movement, which culminates in an orgy of formidable loudness, he employs a pair of massive church bells. If Beethoven’s experiments in surround-sound broke down the fourth wall dividing musicians and audience, Berlioz tore down the separation between the concert hall and the city.
文／Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim 譯／李京倫、核稿／樂慧生