Orchestral Sounds – Listening Research

This blog post concerns itself with the various pieces of music that I listened to in order gain a greater sense of the development of the orchestra throughout history and how such developments affected the sound produced. These notes are brief overviews from my listening. They are not designed to be in-depth analysis’s of these pieces.  I just wanted to capture my initial reactions, instincts if you will to hearing the music; describe what I heard, and in the process, try to sense the developmental journey as I went along.  I’ve even included a YouTube video for each piece. These notes have been included in my central ‘Listening Log’ post also:

Renaissance (1400-1600):
Giovanni Gabrieli’s ‘Sacrae Symphoniae’ (1597)
This surprised me just how many different instruments, including oboe, flutes, viols, bassoon, trombone, crumphorn (?), organ, were playing.  It had a wonderfully open quality to it’s texture and there was evidence of some interplay between the different instruments; the texture alternated between homophonic and polyphonic. But despite the homophonic sections, I still felt that the sound was thin. The woodwind alternates between the strings quite a lot before playing together. The basso continuo is evident and provides a strong basis for the other instrumentation:

Published on 22 Aug 2014
Giovanni Gabrieli – Sinfoniae Sacrae
selected and instrumented by Vassil Kazandjiev
Chamber ensemble Sofia Soloists

Monteverdi’s ‘L’Orfeo’ (1607)
This is the first known opera and it opens with a very heraldic trumpet fanfare, which leads into the strong basso continuo played by a harpsichord. I can hear a lute or other early guitar-type instrument, which adds a lovely light element to the texture when played at the same time as the harpsichord. Again, there are strings and some brass, but really, the texture and tonal quality lacks any richness; it sounds bare, thin. There are lots of alternations between the parts, and the texture, like Gabrieli, changes often between the homophonic unity and the separated out polyphonic styles.  Clearly at this point in musical history, there was some awareness of trying to create variety and contrast:

Published on 9 Aug 2013
“Fable in musique” (“favola in musica” “) in 1 prologue and 5 acts by Claudio Monteverdi, created on 24 February 1607 at the Theatre of the Court at Mantua libretto in Italian: Alessandro Striggio, according to Greek legend. Musical Direction: Nikolaus Harnoncourt Orchestra and backing vocals: Das Monteverdi-together des Opernhauses Zurich Ballet des Opernhauses Zurich Mise en scène et realization (1978)” : Jean-Pierre Ponnelle

Baroque (1600-1760):
Handel’s ‘Orchestral Works Part 1/3 – Suite 1: Water Music’ (1717)
Another very stately piece, the basso continuo is still very evident with the harpsichord.  The texture sounds clean; I’m not sure what drew me to this conclusion.  The woodwind are again more prominent throughout and either double the string part or alternate between them.  The texture overall switches between homophonic and polyphonic, and the strings once more sound richer. There is definitely a discernible difference between this piece and the Gabrieli piece above, and I think the changes in the strings section contribute significantly towards the textural richness; it feels warmer:

Published on 16 Feb 2013
Orchestral Works (2 LP Set – 1974)

J.S.Bach’s ‘Orchestral Suite No.3 in D Major’ (from 1730)
I felt that this piece had a greater, slightly denser texture. I could detect more instruments; strings which were divided into 4 distinct parts, harpsichord, trombones, oboes to name but a few.  The strings sounded richer, stronger, and it gave the piece a very stately, courtly feel. The melody was also assigned to the strings more, with the harpsichord and tombones adding the harmony.  The oboe doubled the melody at times, too, adding another dimension; it highlighted the melody somehow; brought it forward in the arrangement more.
The added woodwind and broader strings makes the difference here; the texture and sound generally sounds warmer:

Uploaded on 20 Oct 2011
J. S. Bach’s Orchestral Suite (Overture) No.3. in D Major (BWV 1068) performed by Reinhard Göbel (conductor) and the Budapest Festival Orchestra in October, 2011, in the Italian Cultural Institute, Budapest

Classical (1750-1820):
Mozart’s ‘Rondo alla Turca – Turkish March’ (1783)
This is the 3rd movement from Mozart’s Piano Sonata in A major. The strings are much fuller in this composition and lead for the majority of the melody line.  The woodwind support the harmony and also provide much of the rhythmic interest, too.
There is a lot of percussion; triangles, cymbals; this created so much more vibrancy than I expected and really brought the piece alive.  I could also hear clarinets for the first time! It also sounds like there are some very high flutes; piccolos perhaps? These create such a light delicate effect, which contrast to the rich, dense strings.  There is lots more independence to the lines for each section of instruments and the contrast in dynamics is apparent throughout.  Lots of light and shade.  Contrast is the key word now; everything is light and shade, loud and soft, rich and thin.  The scope for more effects and colour is evident. It’s dramatic and it’s powerful:

Uploaded on 1 May 2009
Website: http://www.60s70s80smusic.com
Mozart Rondo Alla Turca Orchestra, Turkish March, Classical Music
Fantastic symphony of Wolfang Amadeus Mozart

Mozart’s ‘Masonic Funeral Music in C Minor’ (1785)
Whilst there is no escaping the fact that this a sombre piece, it retains a stately feel and style that is very refined and elegant.
The woodwind open with homophonic chords and we hear bassoons in extremely low register, which I haven’t heard before during this research.  The tone of these low bassoons is quite unnerving and brings a completely different colour to the orchestration; it doesn’t spoil it, but it certainly stands out – a spikey, edgy sound that jars slightly.
Mozart writes a very homophonic texture in this piece, and once more we hear an incredibly rich string section contrast with the use of woodwind.  Reed instruments in particular stand out; oboes, cor anglais, their thin wiry sounds pierce through the thickness of the strings.
The church organ is used here, too, probably marking the occasion, and it is undoubtedly a sacred piece befitting the inclusion of an organ.  But this time, the organ is used to add weight, depth and richness to the overall texture, not simply to provide chords for a continuo part. It was nice to hear to being used in this way:

Uploaded on 11 Sep 2010
Masonic Funeral Music for Orchestra in C minor, K. 479a477.
“Maurerische Trauermusik in C minor, ‘Masonic Funeral Music’ K477/K479a” by Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields/Sir Neville Marriner

Romantic (1780-1910):
Haydn’s ‘Symphony No.92 in G Major ‘Oxford” (1789)
This is written for flute, oboe, bassoon, horn, trumpet, timpani and strings. The immediate thing one notices about this piece is how beautifully elegant and refined it is, especially in the strings.  This section is incredibly rich now, with many parts playing.  Haydn brings the woodwind in and these make a dramatic and effective addition to the strings.  When coupled with the strings, it seems woodwind really shine and enhance their colour.  They also help to make the strings sound more supported too.  They take the melody from them occasionally but also provide harmonic support, too.  When the horns come in they provide an additional tone that’s soft yet distinct; beautiful for suspensions and passing notes. This is the first piece that the horn plays and it makes such a difference to the overall colour.  It’s so warm and soft, yet at the same time distinct; you know it’s there.  I think I prefer it now to the oboe or the flute, which were amongst my favourite orchestral instruments.  Horns with strings – amazing! I will endeavour to write some horn sections into my composition:

Published on 7 June 2014
The symphony is set in 4 movements:
1. Adagio – Allegro spiritoso (0:00)
2. Adagio (7:27)
3. Menuetto: Allegretto (13:36)
4. Finale: Presto (18:44)
Performers: The Orchestra of the 18th Century, conducted by Frans Brüggen.

Beethoven’s ‘5th Symphony’ (1804)
Another symphony and another large group of instruments.  As such this is a larger sound.  There are much more strings and the sections sound bigger.  The brass and horns are extremely prominent, as are the timpani.  Woodwind echo the melody line of the strings.  The sectioning of instruments helps to make the texture richer.  The melody ripples across the instruments making the sound shimmer and the brass are extremely sonorous throughout. A very rich sound that is exciting and thrilling to listen to:

Published on 14 Apr 2012
To see the best of classical music visit
Music “Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67 – I. Allegro con brio” by Beethoven Orchestra London

Impressionist (1875-1925):
Debussy’s ‘Prelude de l’apres-midi d’un Faune’ (1894)
A well known and strikingly beautiful piece, Debussy’s work, inspired by the poem by Stephane Mallarme, really did prove that ‘less was more’.  The Impressionist movement set out to convey a mood, a feeling, rather than depict something literally, and it’s this vague suggestion that makes this piece so wonderful. When I listened to it having encountered all these other works before it, you can imagine what a difference it was. It was gentle. It was calm.  The texture shimmered. Effortless restraint sprang to mind as the piece continued past the opening flute solo, the tender strings.  Tender strings?! Pretty unheard of until now.
Everything sounds dreamy.  Instead of using instrumentation at its maximum capacity, ensuring that everything is playing at once, Debussy demonstrates that the skill sometimes lies in knowing what not to include:

Uploaded on 18 Nov 2011
Leonard Bernstein conducts Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun – extract from “The Unanswered Question”, Boston Symphony Orchestra

I will add to this post some more modern pieces.  I have listened to Strauss’s one-act opera ‘Elektra’ and I want to also add my thoughts on Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’, too.


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