Instruments | The Early Romantic Orchestra | Early Romantic | Classical

Berlioz’s characteristic ‘instrument’ was the orchestra. While makers had sought to improve different woodwind instruments, Berlioz set himself the task of advancing the orchestra as his favourite instrument.

He was always keen to know about the latest developments in instrument-making and performance technique, and made last-minute changes to his Traite général d’instrumentation (‘General Treatise on Instrumentation’) in response to the latest news.

He adopted modern developments such as valved brass, pedal harps and Adolphe Sax’s inventions. He also brought into the symphony orchestra instruments previously considered as belonging to the military band or the opera house: English horn or cor anglais, E flat clarinet, bells and novel percussion. In addition, he was given to providing very specific technical instructions in his scores, detailing how he wanted the instruments played; he also experimented with methods of playing: clarinets appeared in silk sacks in La mort d’Orphée.

Shifting Emphasis

The early Romantic period was a time in which the number and variety of instruments had only partly settled down. The flute, oboe, trumpet and French horn had all found their places in the ensemble; trombones gained a position in the orchestra at last. The coming of the bass tuba in the 1830s eased out the serpents, which had been introduced to provide some bass reinforcements for the trombonists. Meanwhile, the English horn made a comeback, and the E flat clarinet, which had been leading a military life as a band instrument, came into the orchestra in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, where its shriek forms part of the witches’ sabbath rites in the final movement. The Symphonie fantastique also contains the first appearance in a symphony of a harp: its role in orchestral music had previously been minor.

Sound World of the Future

In his search for the sound world of the future, Berlioz experimented with beaters with sponge heads for the timpani, to create a menacing sound. In his Grande messe des morts (‘High Mass for the Dead’, 1837) he wrote for two tenor drums, while his Te Deum (1849) requires six of them. He needed 16 drums in his Requiem (1837). His Symphonie funèbre et triomphale (‘Funereal and Triumphal Symphony’) requires four Turkish crescents, a jingling instrument consisting of bells arranged on a stick which is held upright and pounded on the floor. There are castanets in Zaïde and a distant bass drum in the ‘Rákóczy March’. In Les Troyens, he scored for a drum called a ‘tarbuka’, a sistrum (a kind of ancient hand-held jingle) and a set of tuned bars, together with strokes of the tam tam.

In the 1840s and 50s he began to use the bass tuba, sometimes to replace the ophicleide, sometimes as an alternative. The Te Deum is notable for being the first time an organ is given a prominent rather than a continuo or obbligato role in the orchestra. Its interventions in the piece,...

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