Techniques | Orchestration | Turn of the Century | Opera
Developing instrumental technologies and increased expressive demands ensured that the orchestra grew in both size and variety during the nineteenth century. Italian opera, perhaps unexpectedly, given its devotion to the beauty of the voice, showed considerable imagination with composers such as Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791–1864) and Saverio Mercadante (1795–1870) making use of saxhorns, bass clarinets and the viola d’amore.
By Giacomo Puccini’s (1858–1924) time, the orchestra had become a vast force that could be used to achieve a huge variety of colouristic and dramatic effects. Puccini’s operas use striking orchestral colours to point up dramatic moments, such as the snow in Paris in the third act of La bohème (‘The Bohemian Life’, 1896). Strauss mastered the orchestra to a degree perhaps not matched by anyone. He was able to characterize anything through his inventive instrumentation. In Salome, for example, he uses the extremes of register to create viscerally terrifying sounds and in no time he softens the timbres to be gentle and caressing. No less impressive, but of an entirely different character, are the carefully crafted sonorities of Claude Debussy’s (1862–1918) Pelléas et Mélisande (1902). By considered blending of timbres he achieves gossamer textures that defy gravity.
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