A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.
– Gustav MahlerCHAPTER AIM: Introducing the four sections of the Symphony Orchestra
Welcome to 1788, welcome to Mozart, and welcome to the final movement of Mozart’s final symphony.
This was Mozart’s very last gift to the world in symphonic form, and wow what a gift! A work that Woody Allen said proved the existence of God.
A few years before composing this symphony, Mozart described his own music as:
We’re going to be both common listener and connoisseur. That means enjoying the natural simplicity of the music, whilst at the same time appreciating the art and craft with which Mozart creates this sound.
This chapter, we’re going to look at the sets of instruments that make up a symphony orchestra, and apply that knowledge to this movement. Mozart’s ear for the instruments he chooses, not just the instruments themselves, but also their blend, is always superb. It makes him an ideal guide for showing us the symphony orchestra in action.
It’s worth starting by asking what a symphony actually is?
The word itself comes from two ancient Greek words: ‘together’ and ‘sound’. In crude terms, a symphony is a piece of music where all the orchestra all plays together, as opposed to a ‘concerto’ which foregrounds an instrument or a group of instruments.
So the Symphony and the orchestra are bound closely together, as obvious from the description a “Symphony Orchestra” ie a band capable of playing a symphony.
We normally talk about four main sections of the symphony orchestra: Strings. Woodwind. Brass, and Percussion. These need to be taken a section at at time, beginning with the most important.
The largest grouping of instruments in an orchestra. The strings are divided into four sections, which each essentially represent different sizes of the same instrument:
- Violas (bigger than Violins, but like them played on shoulders)
- Cellos (bigger than Violas, played between knees)
- Double Basses (bigger than the player). Twirled in Rock ‘n Roll bands before the electric base appeared.
The violins are the first amongst equals, and that dominance is evidenced by the way they themselves are split into two separate sections. So we have the ‘first’ and ‘second’ violins.
Violas keep a lower profile. Although larger than violins, they are deeper in pitch (ie they play lower notes) and rather quieter. Relatively gentle creatures, they are usually rather hidden, wedged between the ‘lead-guitar’ exuberance of the Violins (think Nigel Kennedy) and the sensuality of the Cellos (think Jacqueline du Pre).
Hardly surprising they often go unnoticed.
Not by Mozart, who composed beautifully for the instrument. And that speaks volumes (quiet volumes) about the gentle nature of Mozart’s genius. If we want bangs and whistles, we have Beethoven. But for elegance and subtlety and verve, Mozart is always there.
Let’s hear those strings divided up by Mozart, from a section that comes right near the start of the piece (0.27 secs in).
- 0.00 Second violins
- 0.02 First violins
- 0.05 Violas
- 0.08 Cellos (hardest to hear)
- 0.11 Double basses
The section neatly introduces each of the strings with the same three note pattern. The two violin sections first, followed by violas, cellos, and double basses. In other words the melody sings down, deep, into the strings.
The strings are vital to the overall character of the orchestra. You might say they act as the engine room of the orchestra, its driving force, the brains of the outfit. A Symphony without Strings is like Rock without guitars. You can do it, but why would you??
They are the emotional heart of the orchestra. If you want to hear the lamenting heart, sweeping strings. Happiness: leaping strings. Tension: quivering strings. Basically if you want an emotional effect, the string section is the place to achieve it.
It’s hard to conceive of orchestral music without the strings so well does their unified sound articulates the voice of an orchestra. And there’s so many of them! The majority of the orchestra are strings, numerically.
You could play entire symphonic movements with just the strings, and the music would remain recognizably itself. Try doing that with any other section of the orchestra.
Mozart begins this movement with strings alone, and then uses them as the main impetus for the rest of the piece. Pick any point at random in the track and I’ll guarantee they’ll be at least one section of strings playing.
A more difficult one this: what is the longest section of music without any strings?
Ok, maybe all 11 minutes is too long to wade through this early, so here’s a clue: it lies in this minute of the music…
The next most commonly used section, certainly in Mozart’s time. In technical terms, these are bits of wood you blow into. In actuality, woodwind instruments are made of a variety of materials, including metal, bone and ivory.
The woodwind are subdivided into four sections: Flutes, Oboes, Clarinets, and Bassoons. Again that’s an order that takes you downwards in pitch, with the flutes on high and the bassoons down below.
Wind instruments provide texture and colour as well as elegance and beauty. They decorate rather than dictate.
Just as the strings often serve as leaders, the woodwind commonly provides a contrast or foil.
Our piece contains a fair number of examples. Listen the first part of the clip we used in the puzzle earlier:
In this section, you can hear strings and woodwind clearly taking distinct and separate turns in the limelight.
Contrasting woodwind with strings is a common technique for a composer. The two different sets of aural textures compliment each other perfectly. Strings wiry and thin sounding, woodwind airy and wide.
Check this section from earlier in the movement, which shows us a less crude and more harmonious interlacing of these two separate sections of the orchestra:
The principal thing we hear are violins alternating with flutes.
But do you notice, around this main action, the other woodwind are decorating the melodic space? The oboes flutter in the background, and the bassoons down below.
As the section proceeds (0.10), the bassoons now also interlace in scales up and down with the violins and flutes.
This is music that sounds simple at a distance, but when you listen closer, the detail is fine. Like beautifully embroidered lace, with intricate patterns circling the main melody.
The brass section of the orchestra is usually also divided into four parts: Trumpets, Horns, Trombones, and Tubas. Once again that follows a shift down in pitch with each instrument. This common division is reflected in the way the voice is likewise divided, from Sopranos on high, through Altos, then the male tenors and finally deep down the basses (as discussed in detail in
The Brass are loud. fffing loud, as you might say in musical notation. That’s why you stick them at the back of the orchestra, as far away from the audience as possible. If the orchestra is an army, the brass are the artillery pounding away from the rear…as far back as the rear can go.
Military analogies are on easy hand with brass instruments. Instruments like bugles are army instruments, and military bands tend to be brass. After all, if you had to batter someone with an instrument, you’d pick a trombone above a violin.
Mozart was not big on brass: they must have been a rather loud presence for his innate sense of balance and proportion. But it may have been more.
When Mozart was a little child, the sound of a trumpet apparently filled him with a raw terror. Much to the annoyance of his father (himself a musician and composer), who invited the court trumpeter round to his house in order to rid his young son of this childish fear.
The trumpeter had barely played a note before the six-year old Mozart went white as a sheet and began to collapse.
The trumpeter didn’t have the heart to continue. Suffice it to say, Mozart is not big on using brass instruments generally.
Mozart employs the brass section sparingly this piece, only using horns and trumpets. And generally when the rest of the orchestra is playing loudly. The musical public would have to wait to hear Beethoven driving his tanks onto that particular lawn.
If you want to hear trumpets horns and trombones used in this piece in a less restrained yell, listen to this section at the very end:
The trumpets come in, like a military barrage, at 0.03 above.
Instruments you generally hit, scrape, rub or shake. Hence not one of music’s most glamorous jobs (Q: What do you call somebody that hangs around with musicians? A: a drummer).
The percussion section tends to be the smallest in any orchestra, as classical music doesn’t hugely promote purely percussive instruments. That doesn’t mean classical music isn’t full of rhythmic thrust and action. But all the instruments of the orchestra are expected to keep time together without needing a centralised beat the way a rock band would.
The percussion section can include many other instruments like triangles or snare drums, but the most common member of this section are the huge drums known as the timpani.
These are big round drums that can actually be tuned. That means they are actually playing notes, not just blank thumps.
For this movement, Mozart uses the timpani in the first few seconds of the piece, but they’re not obvious to the ear. There are two drums, one tuned to C and one to G (the movement is in C major).
- 0.00 The C drum – the G drum
- 0.01 G drum again
- 0.02 C drum
- 0.03 Four quick bangs on C drum
- 0.05 Two bangs on G
- 0.06 Four bangs again on C…
So obviously, with two big drums making just two note, your room for creating melody is a little limited with the timpani. But they’re useful in bringing a deep presence and emphasis to the music. And of course these notes occur most easily at moments in our home key or tonic (in this case, C major).
Any musical instrument can make a nice sound, but the beauty of the symphony orchestra lies in its shared ability to make a nice sound together. And this is an skill with which Mozart is acutely tuned.
His use of instruments, the blend of their textures and tones, is perfect. It produces a sound that is so well balanced that it’s easy to forget the artifice. These tones are often blended so subtly, you hardly notice when one instrument ends and another begins. That gives a fluidity and movement to his writing that makes it all appear effortless.
If you’ve ever wandered what a symphony means aurally, what ‘together’ sounds like musically, well this is it.
Next chapter, we’ll get deep into some of the rhythmic aspects of this music.