Westminster Abbey performance

Balancing Choir and Orchestra

The following is excerpted and distilled from my D.M.A. dissertation (2009). I thought it appropriate to include it here since it addresses a topic closely tied with diction for singers. Here's a link to the full dissertation for anyone who happens to be interested in further reading (and has a lot of time to kill).

An understanding of choral music between 1800 and 1900 offers insight into the causes of contemporary problems with choral/orchestral balance because many of these problems stem from nineteenth-century phenomena. This article offers explanations for the origins of these balance problems in the specific musical institutions, instrumental technologies, music ideologies, and concert practices of the nineteenth century. Further, this article describes some of the ingenious solutions nineteenth-century conductors employed to address these problems. To the extent that twenty-first century choral conductors continue to face some of the causal factors inherited from the nineteenth century, a revival of the solutions from this time period is worth considering.

Understanding the Origins of Balance Problems

A number of significant changes during the nineteenth century had a profound impact on choral/orchestral balance, including changes in ideology, changes to musical institutions and practices, developments in instrument construction, and the growth of professionalism in the field of music performance.

Changes in Ideology
The first and most significant change during the nineteenth century was one of ideology. For many centuries, vocal music held a position superior to that of instrumental music because people perceived the human voice to be a natural or divine creation, not conceived or constructed by mortals the way instruments were. More importantly, though, the voice reigned supreme because, unlike any man-made instrument, it had the responsibility for carrying the text. Seventeenth and eighteenth-century thought dictated that music’s sole purpose was to provide an alternative vehicle for communicating some form of poetry or prose. Purely instrumental music was thought to be incapable of delivering any profound message in and of itself, and thus, was viewed as being subordinate to music that utilized voices to transmit textual meaning.

Another reason that vocal music was deemed superior is that the singing voice had long since been the ultimate benchmark by which any melodic instrument was measured. Authors of treatises on instrumental playing techniques from the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries frequently argued that an instrument was being played correctly when its sound approximated the beauty and fluidity of the human singing voice.

The relative valuation of voices and instruments entered a state of flux at the turn of the nineteenth century, and the momentum began to shift in favor of instrumental music as an equal art form to its vocal counterpart. Pioneering Romantics like J.P.F. Richter (1763-1825) and E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822) promoted a notion of spiritual absolutism, in which the music itself—apart from any text it carried—transcended other forms of communication. These early Romantics snubbed genres such as opera, song, and programmatic pieces, since these musical forms implied that the music was incapable of carrying a message of its own; that it was, by itself, anything less than sublime. Instead, Richter and Hoffmann stressed the greater importance of symphonic forms since they allowed the music to communicate to the audience independently of anything extra-musical.

A certain trend in church music provides further evidence of shifting appraisals of the value of vocal and instrumental music by the mid-nineteenth century. Initiated by German church musician and composer Franz Xaver Witt (1834-1888) the Cecilian Movement sought to eradicate from church music the excesses found in nineteenth-century operatic and instrumental music and return to a compositional style that emphasized simpler harmonies, unaccompanied polyphony, and clarity of text. The fact that the Cecilian Movement rose to prominence during the nineteenth century is evidence that instrumental music had grown in stature and that there were musicians of the time who had grown dissatisfied with the diminishing emphasis on textual clarity during performances of vocal music.

The intention here is not to argue that the communication of text through music became obsolete during the nineteenth century. Were that the case, then nineteenth-century audiences would seemingly not care to hear the text at all during choral-orchestral performances, and thus, choral/orchestral balance would not be a problem. The purpose for discussing this change of thought is simply to show that instrumental music, long subordinate to the vocal, rose in importance during the nineteenth century and in some cases outgrew its role as an accompaniment.

Nineteenth-Century Musical Institutions and Practices
Along with, and to some extent, because of, this ideological change, several other developments during the 1800s tipped the equilibrium between voices and instruments heavily towards the latter, resulting in greater challenges of acoustic balance. The first of these developments was that the average size of orchestras expanded greatly during the nineteenth century through the enlargement of existing instrument sections. The largest orchestras of the eighteenth century had been utilized, on the whole, in opera houses rather than for instrumental concerts. Orchestras that had been assembled to perform symphonies and concertos were generally much smaller, primarily because the venues in which these genres were typically performed were smaller rooms. Large concert halls designed for public orchestral performances are a familiar sight today, but were few at the turn of the nineteenth century as the public demand for such performances was in its early stages. To meet the demands of an ever-expanding public audience and increasing size of performance venues, however, nineteenth-century orchestra leaders began enlarging string sections and doubling wind instruments more frequently.

In addition to expansion through the enlargement of existing sections, the orchestra also saw several new instruments added to its ranks during the 1800s. One example of this trend toward expansion is the integration of the trombone and tuba into the concert orchestra, which significantly fortified the lower brass section. The addition of these two instruments—capable of substantial sound intensity—greatly increased the potential volume of the orchestra during the nineteenth century.

Several new woodwind instruments also became part of the orchestra during the nineteenth century. The so-called “secondary woodwinds”—piccolo, English horn, bass clarinet, and double bassoon—were integrated into the concert orchestra during this period. The fact that some of these instruments utilize extreme frequency ranges is of great importance. The high frequency range of the piccolo, in particular, approaches that of the singer’s formant. As a result, a greater likelihood existed that the voice would lose some of its acoustic advantage and, consequently, its ability to project over the instrumental timbres that surrounded it.

Although the timpani had been the predominant percussion instrument employed in the orchestral context since the late-seventeenth century, the nineteenth century saw the gradual addition and standardization of an array of new percussion instruments like cymbals, gongs, and later wood blocks, castanets, tubular bells, and xylophones. The addition of these percussive timbres further increased the volume potential of the orchestra, making it even more difficult for sung texts to be heard by audiences during combined performances.

Developments in Orchestral Instruments
Along with the addition of new instruments to the orchestra, the nineteenth century also saw much advancement in the field of instrument building, which escalated the volume potential and brilliance of some instruments already part of the orchestra. The rise in bourgeois demand for music in the early nineteenth century resulted in the construction of large performance spaces designed specifically for musical performance in many urban centers. Instrument makers experienced increasing pressure to build instruments that had greater volume potential and carrying power that would be capable of filling with sound the new, large concert halls that were being constructed.

Development of the Professional Musician
During the nineteenth century, the notion of making a living as a professional orchestral player was first seen as viable. Music as a profession saw a change from an era of generalization to one of specialization, in which musicians focused more of their study on the techniques for playing a particular instrument rather than learning to play a number of instruments at a mediocre level. Thus, orchestras were not only growing larger in the nineteenth century, but also increasingly included players who had devoted years to the study of one instrument, resulting in a potentially more refined, focused timbre with greater projection.

One might argue that following the massed choral festival tradition, choruses were growing proportionally alongside orchestras during the nineteenth century, and that growth in the size of choral ensembles would negate any balance problems caused by growth in the orchestra discussed earlier. Consider, however, that while the rosters of both orchestras and choruses were on the rise, the former grew with more professional musicians (as stated earlier) while the latter grew primarily through the addition of amateur voices; a trend of quantity over quality that is still evident in many choruses today. Generally speaking, amateur voices are incapable of the same level of acoustic projection. Thus, the increase in potential volume experienced by the chorus did not equal that of the orchestra.

Nineteenth-Century Strategies for Solving Balance Problems

Although little concrete evidence exists to suggest how conductors of the nineteenth century dealt with choral/orchestral balance problems during rehearsal, there are indications of a few solutions conductors employed in performance. The first solution, which may seem overly simple, was to increase the size of the chorus. Certainly, a number of factors affecting the ratio changes of choral and orchestral performers from the mid-eighteenth century to the nineteenth century exist. Based on the evidence presented herein concerning the burgeoning volume potential of the orchestra during the nineteenth century, however, these changes were, at least in part, a reaction to perceived acoustic balance problems in combined choral/orchestral performances.

Seating Chart

Increasing the singers’ numbers was not the only response to the growing orchestra. The discipline of vocal pedagogy took a new turn during the nineteenth century as scientists began to examine the phenomenon of the human singing voice from an anatomic and acoustic perspective. These scientific approaches were cultivated, at least in part, because of a need to develop a vocal timbre that would project over an orchestral accompaniment that was experiencing significant expansion in size and volume potential.

Perhaps the nineteenth-century balancing technique that is least familiar to modern audiences is one of physical stage arrangement. By examining several extant seating plans from late eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century performances, one can see that conductors of this era often positioned the chorus at the front of the stage, closest to the audience. Consider, again, the 1784 Handel commemoration in London. Charles Burney’s account of the occasion provides two iconographic examples that are valuable both for depicting what these performances looked like and in demonstrating a late eighteenth-century approach to choral/orchestral balance problems. The first example is a seating plan for the performance of Handel’s Messiah in Westminster Abbey (left).

One can make a number of striking observations from these two examples that are pertinent to this study of acoustic balance. The choral singers as well as the vocal soloists are positioned in front and to the sides of the orchestra. What is even more remarkable is that the voices are positioned in front of the conductor in such a way that many of them—particularly the sopranos and altos—would not be able to see the conductor at all. Finally, one can see that the brass and percussion are placed as far back as possible, perhaps in an effort to subdue the acoustic presence of these particularly powerful instruments.

Westminster Abbey

The second example (right) is an artist’s rendition of the same performance, yielding another perspective of the performance and providing information missing from the first example. First, one can see the steep gradation of the tiers depicted above, revealing that the instrumentalists were not hidden behind the vocalists as the first example alone might suggest, but were significantly elevated in successive rows above them. Second, this example reveals that the conductor guided the performance from the organ console, which was the eighteenth-century protocol. Assuming that the organ console was in a fixed position in the Abbey, the conductor was obligated to lead the performance from that location and conceivably had to choose whether the voices would be closer to the audience but unable to see him clearly, or further from the audience with a better view of the conductor. The fact that the conductor chose the former option is integral to this study. In this instance, projection of the text to the audience was clearly more important than a clear sightline to the conductor for the choristers.

Nineteenth-century performances in which the chorus was positioned in front of the instruments were not unique to Westminster Abbey. Daniel Koury logged a number of other festival performances during the nineteenth century in which the chorus was placed either in front or to the sides of the orchestra. These include an 1812 performance of Handel’s Timotheus in Vienna, an 1843 performance of Haydn’s Creation in Vienna, an 1844 festival at Darmstadt, an 1852 performance of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasia, and an 1882 performance of Gounod’s Rédemption at the Birmingham Festival.

The fact that this practice of placing the chorus in front was so prevalent in the nineteenth century is remarkable, considering that it has essentially vanished from modern performances. Donna M. Di Grazia provided a thought-provoking exploration of this “rejected tradition” of stage arrangement. She offered several pieces of evidence to show that conductors in many early nineteenth-century Parisian performances—particularly Berlioz—seemed strongly to prefer positioning the chorus not just in front of the orchestra, but in front of the conductor. In other words, the chorus stood downstage of the conductor and directly in front of the audience, such that the conductor had his back to the chorus. As one might expect, the singers’ inability to see the conductor introduced its own set of logistical problems, not the least of which was keeping the performance together. Berlioz’s solution was to utilize auxiliary conductors, located at the front of the chorus, who would mirror the principal conductor and provide cues to the chorus. The main point Di Grazia made was that since significant nineteenth-century evidence exists supporting this stage arrangement, the fact that this tradition would be abandoned almost entirely in modern performances is relevant considering the recent emphasis on historically-informed performance practice.

In addition to placing the chorus in front, Berlioz offered one further recommendation for aiding in projection of the choral sound. Since choruses typically stand in rows facing the audience, Berlioz understood that the singers in the back rows would face more difficulty in projecting their voices since they were, in effect, singing into the backs of the heads and bodies of the singers in front of them. In his preface to the score of Roméo et Juliette (1839), Berlioz provided specific instructions for how the stage should be arranged. Referring to the positioning of the chorus, he writes that “the sopranos, being placed in front, will sing seated; the tenors and basses, contrarily, will sing standing, their voices, in that manner, will not be muffled by the women who occupy the first ranks.” Although these are Berlioz’s instructions for only one of his works, the fact that he was so specific in this regard demonstrates that helping the chorus project despite an abundance of orchestral sound was a concern for him.

Finally, one would be remiss not to consider the rise of the baton-conductor during the nineteenth century as a “solution” to choral/orchestral balance problems. The modern perception of the conductor—a person who leads the performing forces without playing an instrument himself—is one that did not become common until the nineteenth century. Although audiences initially viewed these baton-conductors as simple time-keepers who provided cues to the performers, by the late nineteenth century the conductor’s role became that of an interpreter of the music, with the entire performing force as his “instrument.” Hammar stated, “As orchestral size grew, it was apparent that a more satisfactory and definitive means of coordinating the efforts of the players (and singers in large choral works) was needed.” Certainly, a number of reasons exist why baton-conducting became standardized during the nineteenth century, but one must consider that the immense growth of choral and orchestral performing sizes necessitated a single, dedicated leader who could listen for and manually respond to balance problems in the performance.

in Diction