The Precise Magic of the Symphony

The modern orchestra produces order out of chaos, and something beautiful for the heart. /

An usher scans your ticket. You pass concessions, check your coat, and head up a grand staircase. Through the center doors you enter an orchestra hall, wander down a dimly-lit aisle, and find your seat. Settling into K34, you notice the rustling of sheet music. You tune in to the sounds of a black-tie army of sorts—artists, in uniform—moving about the stage with the ease of pre-performance preparation, arranging their various accessories, greeting one another. Sundry strings are plucked and rosin lovingly applied to bows. Some squeeze in a little last-minute practice, repeating a challenging phrase with precision. It’s a full, disorganized noise.

As you peruse your bulletin, the program begins. From quiet chaos to order. Lights and curtains lower. Out comes the symphony director with a warm greeting to his benefactors—and, of course, a stern warning about cell phones. The curtain lifts and the esteemed concertmaster enters, pulling a long A across her violin. Suddenly, a cloud of noise explodes as all the instruments tune. Within a few seconds, the orchestra is calibrated and falls silent. From stage right, the conductor appears, all tails and smiles. With a deep, proud bow, he accepts your applause and shakes the hand of the first violinist. With that introductory ritual complete, it’s time for the music.

It would be easy for a passive observer to dismiss what’s about to begin as pedantic or dusty. Background music. The stuff of movie soundtracks and holiday rituals. The modern symphony, however, is a marvel. The coordination required to pull it off can blow an observant mind away. The invisible and perfectly-controlled collaboration of a score. Dozens of human minds with their individual parts, following thousands of notes across a page, to the beat given by the tip of one tiny stick. Ninety instruments emitting separate sounds that join together to create harmonies, movements, and moods; emotions, eras, and cultures.

What happens on this stage the result of centuries of artistic evolution. The instruments can be credited to global creativity through the ages, to village carpenters and famed craftsmen alike. The customs of the orchestra concert—the tuxedos, the clapping (and between movements, the not clapping), the entrances and handshakes—are the product of many cultures and centuries. This performance—the music and its interpretation—is the handiwork of modern artists as well as ancient composers. This evening is at once an exhibition of artistic innovation and historical inheritance.

Consider the tools these musicians employ. How about that most ethereal of instruments, the harp? Older even than the piano, it lulled King Saul from his madness. It was simpler then: a lyre of a few strings, a toy for shepherds. This U-shaped instrument became the beloved handmaiden of folk musicians of the British Isles. In Europe, it developed over time into a chamber instrument and became a staple in the orchestra. In its modern form, the concert grand harp has over 3,000 moving parts. Its 47 strings are modified by 7 pedals—one for each note in the musical scale—which make them flat, natural, or sharp. The harpist gracefully plays the melody with her right hand and the accompaniment with her left, while secretly moving her feet to accommodate accidentals and key changes.

Think of the mind of the composer. The master of music theory, the keeper of staves. He knows his medium, and is intimate with each instrument—well enough to write its separate part, to feature its strength, to challenge each musician. He turns form into feeling by imitating his mentors and adding his own unique touch. Tonight the orchestra might play Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Russian Easter Festival Overture.” In the glockenspiel, you’ll hear Korsakov hearkening to the church bells. The playful energy he’ll create with rhythm will reveal his satirical take on Russian piety—or, in his view, paganism.

Musicians at this level never watch their hands as they perform. Though they are individual artists, whose talents and agendas shine in their occasional solos and concertos, today they are members of a body. They think not of themselves in this hour. They know that the crux of their performance is the conductor, and so their attention toward him is total. They position their music stands so as to gaze at once at the notes and at the maestro beyond them.

Consider the skill of this conductor. Juggling tempo and harmony and score. Summoning crescendo one moment and suppressing it the next. He simultaneously follows each orchestra part, often from memory. With a knowing look toward the strings, he refines their pizzicato. When the coronet section hits their triumphant swell, he falls into a dancing flap of arms that propels the orchestra’s tempo forward. He knows the exact measure when the flute solo begins. His well-timed nod and locked, gentle gaze give the flautist confidence to shine. Shaping the obedience of his members into phrase and feeling, he honors the composer’s intentions while forming his own legacy through interpretation.

Who could be bored when such precise magic is happening on stage? As Joseph Wechsberg wrote in a 1970 issue of The New Yorker, “The symphony orchestra is the most complex musical instrument in existence. A perfectly coordinated orchestra is the supreme achievement of teamwork; it is an integrated organism that breathes, feels, acts, and reacts like one human being. . . . When they sit down to play music together, they become a single heart, a single soul, a triumph of civilization—an orchestra.”

This evening is indeed a picture of the human calling to imago-Dei creativity: from chaos, order. From wood, instruments. From individuals, ensemble. From silence, music.

Andie Roeder Moody is assistant editor of The Behemoth. Follow her on Twitter @andiemoody.

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