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Orchestras

( Originally Published 1916 )



A FEW years ago American theater managers had so much trouble with musicians' unions that some abolished their orchestras altogether, and reverted to a form of the old three knocks made by the prompter on his desk to demand attention for the rise of the curtain. David Belasco introduced it at his present Belasco Theater, then called the Stuyvesant. He used a set of chimes; and the favorable reception accorded it induced other managers to bring it into their houses.

In other places, notably at the Harris Theater, New York, a mechanical orchestra was imported from abroad, recalling—but not by way of invidious comparison—the barrel-organs used years ago in some of the smaller play-houses of England. No less than nine of these mechanical orchestras were almost simultaneously placed in leading New York theaters when their use was new.

Notable among them all was the Robert Hope-Jones "unit " orchestra, which was installed for the opening of the old New Theater under title of the Century—a compact, electrically operated instrument that seemed to compass all others, and that retained the human touch in a single player seated at the elaborate keyboard.

But it was not long before the instrumentalists came into their own again, even though their body was no more pretentious than piano, violin, cymbals, and drum.

Regularly concealed musicians were known to New York theatergoers with the opening of the old Madison Square Theater. Here they were placed, in accordance with the old Elizabethan idea, in a loft above the proscenium. This arrangement was soon abandoned, however, because most of the music was lost. But now musicians are usually to be found in a well between the stage front and a closely balustraded rail.

An arrangement at the New York Hippodrome once placed its musicians in boxes high in the wings on the stage side of the proscenium arch; but the sound did not carry satisfactorily, and the scheme was discarded. When instrumentalists are needed for special purposes, they are frequently brought on the stage with the players, just as in the time of Shakespeare; or one may be placed in the flies above to supply the deficiency of a mock musician on the stage below. Madison Corey, long general manager for Henry W. Savage, and now a producer on his own account, had, as one of his earliest engagements, to play a piano supposedly played by Caroline Miskel Hoyt in a piece by the comic dramatist, Charles Hoyt.

ORCHESTRAS AND BANDS

It depends altogether upon the size of a theater and volume of sound necessary to fill it, whether an orchestra or a band is best adapted to its purposes. In most of the very small houses, one finds the music composed entirely of stringed instruments; as theaters become larger, one finds gradual intermingling of softer wind instruments, like the flute and clarinet; then, in theaters still larger, come saxophones, French horns, and cornets, and, eventually, in huge houses, one comes to the entire brass band.

Discrimination as to character of the orchestra is generally observed. Still, there are occasional experiments to prove the inappropriateness of certain kinds of music.

When " Ready Money " had its premiere at Maxine Elliott's Theater, New York, a fair-sized house of perhaps eight hundred seating capacity, the management presented a quartet of mandolins which was quite drowned out in the chatter at intermissions.

The orchestra at the New York Hippodrome has been noted since the opening of the house, but never before to the degree attained when Dillingham produced " Hip Hip Hooray there. In previous years, that particular appeal to the ear had been made by swelling the size of the usual theater orchestra to an aggregation of pieces fortified by some intermingling of brass. Here the brass was made the all-important feature, and the stringed instruments the adjunct. And, in accordance with the Dillingham policy, this brass was made the finest procurable—John Philip Sousa and his Marine Band.

It was R. H. Burnside, general stage director for Dillingham, who explained this point to me. " In the first place," he said, " a Hippodrome show requires extraordinary considerations. In a broad sense, it, of course, aims at virtually the same end as any kind of attraction; but the medium of achievement is very different. A highly successful thing in an ordinary theater of limited seating capacity, increased in size, would not meet the larger demands of the Hip. One must have something colossal with which to begin. Subtleties are out of the question on such a scale, so the things we are forced to consider all must have inherent bigness."

CONSTITUTION OF THE ORCHESTRA

A representative first-class American theater usually maintains eight pieces—double bass, first violin, piano, flute, clarinet, cornet, trombone, and drums. Extra pieces—second violin, a viol and a French horn or, perhaps, a saxophone—may be added and charged to the visiting attraction, or may even be carried with the company. This organization is commonly deemed sufficient for interpretation of the dramatic entr'acte and incidental music. Of course, elaborate musical comedies require more. The manner in which these various instruments are combined involves what is called " tonal balance "—a nice adjustment which musicians tell me is rarely attained.

There are instruments in use today quite unknown to the orchestras of a century ago. About 1911, Lawrence Gilman, writing in Everybody's Magazine, described some of these curious pieces. " The modern orchestra, like the ` Gaul' of our troubled youth," he says, referring particularly to that of the opera, " may be divided into three parts, with a subsidiary part—which is, perhaps, a Celtic way of saying that it comprises four main groups or families. They are called by musicians the ` strings,' the ` wood,' the ` brass,' and the ` battery'---which, being interpreted, mean respectively the instruments played with a bow —the violins, violas, violoncellos, and double basses; the wood wind instruments—flutes, oboes, English horns, clarinets, and bassoons; the instruments of brass—horns, trumpets, trombones, and tubas, and, finally, the less important ` battery,' or instruments of percussion the various kinds of drums, the cymbals, triangle, gongs, and so forth. The harp, as suits its seraphic and supermundane character, transcends these utilitarian classifications."

In the " unit orchestra " of Robert Hope-Jones, a sort of organ arrangement to which I have already referred, the foundation departments of string, wood wind, brass, and percussion, all are present, each enclosed in its independent " swell-box." By means of an electro-pneumatic action, all of the stops may be drawn upon the manuals, or on the pedals, at any pitch. There are no bellows in the instrument, wind being supplied by electrically driven fans and compressors.

Most classic plays have their traditional orchestral accompaniments—some written by great maestros, more of it arranged by composers whose names have been forgotten. Names of celebrities are attached to accompaniments for many of Shakespeare's plays.

FAMILIAR ORCHESTRAL ACCOMPANIMENTS

One is inclined to wonder at times, whether or not much traditional music is as fitting as it is merely familiar. Dear to memory is the " turn, turn, turn, tee, ta-a-a-tum ! " signifying the approach of the villain; the fidgetty " ghost melody" by Varney, that was originally brought from Paris to Lon-don and thence to America, for the apparition in " The Corsican Brothers; " Rubinstein's " Melody in F " for the wife just deserted; Schumann's " Traumerei " for the fall of evening upon the old home; the " Wedding March " from " Lohengrin " for nuptials; the " Toreador " song from " Carmen " for anything likely, from dark-eyed vampires to Spanish omelettes; the " Intermezzo " from Mascagni's " Cavalleria Rusticana," or " a la bien Aimee," for stage waits; the " Flower Song " and " Hearts and Flowers " for love scenes; the " Sextette " from Donizetti's " Lucia," or Mendelssohn's " Spring Song," for offstage orchestras in ballroom or restaurant scenes.

PSYCHOLOGICAL MUSIC

Herr Director will tell one that good music in the theater is not music that conveys merely the theme of the play and the particular emotion, but also atmosphere. Thus, Elliott Schenck, musical director for Winthrop Ames, arranged music for the American prize play, " Children of Earth," from old New England hymns, while the incidental music itself breathed of the soil: " Come, Lassies and Lads," " Early One Morning," and " Spring is Icumen In."

All incidental orchestral music is " worked " on cues from the action, or signals from the stage manager.

Robert Housum, author of " Sylvia Runs Away," wrote an article for the Theater Magazine of January, 1913, in which he remarked that even the realistic drama of to-day, from which the romantic is so rigidly excluded, has place for music.

" When Wagner perfected his system of leading motives, upon which, as a framework, the structure of his great music dramas is reared," he says, " he gave to the world a technical method—it is too fundamental to be called a trick—which has since been adopted and utilized very generally by composers; more rarely, but no less significantly, by dramatists. . . . Eugene Walter himself might be surprised to learn that in ` The Easiest Way ' he has made use of the Wagnerian leading motive."

Mr. Housum points out first that " not all of Wagner's leading motives are, or in the nature of the case could conceivably be, descriptive. He uses them to represent things and ideas which it is impossible to characterize exactly in music, such as the ` Tarnhelm,' or ` The Dusk of the Gods.' Unless the dramatist uses music in precisely the same arbitrary fashion, to represent abstract ideas, his claim to the title of Perfect Wagnerite is incomplete. In ` The Easiest Way' Eugene Walter has done exactly this. His own stage directions show how closely analogous to Wagner's is his use of music. Immediately after Laura's frightful line at the end of the play, ` Yes, I'm going to Rector's, and to hell with the rest ! ' Walter writes :

" `At this moment the hurdy-gurdy in the street, presumably under her window, begins to play the tune of " Bon-Bon Buddie, My Chocolate-Drop," ' a bit of fine business.

" There is something in this ragtime melody which is particularly and peculiarly suggestive of the low life; the criminality and prostitution that constitute the night excitement of that section of New York City known as the Tenderloin. The tune, its association, is like spreading be-fore Laura's eyes a panorama of the inevitable depravity that awaits her. . . . Here Walter has used ` Bon-Bon Buddie,' so to speak, as a ` Tenderloin motive.' "



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