Popular Music for Orchestra- a Brief History, Part 2 by Dick O'Connor

    The first successful theatres in the United States date from the 1790s, after several earlier experiments. Through the next century most were entertainment centers offering songs, dances, instrumental music, humor, refreshments, and sometimes even comic opera and specialty acts in addition to the featured staged plays. Accordingly they kept regular orchestras of ten to fifteen pieces to furnish overtures and incidental music, accompany the singing and dancing, and play for patrons between acts. Larger theatres, such as Niblo’sGarden in New York City, favoring opera, musical variety, and concerts employed a larger contingent, often thirty or forty men. Furthermore these orchestras, at first consisting primarily of schooled and experienced English, French, German, or Italian immigrants usually under the direction of a violinist countryman, had to be prepared to render the popular and patriotic songs of the day, and were often called upon to do so. Generally their music was adapted, arranged, or composed by their conductors, augmented by set pieces (overtures, marches, etc.) obtained from European publishers. Instrumental musicians could look only to the theatre for steady work, which they supplemented by playing for dances, in concerts, at sundry festive and formal occasions, and by giving lessons. Later popular bands, symphonic ensembles, hotel and dance orchestras, recording and radio provided other options.

     The advent of operetta following the first Gilbert and Sullivan success in 1878, the concurrent growth of vaudeville, and the establishment of the first American grand opera companies greatly extended the popularity, prestige, range, and influence of the theatre. The latter sent impresarios and their agents scurrying through Germany and neighboring states to obtain suitably skilled musicians. Men and women thus lured to these shores, among them Victor Herbert and Hugo Riesenfeld who came to New York as opera cellist and violinist in 1886 and 1907 respectively, would raise professional standards and reshape the direction of our musical life.

     Vaudeville was a motley of song, dance, comedy, dramatic, specialty, and freak acts that grew up through the 1800s as adjuncts to stage plays, music halls, museums, tent and medicine shows, beer and wine bars, honky-tonks, and clip joints, emerging toward the end of the century as milder, sanitized, family-oriented variety, carefully packaged and organized into touring circuits, to become the theatre of Everyman. For thirty or forty years no medium-sized community or locale was untouched as its shows brought the latest tunes, dance moves, jokes, attitudes, fashions and other accoutrements of urban popular culture to barns, town halls, former church buildings, auction facilities, and tiny theatres as well as multi-million dollar entertainment palaces. Its orchestras were small, ranging first from a single piano player or a piano, violin or cornet, and drums combination, to six or seven pieces. After the turn of the century the larger and more successful houses might have ten, twelve, or fifteen players in their orchestra pits. Music-loving owners like Martin Beck, who controlled the Orpheum Circuit, might insist that their orchestras play a standard overture, an exit march, and one or two light classical selections per show. Three generations of vaudeville musicians developed a razor-sharp awareness and sense of timing from the necessity of furnishing a wealth of musical cues, a facility in performing many styles of music, and the uncanny ability to extemporize (improvise) accompaniments, dance pieces, and mood music, as well as these stage cues. Burlesque, although possessing a unique history of its own, became what may be considered a branch of vaudeville emphasizing topical and risqué humor and featuring women with less clothing.

     Operetta, by turns satirical, humorous, escapist, or sentimental, and later musical comedy mandated the employment of larger instrumental ensembles – twenty-five pieces, occasionally up to forty – which required more skillful and solid orchestrations. These were customarily the work of the composers themselves, most of whom possessed formal European training, and certainly the accomplishments of Gustave Luders, Karl Hoschna, and especially the above-mentioned Victor Herbert in this respect were of a very high order. The overwhelming success, however, of Floradora, The Prince of Pilsen, The Wizard of Oz, Babes In Toyland, and The Merry Widow early in the new century persuaded publishers to recognize musical shows as superior means of song publicity and to actively acquire rights to their scores. To protect these investments their orchestration was often turned over to established arrangers already in the firm’s employ. These men worked the basic song material of a show, as needed, into a series of appropriate accompaniments, dance numbers, underscorings, and an overture and walk-out music, carefully setting each piece for the instruments of the orchestra. By the 1920s this type of specialization had become common practice, and the age of the heroic Broadway arranger was at hand. Frank Saddler, Stephen Jones, Maurice De Packh, Walter Paul, Max Steiner, Robert Russell Bennett, Hans Spialek, and later Don Walker, Philip Lang, and Ted Royal Dewar established the arranger-orchestrator as a vital presence and personality with strong, sensitive, and sophisticated scoring that allowed a pit orchestra to sparkle with color and movement, with texture and subtlety. This was the sound that illuminated the Great White Way, that went to Hollywood with the "talkies", that increasingly dominated vocal recordings, and that furnished the foundation for further development in the great popular music radio programs of the 30s and 40s.

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