by Dick O'Connor


Copyrightę  1982, 2000 Dick O'Connor

This article first appeared in the Fall, 1982 issue of Music Research, a short-lived journal devoted primarily to youth-oriented popular music.   At the suggestion of the owner of this web site it has been resurrected, slightly revised for clarity and completeness, and presented for its historical content.


Listen!  It's the sound of an orchestra playing.  Not a dance band, a jazz combo, or a rock group.  An orchestra - of stringed, brass, woodwind, and percussion instruments.  And the music it is playing is not classical music - symphonies, concertos, overtures - but popular music!  It is playing hit songs, film, and show numbers, dance music - fox trots, quick-steps, waltzes, polkas, swing, Latin, rock, soul, disco - and favorite light concert pieces with pretty melodies and catchy rhythms.  This is popular orchestra music, or more correctly if more grandly, orchestral popular music.

We hear it on recordings, on radio and television, at the theatre and the movies, in the concert hall, and even in the shopping malls, banks, and restaurants, but not nearly as often as we once did.  The glory days of this music are over, and many of its prime exponents such as Andre Kostelanetz, Percy Faith, Mantovani, and George Melachrino, are no longer with us while others, like Michel Legrand, Paul Weston, David Rose, and Morton Gould, though very much with us, remain active only in other musical areas.  The market for it has dried up.  The under-50s seem not to respond to its excitement and beauty, and have totally abandoned it in favor of the less subtle, louder, more rhythmic and boisterous styles of rock, soul, and punk.  Still, this music endures, too often confined to the ghettos of syndicated "beautiful music" FM radio stations and too often compared with and denigrated as emotionally vapid "muzak" that contains nothing, stands for nothing, and communicates nothing.

Yet only twenty years ago record companies were making every effort to record and promote orchestral popular music and competed with one another for its major artists.  Few were the homes in America that did not contain at least one, if not many, long-playing and single recordings by the above mentioned gentlemen or by Hugo Winterhalter, Robert Farnon, Frank Pourcel, Camarata, Clebanoff, Cesana, Nelson Riddle, Leroy Anderson, Les Baxter, Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, Victor Young, Johnny Douglas and the Living Strings, or, later, by Hugo Montenegro, Leroy Holmes, Raymond LeFevre, Paul Mauriat, the Starlight Symphony, the San Sebastian and Hollyridge Strings, and many others.

Four factors underlie the establishment of this genre of music as one of the leading forms of entertainment in the mid-twentieth century.

  1. The development of regular studio orchestras for radio and recording.  Financially and logistically the maintenance of an orchestra is costly.   In the eighteenth century wealthy music-loving members of the European nobility kept them for their own delight and amusement and to increase the prestige of their households, and theatres patronized by the well-to-do employed them to enhance the drama and spectacle of their productions.  Soon urban impresarios began organizing concerts open to the public.  As the popularity of these concerts increased the modern symphony orchestra was born.  As the nineteenth century progressed, lighter music for orchestra was more often featured at the parks and pleasure gardens of England, Denmark, Germany and Austria during the warmer months of the year.  In emulation of European models the builders of American symphonic ensembles added spring "promenade concerts of light classics, Strauss waltzes, operetta medleys, and novelties to extend their seasons.  This was the genesis of orchestras such as the Boston Pops.  The advent of recording just before the turn of the century eventually brought more work for various studio combinations of symphonic and theatre musicians whose ranks swelled with the waves of European immigration in the first part of the new century.  Finally, the establishment of radio networks in the late 1920s made possible the regular employment of modest-sized orchestras which were increased by the use of free-lance musicians as the need arose.  All this was happily underwritten by commercial sponsors whose delight in the popular success of their programs increased during the depression years when radio was almost the only game in town.

  2. The technological breakthroughs in sound transmission and amplification that were responsible for recording and radio also led to the introduction, in the 1920s, of the electrical microphone.  Its use soon affected popular singing, as the stentorian belters and shouters of the decade were replaced by the intimate crooners of the 30s.  The employment of microphones in an orchestra broadcast offered engineers and musical directors a new world of instrumental tone colors and balances that effectively rendered the radio and recording ensemble a new vehicle for musical sound.

  3. The presence of the virtuoso arranger.  Orchestral popular music is an arranger's medium.  The arranger takes the popular melody and composes a setting for it, thus making possible its performance by a large ensemble.  The music industry of the late 19th century, and sometimes leading composers, had employed arrangers to orchestrate, to write for theatre orchestras, to churn out piano and small ensemble versions of symphonic and operatic works for home use.  It was most often considered work for hacks and drudges.  The popularity of the concert band during the half-century after 1870 encouraged many sensitive transcriptions of orchestral works for that medium.  From the 1890s the new song publishing outfits offered one-size-fits-all "stock" instrumental versions to the public for use by any size ensemble, and further used their arrangers to make special settings for free use by established vaudeville artists who were willing to promote their songs.  These firms made their money on sales of sheet music, so for emphasis the melodies in these arrangements were thickly doubled, producing uniformly a quite stodgy effect.  After 1915 there arose a group of writers whose artistry and technical know-how transformed the field.  The influence of Robert Russell Bennett was paramount.  Working first for publishing houses and later in theatre he smoothed out the choppiness of Victorian orchestral accompaniments and the jerkiness in popular dance rhythms of the teens through the use of a two-beat set-up between the bass and more slowly moving held notes in the lower middle register.  Thus, melodic lines were etched against simple countermelodies.  This gave the orchestra lightness, breadth, and depth.  By causing the violins to often soar above the ensemble, a heightened emotional intensity was achieved.  In Bennett's work the characteristic tone colors, flexibilities, and idiosyncratic abilities of each instrument were emphasized and set off against one another.  By 1930 his style was being widely imitated by other transitional figures at this time including Will Marlon Cook and Frank Sadler in theatre, Bill Challis, Lenny Hayton, and Ferde Grofe (Paul Whiteman's three main contributors), Don Redman, and Duke Ellington in dance bands, Archie Bleyer and Frank Skinner for music publishers, and Adolf Schmid, a former opera conductor, in radio.  The presence of such towering talents in music as George Gershwin, Maurice Ravel, and Igor Stravinsky were important as well, and Morton Gould cites the influence of the so-called "nationalistic" composers - Sibellus, Vaughan Williams, Villa-Lobas, DeFalla, etc.  By the early 1930s radio, dance, theatre, and studio orchestras demanded a daily output of their arrangers.   This constant work made them extremely facile in the use of an orchestra, and urged many to greater creativity.  From this milieu came virtually all of the greatest artists in orchestral popular music.

  4. Notable achievements in American popular song.  During this period American song-writing reached its highest point.  Not satisfied with the staple sing-a-long, ballad, and novelty styles of vaudeville songs, a number of young composers associated with the New York theatre put commercial considerations aside and set out merely to write better songs.  Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, Vincent Youmans, Arthur Schwartz, and others, abandoning the vitality of their Tin Pan Alley roots, sought the wider influences of continental operetta and the various folk and popular traditions that came to this country with the recent waves of European and Russian immigration.  The compositions they and their lyricists produced elevated the tone of American music and set high standards for succeeding generations of songwriters.  More importantly, the greatness of their work demanded orchestral, as well as vocal, interpretation.

Russian-born Andre Kostelanetz began as a piano accompanist in the early days of radio and by 1930 had worked his way up to the conducting post of the CBS network.  Fascinated by the inherent but hitherto unexplored sound possibilities of microphone use and placement in broadcasting and recognizing the extraordinary quality of songwriting being done for the New York stage, in 1933 he convinced his network to allow him to produce a weekly half-hour show from that city that daringly combined symphonic music with striking orchestral settings of these new American songs.  Working closely with his arrangers to develop original and incisive scores full of color and surprise he created a new and exciting genre of broadcast music.  Radio listeners were delighted, and the success of Andre Kostelanetz Presents soon attracted commercial sponsorship.

The format pioneered by Kostelanetz - a blend of concert versions of popular, folk, and Latin numbers with tuneful symphonic music, guest appearances by operatic and classical, theatre, popular, and jazz artists, all moderated by a somewhat formal but friendly announcer - would remain the standard for musical shows on the radio well into the 1950s.  It was the orchestra that was the real star of these programs.   Here for the first time the listener experienced the changing moods, tempos, and color suggested by popular song, heard the sometimes lush, sometimes ghostly massed string ensembles, the chattering woodwinds, the low-register subtone solo clarinet played directly into the microphone, the flutter-tongued flutes, the sumptuous saxophones and mellow muted or biting brasses, and the use of the piano, vibraphone, and celesta to lay down exotic textures within the ensemble that would soon, as cliches, earmark this music, and thrilled the intimate, pulsating, sensual sound of the full orchestra playing softly and sustained as well as to the bright, emotionally intense louder climactic passages.

The popularity of the Kostelanetz show led other networks and stations to offer their own versions of his format.  The brilliant Morton Gould began broadcasting from New Jersey, followed by Victor Young and David Rose from California, Percy Faith from Toronto, later Chicago and New York, and, in England, Peter Yorke and his concert orchestra.  Influenced by American theatre orchestra, jazz, dance, and swing band styles, by European, symphonic, salon, and light music ensembles, and, soon, by Hollywood soundtracks, these arrangers developed and deepened the genre of orchestral popular music.  Advertisers were more than willing to exploit the polish, prestige, and "class" that it brought to popular culture and radio listeners welcomed it as an exciting and satisfying alternative to the preponderance of comedians, dramas, and dance bands then saturating the networks.

Record companies were slow to capitalize on the success of this music due to financial constraints imposed by the depression.  On April 1, 1935 Victor recorded Kostelanetz and his radio orchestra performing a selection from Arthur Schwartz' Revenge With Music, a concert medley of rumbas, and Don Redman's exotic portrait of urban low-life Chant Of The Weed.  Three months later the same company brought its equipment to Symphony Hall in Boston to first capture on record the Boston on record the Boston Pops Orchestra under the direction of Arthur Fiedler in The Continental, Strike Up The Band, The Arkansas Traveler, and Danish composer Jacob Gade's tango Jalousie, which would eventually become a million-seller.  But it was not until the 1940s, when a new hierarchy at Columbia Records effectively marketed Kostelanetz and Morton Gould on its more expensive Masterworks label with concert music and Broadway shows, that the natural audience for such recordings was tapped and cultivated.  Here was popular music, yes, but popular music of a higher caliber and more lasting quality that, like the lighter classics, spoke to a middle-class with somewhat higher cultural aspirations.  Thus, "middlebrow" music became a viable commercial entity at mid-century.   Victor continued recording the Boston Pops and had a major hit in 1943 with David Rose's Holiday For Strings.  The following year Paul Weston began a series of albums for Capitol featuring a warm, jazz-inflected dance band with strings and designed for home dancing and intimate cozying.  Decca recorded Percy Faith and after the war, encouraged the production of popular instrumental selections from its long-time associates Victor Young, Gordon Jenkins, and Meredith Wilson.

Into the early 1950s this music fairly exploded onto the nation's jukeboxes and popular music charts.   Highly successful singles by Leroy Anderson, Mantovani, Percy Faith, Les Baxter, Hugo Winterhalter, Richard Hayman, Leroy Holmes, Frank Chacksfield and others led to sustained sales of long-playing discs by the same artists.  Youthful buyers embraced it as well, sharing favorite recordings and critically discussing their relative merits with friends.  In the fifties these artists were often regarded as being just as "hip," "cool," and culturally cutting-edge as favorite jazz instrumentalists, vocalists, and rhythm and blues acts.  Between 1955 and 1965 orchestral popular music was at the height of its popularity.

Once again Columbia Records led the field.  In 1954 that company had under contract Kostelanetz and Gould, Percy Faith, Paul Weston, and Michel Legrand.  Soon to be signed were Ray Conniff and Frank DeVol (formerly with Capitol) while the orchestras of Wally Stott and Otto Cesana appeared on its Epic label.  At mid-decade Morton Gould moved to RCA, more successful than ever with the Boston Pops and with Hugo Winterhalter, George Melachrino and, later, Henry Mancini, Marty Gold, Esquivel, Ronald Binge, the Living Strings, and Hugo Montenegro.  Decca continued Victor Young and Gordon Jenkins, adding Leroy Anderson and the German recordings of Werner Muller and Bert Kaempfert.  Capitol had Jackie Gleason, Nelson Riddle, Les Baxter, Paul Weston (again), and France's Frank Pourcel, while Mercury put forward Hollywood's Alfred Newman, Richard Hayman, David Carroll, Herman Clebanoff, and later, Quincy Jones.  MGM offered David Rose, Leroy Holmes, and the Starlight Symphony conducted by Cyril Ornadel and arranged by Brian Fahey, while English Decca more than made do by bringing Mantovani, Robert Farnon, Frank Chacksfield, Stanley Black and later, Ronnie Aldrich and Werner Muller to America on the London label.  New recording outfits during these years were quick to cultivate their own artists or to acquire them from existing companies.

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