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Loud, Louder, Loudest: How Classical Music Started to Roar

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A contemporary listener compared this to “a ghostly shadow emerging from a great distance and finally looming toward one.” Ms. Loughridge argues that in Beethoven’s time, the moment evoked the public entertainment of the phantasmagoria, a newly fashionable apparatus for dramatically manipulating shadows and light.

Where Haydn’s sunrise was rooted in the observation of nature by the naked eye, Ms. Loughridge shows that Beethoven creates “a heightened sense of immersion in another world.” In “Wellington” that world is war: Beethoven uses loudness and sound design not to portray the violence of the battlefield, but to deliver it.

After Beethoven, fortissimos grew only louder. One reason was the development of instruments, which added decibels across the board. Steel replaced gut for strings; metallic flutes replaced those made of wood. The biggest changes occurred in the brass section, where changes in design increased not only the power of sound, but also range. The introduction of valves in horns and trumpets meant that instruments that had previously been limited to notes of the overtone series could now roam across the whole chromatic spectrum, adding oomph wherever a composer desired it.

And composers sought out new highs. In a treatise on orchestration, Berlioz fantasized about an orchestra numbering more than 400 players that would be capable of evoking not just weather phenomena but different climatic zones, transporting the listener into new worlds: “When at rest, it would be majestic, like a slumbering ocean. When in a state of agitation, it would recall tropical storms. It would erupt like a volcano. It would convey the laments, whispers and mysterious sounds of virgin forests.”

In his own “Symphonie Fantastique,” Berlioz orchestrated a form of sonic invasion. In the fifth movement, which culminates in an orgy of formidable loudness, he employs a pair of massive church bells. If Beethoven’s experiments in surround-sound broke down the fourth wall dividing musicians and audience, Berlioz tore down the separation between the concert hall and the city.

One side effect of this escalation of power was a new emphasis on orchestral discipline. In the same treatise, Berlioz writes: “There is a common prejudice that large orchestras are noisy. But if they are properly composed, well drilled and well conducted, and if they are playing real music, they should be called powerful.”


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