A fact most characteristic of the Renaissance and of Italy is the specialization of the orchestra, the search for new instruments and modes of sounds, and, in close connection with this tendency, the formation of a class of ‘virtuosi,’ who devoted their whole attention to particular instruments or particular branches of music.
From Jacob Burckhardt’s 1860 study, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. One of the biggest criticisms of the modern symphony orchestra is that its museum-like nature has put Burckhardt’s analysis seriously out of balance—the focus on virtuosic practice has atrophied the search for new instruments and modes and sounds. Interestingly, last week’s Boston Symphony concerts (which the group brought to New York) had small object lessons in both the validity and the irrelevance of such a protest. Henri Dutilleux expertly and hauntingly deployed a very non-orchestral instrument, the accordion, in his song cycle “Le Temps L’Horloge”—one could certainly conjure up a reedy facsimile with some clever orchestration, but the actual presence of the instrument was both more convincing and more poetic. On the other hand, in Debussy’s “La Mer,” I spent most of the performance mesmerized by veteran BSO percussionist Frank Epstein, manning the cymbal parts. Cymbals can be a one-dimensional flourish, but Epstein put on a clinic, coaxing inexhaustible, surprising colors out of an instrument that’s hardly changed since it made its way into the orchestra a couple of centuries ago. Never mind the new instruments, Epstein’s mastery seemed to say, we’ve barely scratched the surface of the old ones.
Also from Burckhardt:
In singing, only the solo was permitted, ‘for a single voice is heard, enjoyed, and judged far better.’ In other words, as singing, notwithstanding all conventional modesty, is an exhibition of the individual man of society, it is better that each should be seen and heard separately. The tender feelings produced in the fair listeners are taken for granted, and elderly people are therefore recommended to abstain from such forms of art, even though they excel in them. It was held important that the effect of the song should be enhanced by the impression made on the sight.
Peter Gelb, Renaissance man.