Review of John Spitzer and Neal Zaslaw. 2004. The Birth of the Orchestra: History of an Institution, 1650-1815. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press

Rice, John A.

Musicological books by more than one author are (with the obvious exception of anthologies) relatively rare. So it is natural to be curious both about the individual contributions that John Spitzer and Neal Zaslaw made to this monumental book and about the nature of their collaboration. In their preface, they explain that “Neal Zaslaw wrote the first drafts of Chapters 3 and 6 [‘Lully’s Orchestra’ and ‘The Orchestra in France’]; the remaining chapters were drafted by John Spitzer. The two of us edited, rewrote, and reedited the entire book together” (v). Their combined labors have resulted in the most comprehensive, accurate, and insightful account ever written of the orchestra’s early history. I need to make this absolutely clear at the outset because my review points to what I feel are some flaws in the book. These observations must be considered in the context of the authors’ overall achievement in so expertly and indefatigably covering such a vast and complex field. The book falls into two large parts. The first part (chapters 1-9) consists largely of a series of chronologically-arranged surveys tracing the development of the orchestra in France, Italy, Germany (by which the authors mean the German-speaking part of Europe), and Britain and its North American colonies (all treated in a chapter inaccurately called “The Orchestra in England”). The second part of the book (chapters 10-14) explores various topics throughout the period indicated by the book’s title, from performance practices, rehearsals, seating, acoustics, and orchestration, to the conductor, the economic status of orchestral musicians, and (in conclusion) “The Meaning of the Orchestra.”


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August 18, 2022