The Orchestral Recipe, From The Pilgrims To Today

Nov 21, 2013
Originally published on November 21, 2013 6:55 am

If you're going to be cooking Thanksgiving dinner next week, you've probably already started gathering the traditional ingredients — but your ingredients are most likely very different from those that made up the first Thanksgiving meal in 1621. (Marshmallows with those sweet potatoes, anyone?)

Morning Edition has its own Thanksgiving tradition, a chat with music commentator Miles Hoffman. He joined host Renee Montagne to talk about a different set of ingredients — musical instruments — and how their role in orchestras has changed over the years. Hear their conversation at the audio link.

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Those of you who are cooking Thanksgiving dinner next week, probably have already started gathering the traditional ingredients. But your ingredients, traditional though they might be - are most likely very different from those that made up the first Thanksgiving meal in 1621.

One of our Thanksgiving traditions here at MORNING EDITION, is a chat with music commentator Miles Hoffman. And this morning, he's here to talk about different set of ingredients: musical instruments and how orchestras have changed over the years.

Good morning, Miles.

MILES HOFFMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So let's start with that first Thanksgiving. Again: 1621, the Pilgrims in the Plymouth Colony were giving thanks, along with Native Americans who had helped them through a first really difficult year. And they, of course, would not have had an orchestra on hand but...


HOFFMAN: No, they wouldn't.

MONTAGNE: ...get us back across the sea, to what a European orchestra typically would have looked and sounded like?

HOFFMAN: Well, the problem is that there wasn't a typical orchestra or a standard instrumental ensemble. They were all sorts of different instruments and different groupings of instruments that would have been used depending on what the occasion was - whether it was for a ballet, or an opera, or a play or a religious feast. And in many case, composers didn't even specify in their music which instrument they were writing for, because they didn't know what they would get. So they took what they could get and they used whatever was available.


MONTAGNE: So, Miles, this is an example of how an orchestra would have sounded around the first Thanksgiving.

HOFFMAN: Actually a little earlier than the first Thanksgiving, Renee, yes. That was the orchestral prologue from Claudio Monteverdi's opera "Orfeo," or "Orpheus," which was first performed in 1607. You know, there's actually an analogy here with that first Thanksgiving meal that you mentioned.

MONTAGNE: And that would be?

HOFFMAN: Well, the menu that the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians put together for the first Thanksgiving meal, or meals, almost certainly included passenger pigeons, Renee. And it was said that passenger pigeons were so plentiful at the time that if you just went outside anywhere, and shot a gun up in the air, dead birds would fall at your feet.


MONTAGNE: OK, a passenger pigeons - wild pigeons, of course. But what is the link between wild pigeons and the orchestras of the time?

HOFFMAN: What happened was that passenger pigeons, by the early 20th century, were extinct. And other orchestras at the time, in the 1600s, included instruments that if not technically extinct are almost never found in modern orchestras. And I'm talking about instruments such as the lute and a long-necked lute called the archlute; and the viola da gamba, and something called the cornetto.

MONTAGNE: The cornetto?

HOFFMAN: The cornetto, which was also called the zink. It consists of a long conical wooden pipe covered in leather, with a mouthpiece - sounds something like a trumpet.


MONTAGNE: Well, I rather like it.

HOFFMAN: Like it, yeah. It sounds nicer than its name. Yeah.


MONTAGNE: Well, takes us from speaking of names, zinks, to the modern orchestra?

HOFFMAN: Well, it took a long time, Renee. And there were all sorts of steps over many decades, over centuries actually. The first standard orchestras were actually just groups stringed instruments - the violins, and violas and cellos. The most famous of these orchestras was an ensemble known as Les 24 Violons du Roy - The 24 Violins Of The King. And this group has been described as the first permanent orchestra in the Western world.

It was formed in 1626, which is five years after that first Thanksgiving. And it was at the court of Louis XIII of France - I mean Frahnce(ph).


HOFFMAN: A reconstituted version of Les 24 Violons du Roy, The 24 Violins Of The King. The music was from "The Entry of Apollo," from the opera "Psyche," which was written in 1678 by Jean-Baptiste Lully. So music from 1678.

MONTAGNE: And, Miles, if stringed instruments formed the first permanent orchestra, when did the woodwind and brass instruments come into the picture?

HOFFMAN: Well, all sorts of wind and brass instruments had been part of the picture for centuries. But actually, with a few exceptions, the wind instruments of the 1600s are instruments you would hardly be recognizable today. The flute of the 1600s, for example was primitive by modern standards, and the clarinet wasn't even invented until the 1700s.

In fact the key system that's used on modern clarinets wasn't invented until 1839, which, by the way, also happens to be the year that, in America, Sara Josepha Hale first published the recipe, Renee, for the modern pumpkin pie.

MONTAGNE: Aha. So the ingredients of the modern Thanksgiving meal were developing at the same time as the ingredients in the modern orchestra.

HOFFMAN: Well, you'd have to juggle timelines a little bit, Renee. But there is a real parallel, one factor that's critical to the evolution of both the modern Thanksgiving meal and the modern orchestra. And that factor is technological progress. For the orchestra, Renee, it begins in France in the mid to late1600s with the invention of the oboe and the invention of the bassoon. And then for almost 200 years there's a veritable parade of instrumental invention and improvement.

And when you get to the early decades of the 19th century, we have the development of the modern harp, the invention of the tuba, the invention of the English horn, and the invention of valves for the French horn and the trumpet. That's just a few of the high points. All these new and improved instruments then find permanent places in the orchestra, and composers find ways to take advantage of them.


HOFFMAN: That's music by Richard Wagner, Renee. The "Prelude to Act III of the Opera Lohengrin" from 1850, and in addition to a full complement of strings that orchestra includes flutes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, trombones, tuba, harp and percussion.

And so now, Renee, you have a full complement of musical ingredients. And they all come together in the modern orchestra.

MONTAGNE: Well, Miles, I certainly hope that all your holiday ingredients - musical and culinary - come together beautifully this year. It's a little early, but a Happy Thanksgiving to you.

HOFFMAN: Thanks, Renee. And a very, very Happy Thanksgiving to you, too.


MONTAGNE: Miles Hoffman is the violist of the American Chamber Players and he's also author of "The NPR Classical Music Companion."


MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.