In 1813, Beethoven wrote a symphonic work so noisy and trite that most scholars consider it an embarrassment. “Wellington’s Victory, or the Battle of Vitoria” depicts, with the help of spatially separated brass and percussion effects, a rout of French forces at the hands of the British.
A hundred musicians played at the premiere — twice as many as at the first performance of the “Eroica” Symphony, in 1805 — with the audience seated at the center. Afterward, someone remarked that Beethoven had written a piece seemingly designed to make the listener as deaf as its composer.
By all common measures of musical value, “Wellington’s Victory” is schlock. But in his detailed instructions on the number and positioning of instrumentalists, Beethoven reveals how carefully he crafted this sonic assault on listener. “One has to imagine these performances not like an evening at the Berlin Philharmonie, but rather like a modern-day rock concert,” the musicologist Frédéric Döhl has argued.
Beethoven’s preoccupation with making the concert experience really, really loud may mark the beginning of a musical arms race for ever louder and ever more stimulating symphonic performance.
Before the Industrial Revolution, the principal sources of noise were thunder, church bells and cannon fire. In Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” dynamic peaks depict a thunderstorm in summer, and the barking of dogs and hunting horns in autumn. Changing dynamics could also be used to depict degrees of light, as in the opening bars of Haydn’s Symphony No. 6 (“Le Matin”), which render the measured magic of a sunrise by letting different instruments enter in incremental turns, along with a gradual melodic rise and a calmly radiant crescendo.
In her book “Haydn’s Sunrise, Beethoven’s Shadow,” the musicologist Deirdre Loughridge contrasts that passage with the drawn-out crescendo that links the end of the third movement with the finale in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The rise in volume in the Beethoven traces an exponential curve, with a long passage of tense quiet leading to a swift increase of volume.
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.”
The question of discipline gained urgency once certain instruments wielded so much power that their sound could smother their colleagues, along with audiences. Trombones and tubas in particular now had the power to obliterate other instruments — and composers were stacking them up in unprecedented numbers.
Wagner’s operas call for a massive number of brass instruments, with extra horns, trombones and the Wagner tubas he had built specially for his “Ring” cycle. In a high-wattage passage like the “Ride of the Valkyries,” an unchained brass section can drown out the assembled efforts of the string and wind players.
The trumpeter John Wallace, who played in the London Symphony and Philharmonia orchestras and also performs on period instruments, spoke in a phone interview about the responsibility of conductors and brass players to balance the sound. “If you have it loud, too much of the time you have the poor string section treated like galley slaves,” he said. “The poor things are sawing away and you can’t hear them.”
To be sure, there can be dramatic reasons for swamping certain voices. Consider the “Dies Irae” of Verdi’s Requiem, especially in a blistering rendition like that conducted by Toscanini in 1951. The movement features a cast of hundreds, but at moments, for example at 3:20 in this YouTube video, the brass trumps everything.
The fact that you can barely hear the chorus, singing full throttle — let alone the strings and winds — evokes the apocalyptic image of sinners being pulled under in a caldron of noise. Only the shrieking piccolo peeks out, like a terror-gripped face in a painting of the Last Judgment. Live, the visual spectacle of human effort rendered powerless by overwhelming force speaks volumes.
As the world grew louder in the 20th century, so did orchestras. The formidable brass section of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under George Solti spawned high-decibel imitators.
“When we over in Europe heard these American orchestras, we were stunned by the sheer power and volume of the brass section,” Mr. Wallace said, recalling a rush on American-made large-bore brass instruments. When he joined the London Symphony in 1974, the trombone section there was anchored by two players humorously known as the “oxyacetylene twins,” after the material used to cut through metal: “The whole volume of the orchestra went up.”
Even so, the advent of amplification and rock music put symphonic musicians on the defensive. The conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen said in an interview that in an ever louder world, moments like the opening of Mozart’s “Haffner” Symphony, with its boisterous double octave jumps and timpani, have lost their power to shock. In terms of sheer volume, rock wins out.
“Today in the classical world, we have lost the edge in terms of loudness,” Mr. Salonen said. “For me, the important thing is more the extreme range of dynamics. Because that’s the one area where we are superior.”
Douglas Yeo was the principal bass trombonist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for decades. In an interview, he warned of excessively loud fortissimos, both on aesthetic grounds and for health reasons. He has seen careers cut short by the strain of overplaying.
Mr. Yeo recalled a series of concert performances of Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” in 2006, under the direction of James Levine. At a pivotal moment in the opera, Bartok calls forth a massive outburst, with blinding brass. Each time, Mr. Yeo said, Mr. Levine would cock his index finger at his own forehead, and mouth the words “Brass, burn it.”
And so, Mr. Yeo said, “we played it so loudly that if we had played it with one degree more we would have ended our careers there and then.” Looking out into the auditorium he noticed the impact of the sound he produced: “I saw every person in the audience had their fingers in their ears.”
Mr. Yeo said the experience gave him pause. “When I see people with fingers in their ears because what my colleagues and I have done is painful to them,” he said, “I have to ask: What did we just do? And what is it for?”
The pendulum may be swinging back. The historically informed performance movement has reintroduced instruments like the serpent and ophicleide: brass instruments that add wonky color rather than sheer decibels to fortissimo outbursts.
And labor laws are doing their bit. Noise trauma affects players in orchestras, who weather the brunt of the brass assault, much more than audiences. Lawsuits and regulations are forcing conductors and administrators to confront the subject of orchestral loudness head on. In 2018, a violist in the Royal Opera House orchestra successfully took his employer to court over hearing damage incurred during a rehearsal of Wagner’s “Die Walküre,” during which noise levels reached 130 decibels — about the level of a jet engine.
Still, to some composers, loudness remains elemental. Orchestras stocked with electric guitars and other amplified instruments create new sonic hybrids in the music of Louis Andriessen. The decibel burn of the hammered chords at the opening of his “De Materie” is not a side product of the music; it’s essential to conveying the sheer materiality of sound.
Works by Phill Niblock require extreme dynamics — sustained at a rock concert-like 120 decibels — because only when played at high volume do seemingly static chords reveal a dazzling spectrum of overtones, interacting in complex rhythms. In a video accompanying a 2014 performance, Mr. Niblock explained how expanding the volume and duration of a sonic event affects a listener’s perception. “To lose yourself in a piece,” he said, “is partly losing yourself in time.”
We are, then, still not so far from the orchestra envisioned by Berlioz. “The most recalcitrant temperaments,” he wrote, “would shudder at the sight of its surging crescendo, like the roar of an immense and sublime conflagration!”