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Masterclass Dr. Fabian Kolb (Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz)

Concepts and Strategies of Spatial Sound Organisation in the 19th-Century Symphonic Repertoire

Date: 18–19 June 2015
Time: 4–7 pm, 9am–1pm
Venue: Utrecht University, Janskerkhof 13, 0.06 and TBA
Credits: 1-2
Open to: Research MA students in Musicology and in the Humanities
Fee (non-members): € 50.00
Coordinated by: Fabian Kolb (University of Mainz), Karl Kügle (UU)

During the 19th century, a number of philosophical, acoustical, musico‐physiological and musico-psychological concepts of space were developed. These concepts influenced the architecture of concert halls and reflect changes in the awareness of audience and orchestral dispositions as well as in the general discourse of the period about the aesthetics and the reception of instrumental music. In this master class we will discuss different conceptions of space as well as modes and strategies of spatial composition in nineteenth-century symphonic music. Specifically, we shall examine examples in works of Beethoven, Berlioz, and Mahler. The focus will be a) on the dispositions of separate orchestral groups (e.g., the use of distant offstage instruments and/or orchestras, including the so-called Fernorchester) as well as b) on internal orchestral evocations and interpretations of space (including dynamics, harmony, instrumentation, timbres, idioms, ‘scenarios’, and ‘narrative’ processes). To what extent did composers develop genuine creative possibilities to design (sound-)spaces for the ‘great form’ of orchestral music in the interplay of performance venues, listener expectations, and the historical developments that can be traced through particular compositions? To what extent was the potential of expansive, large-scale instrumental music affected by the generation of something akin to specific symphonic space?

Fabian Kolb (*1980) studied Musicology, Romance studies and Philosophy at the universities of Bonn and Cologne. After having earned his MA in 2006 with a thesis entitled Exponent des Wandels. Joseph Weigl und die Introduktion in seinen italienischen und deutschsprachigen Opern (Münster/Berlin: LIT-Verlag, 2006), he completed his doctoral dissertation on the French Symphony around 1900 (»Tradition austère qui devient de plus en plus complexe«. Diversifikation und Pluralisierung in der französischen Symphonik 1871–1914, Cologne University, 2010, published by Olms-Verlag, Hildesheim, in 2012). Since 2010, Fabian Kolb is Assistant Professor (Assistent) at the Institut für Kunstgeschichte und Musikwissenschaft, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz. His research interests are focused on French music history, the history of the symphony, the history of opera around 1800, and the music of the later Middle Ages. In 2012, Kolb was awarded the Walter Kalkhof-Rose-Gedächtnispreis by the Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur, Mainz.

This event is organised by the Huizinga Institute in cooperation with Research Group Musicology, Utrecht University.


This master class will be consist of a lecture and a seminar on the same topic held by Fabian Kolb the morning after the lecture. Outlining the broad spectrum of spatial composition strategies in the development of nineteenth-century symphonic music, the lecture discusses works by Joseph Haydn (London Symphonies), Ludwig van Beethoven (Wellingtons Sieg oder die Schlacht bei Vittoria, and Symphony no. 9), Hector Berlioz (Symphonie fantastique), and Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (The Hebrides). Connecting their work concepts and compositional operations with the preconditions given by the specific settings of the concert halls (audience and orchestral seating), the survey then proceeds to include remarks by Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms and Anton Bruckner, finally pointing to Gustav Mahler as a kind of ‘summa’ of different spatial composition techniques using examples from his first, second and eighth symphonies.

Following this lecture, the master class is designed to offer participants the opportunity to discuss, intensify and exemplify the materials and interrelations developed the afternoon before. The main objective is to sensitize participants to the dimensions of space in the art of instrumental music – an art often regarded predominantly as developing in time. This is done through a close listening of significant musical exemples (including an intensive look at the scores), and complemented by reading / looking at some historical sources. Underpinned by short oral presentations based on the preparatory assignments, the main component of the master class is critical dialogue and discussion.

After a short introduction which raises the problem of spatial composition by some observations concerning the London Symphonies of Joseph Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Wellingtons Sieg oder die Schlacht bei Vittoria, we shall study in depth the concepts of Hector Berlioz as developed in his Grand Traité d’instrumentation et d’orchestration modernes and implemented, for instance, in the Symphonie fantastique. Which relevance is attributed to questions of orchestral seating (and acoustics) and how does Berlioz create and play with specific spatial effects in his music? To sharpen and contrast these strategies, in a short excursus, we glance at the different attitude to space phenomena as it becomes manifest at the same time in German music of the Leipzig symphonic ‘school’ (Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy). At this juncture, amongst others, the results are to be connected with observations concerning architecture of concerts halls and seating plans of orchestras.

In a second section, the focus will be concentrated on Gustav Mahler and his Wunderhorn Symphonies (particularly some selected spots in the symphony no. III). Here, by a close reading, we can observe the use of topoi evoking various types of movements and distant ‘sceneries’ or ‘places’, as well as the specific operation with offstage orchestral groups. As a kind of ‘culmination’ of spatial composition procedures, the discussion of Mahler might lead to a final discussion about which importance is to be attributed to spatial dimensions in nineteenth-century symphonic music.

Preparation and readings:

The participants are asked to acquaint themselves with the following repertoire (both by listening and reading the scores):

  • Ludwig van Beethoven, Wellingtons Sieg oder die Schlacht bei Vittoria
  • Hector Berlioz, Symphonie fantastique
  • Gustav Mahler, Symphony no. III in D minor

Students will mark anything which might have to do with spatial effects (the focus may be on performance directions and score inscriptions such as “von der äußersten Entfernung”, “derrière la scène”, or “in der Höhe postiert”, etc., as well as on internal orchestral evocations of space like striking instrumentations, significant dynamics, drastically shifting idioms, etc.).

Furthermore, the reading of some sections of Hector Berlioz’ Grand Traité d’instrumentation et d’orchestration modernes (chapters The orchestra and parts of The conductor and his art) is required: English translation and commentary by Hugh Macdonald, Berlioz’s Orchestration Treatise, Cambridge 2002, p. 319-335, and p. 358-359.

Further required readings:

  • Daniel J. Koury, Orchestral Performance Practices in the Nineteenth Century. Size, Proportions, and Seating, Ann Arbor 1986 (Studies in Musicology 85), p. 173–237
  • A. Peter Brown, The Symphonic Repertoire, Bloomington 2002 et seqq., vol. II (The First Golden Age of the Viennese Symphony: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert), p. 530-531 [Beethoven, Wellingtons Sieg]; vol. III/A (The European Symphony from ca. 1800 to ca. 1830: Germany and the Nordic Countries), p. 699-729 [Berlioz, Symphonie fantastique]; vol. IV (The Second Golden Age of the Viennese Symphony: Brahms, Bruckner, Dvorak, Mahler, and Selected Contemporaries), p. 590-612 [Mahler, Symphony no. III]


Based on the readings (especially the music scores!), participants are requested to prepare an informal presentation underpinned by a written preparatory and problem-oriented assignment (ca. 500 words) concerning the following questions: (a) Which aspects of (musical) space does Berlioz develop in his orchestration treatise, and how does he use (concrete and implicit) space dimensions in his Symphonie fantastique (ca. 500-750 words)? (b) With which elements of creating sound space does Mahler work in his Third Symphony, and how do they contribute to create a specific (symphonic) dramaturgy (ca. 500-750 words)?

The assignment has to be submitted to (and c.c. to on or before the deadline 8 June 2015.