The Pit and the Podium: Opera Orchestras and Their Conductors
Rees, Simon, Musical Opinion
A group of instrumentalists (which may or may not contain some musicians) playing on a platform is called a symphony orchestra. The same group, playing for an opera or ballet, is called a pit band. The latter term is not to be mistaken for a bunch of brass and wind players drawn from the staff of a colliery, blowing to get the coal dust out of their lungs. They, at least, play in the open, on view to the audience. The pit band is invisible, and designed to be so. From the audience, all that can be seen is the frenzied figure of the timpanist at the back, thrashing away at the kettledrums, or perhaps another percussionist running from woodblocks to tubular bells to tam-tam and back again.
Opera orchestras used to play on a level with the front row of seats in the stalls. In ancient houses like the Drottningholm Slottstheater they still do, and wear periwigs, frock-coats and knee-breeches just like in the old days. Every stroke of the pointed bow, every emptying of the condensation-filled natural horn, can be clearly seen by the audience, and is part of the performance. The whole area in front of the stage was called the pit, where you stood or sat on a stool among the other groundlings or pit stinkards. Once the orchestra stalls seats had invaded the pit, and were taken up by better-dressed and better-washed patrons, the orchestra still sat at the same level, until a bright spark called Richard Wagner designed his own theatre, the Festspielhaus at Bayreuth, and decided to place the orchestra in a 'mystic abyss' whose purpose was to separate the stage from the audience, removing the distractions of 'the mechanical movements attendant on the musicians' and their conductor's performance'. This invention was soon copied all over the world, and from the 1870s opera and ballet orchestras were obliged to perform in an underground location that extended forward of the proscenium arch to end in a high wall topped with a brass rail, and backward under the stage to a set of doorways leading to the corridor with the band rooms.
Psychologically, the effect of the pit on the orchestra has been an unfortunate one. Believing themselves to be invisible, instrumentalists in pit bands will often bring sandwiches and other refreshments and tuck them under their chairs, not only at rehearsals but at performances too. One pit horn player I know was spotted during a 400-bar rest doing the crossword and consulting a dictionary for clues. Above the waist the clothing may be the conventional dinner jacket or tailcoat, but below there may be comfy shoes, loosened waistbands and the inevitable bum-bag, containing (for reed instruments) a reed-knife, spare reeds, linen thread, lip-salve and a pull-through, and (for string players) spare strings and mutes, a tuning-fork, Polo mints and painkillers. If a pit band is elevated to a concert platform (as happens more frequently in Britain than it used to, and with excellent results, especially in concerto repertory where the orchestra's capacity for following a soloist can be put to good use), the orchestra porters have to do a good deal of cleaning-up and policing, so that trainers are replaced with shiny dress shoes, bum-bags returned to the band room, and sandwiches left in the locker.
The pit band is out of sight of the audience, but also out of sight and hearing of the stage. In consequence, it is impossible for orchestral musicians to hear what is going on above their heads, except for the thud and blunder of chorus footsteps (rarely light) and the moving of bits of scenery. The band never sees the show, but may hear reports about it from one or another member (a saxophonist, say, or a harpist) who is only on for one act and who sacrifices a break to sit in the auditorium to watch a bit of the show. If you ask an opera orchestra about the plot of an opera, you tend to get a blank look, and many jokes revolve around the fact that nobody in the pit actually hears the tune, and believes that most opera scores are reiterations of tonic, dominant and back to tonic again. …