Weird Visions, Weird Instrumentation

Among the many tools in a composer’s kit is the choice of instruments. The same line of music, at the same tempo and volume, may sound one way when played by a violin, another way when played by a trumpet. Verdi provides a concrete example during Macbeth’s second visit to the witches, when they conjure up the vision of eight kings, all descended from Banquo, Track 18.

First we hear a signature three-part fanfare from the witches’ chorus. “Appear! Appear! Appear!” they call to the spirit world, “then disappear again like mist.” Immediately, and apparently from far off, we hear a strange, stately strain. As the eight kings move across the stage, and in between Macbeth’s startled reactions, the strain repeats again, twice each time until Macbeth cries out “O mio terror!”, then louder and louder beneath his aria, taken up before long by the entire orchestra.

Verdi specified that this “eight kings” theme be played by a particular set of instruments—six clarinets, two oboes, two bassoons, and one contrabassoon—and he proposed that they play from under the stage! The idea was to create a particularly otherworldly musical counterpart, like “subterranean bagpipes.” Your students may want to imagine what the “bagpipes” would have sounded like had Verdi scored them for brass band instead.