Orchestra: Wikis


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The Jalisco Philharmonic Orchestra

An orchestra is an instrumental ensemble, usually fairly large with string, brass, woodwind sections, and almost always a percussion section as well. The term orchestra derives from the Greek ορχήστρα, the name for the area in front of an ancient Greek stage reserved for the Greek chorus. The orchestra grew by accretion throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but changed very little in composition during the course of the twentieth century.

A smaller-sized orchestra for this time period (of about fifty players or fewer) is called a chamber orchestra. A full-size orchestra (about 100 players) may sometimes be called a "symphony orchestra" or "philharmonic orchestra"; these modifiers do not necessarily indicate any strict difference in either the instrumental constitution or role of the orchestra, but can be useful to distinguish different ensembles based in the same city (for instance, the London Symphony Orchestra and the London Philharmonic Orchestra). A symphony orchestra will usually have over eighty musicians on its roster, in some cases over a hundred, but the actual number of musicians employed in a particular performance may vary according to the work being played and the size of the venue. A leading chamber orchestra might employ as many as fifty musicians; some are much smaller than that.



Apo Hsu and the NTNU Symphony Orchestra on stage in the National Concert Hall in Taipei, Taiwan.

The typical symphony orchestra consists of four proportionate groups of similar musical instruments called the woodwinds, brass, percussion, and strings. The orchestra, depending on the size, contains almost all of the standard instruments in each group. In the history of the orchestra, its instrumentation has been expanded over time, often agreed to have been standardized by the classical period and Beethoven's influence on the classical model.

Beethoven's influence

The so-called "standard complement" of double winds and brass in the orchestra from the first half of the 19th century is generally attributed to the forces called for by Ludwig van Beethoven. The exceptions to this are his Symphony No. 4, Violin Concerto, and Piano Concerto No. 4, which each specify a single flute. The composer's instrumentation almost always included paired flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets. Beethoven carefully calculated the expansion of this particular timbral "palette" in Symphonies 3, 5, 6, and 9 for an innovative effect. The third horn in the "Eroica" Symphony arrives to provide not only some harmonic flexibility, but also the effect of "choral" brass in the Trio. Piccolo, contrabassoon, and trombones add to the triumphal finale of his Symphony No. 5. A piccolo and a pair of trombones help deliver storm and sunshine in the Sixth. The Ninth asks for a second pair of horns, for reasons similar to the "Eroica" (four horns has since become standard); Beethoven's use of piccolo, contrabassoon, trombones, and unpitched percussion – plus chorus and vocal soloists – in his finale, are his earliest suggestion that the timbral boundaries of "symphony" might be expanded for good. But for several decades after his departure, symphonic instrumentation was faithful to Beethoven's well-established model, with few exceptions.

Expanded instrumentation

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Apart from the core orchestral complement, various other instruments are called for occasionally. These include the classical guitar, heckelphone, flugelhorn, cornet, harpsichord, and organ. Saxophones, for example, appear in a limited range of 19th and 20th century scores. While appearing only as featured solo instruments in some works, for example Maurice Ravel's orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition and Sergei Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances, the saxophone is included in other works, such as Ravel's Boléro, Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet Suites 1 and 2, Vaughan Williams Symphony No.6 and Symphony No.9 and William Walton's Belshazzar's Feast, and many other works as a member of the orchestral ensemble. The euphonium is featured in a few late Romantic and 20th century works, usually playing parts marked "tenor tuba", including Gustav Holst's The Planets, and Richard Strauss's Ein Heldenleben. The Wagner tuba, a modified member of the horn family, appears in Richard Wagner's cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen and several other works by Richard Strauss, Béla Bartók, and others; it has a prominent role in Anton Bruckner's Symphony No. 7 in E Major.[1] Cornets appear in Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's ballet Swan Lake, Claude Debussy's La Mer, and several orchestral works by Hector Berlioz. Unless these instruments are played by members doubling on another instrument (for example, a trombone player changing to euphonium for a certain passage), orchestras will use freelance musicians to augment their regular rosters.

The 20th century orchestra was far more flexible than its predecessors. In composers such as Beethoven's and Felix Mendelssohn's time, the orchestra was composed of a fairly standard core of instruments which was very rarely modified. As time progressed, and as the Romantic saw changes in accepted modification with composers such as Berlioz, followed by Johannes Brahms and eventually Gustav Mahler, the 20th century saw that orchestration could practically be hand-picked by the composer.

With this history in mind, the orchestra can be seen to have a general evolution as outlined below. The first is a classical orchestra (i.e. Beethoven/late Haydn), the second an early/mid- romantic (i.e. Brahms/Dvořák/Schumann), late romantic/early 20th century (i.e. Wagner/Mahler/Richard Strauss), modern (i.e. Stravinsky to the present day, although as explained above this was far more flexible than the list implies and often forces would surpass the romantic/transition orchestra).

Classical Orchestra

2 Flutes
2 Oboes
2 Clarinets (in C, B-flat, or A)
2 Bassoons
2 or 4 Horns (in any key)
2 Trumpets (in any key)
6 Violins I
6 Violins II
4 Violas
3 Violoncellos
2 Double basses

Early Romantic Orchestra

2 Flutes
2 Oboes
(English Horn)
2 Clarinets in B-flat, A
(Bass Clarinet in B-flat, A)
2 Bassoons
4 Horns in F
2 Trumpets in F
(2 Cornets in B-flat)
3 Trombones (2 Tenor, 1 Bass)
Snare Drum
Bass Drum
14 Violins I
12 Violins II
10 Violas
8 Violoncellos
6 Double basses

Late Romantic Orchestra

3 Flutes fsdfds
3 Oboes
English Horn
Clarinet in E-flat
3 Clarinetsin B-flat, A
Bass Clarinet
3 Bassoons
8 Horns in F
4 Trumpets in F, C, B-flat
4 Trombones (3 Tenor, 1 Bass)
(Wagner Tubas (2 Tenor, 2 Bass))
Snare drum
Bass drum
2 Harps
16 Violins I
16 Violins II
12 Violas
12 Violoncellos seff
12 Double basses

Modern Orchestra

2 Flutes
2 Oboes
English Horn
2 Clarinets in B-flat, A
Bass Clarinet (and/or Clarinet in E-flat)
2 Bassoons
4 Horns in F
3 Trumpets in C
3 Trombones (2 Tenor, 1 Bass)
Snare Drum
Tenor Drum
Bass Drum
Wood block
Castanets[citation needed]
Congas[citation needed]
Bongos[citation needed]
Güiro[citation needed]
Whip[citation needed]
16 Violins I
14 Violins II
12 Violas
10 Violoncellos
8 Double basses


Lorin Maazel conducting

Among the instrument groups and within each group of instruments, there is a generally accepted hierarchy. Every instrumental group (or section) has a principal who is generally responsible for leading the group and playing orchestral solos. The violins are divided into two groups, first violin and second violin, each with its principal. The principal first violin is called the concertmaster (or "leader" in the UK) and is considered the leader of not only the string section, but of the entire orchestra, subordinate only to the conductor.

The principal trombone is considered the leader of the low brass section, while the principal trumpet is generally considered the leader of the entire brass section. Similarly, the principal oboe is considered the leader of the woodwind section, and is the player to whom all others tune. The horn, while technically a brass instrument, often acts in the role of both woodwind and brass. Most sections also have an assistant principal (or co-principal or associate principal), or in the case of the first violins, an assistant concertmaster, who often plays a tutti part in addition to replacing the principal in his or her absence.

A section string player plays unison with the rest of the section, except in the case of divided (divisi) parts, where upper and lower parts in the music are often assigned to "outside" (nearer the audience) and "inside" seated players. Where a solo part is called for in a string section, for example in the violins, the section leader invariably plays that part. Tutti wind and brass players generally play a unique but non-solo part. Section percussionists play parts assigned to them by the principal percussionist.

In modern times, the musicians are usually directed by a conductor, although early orchestras did not have one, using instead the concertmaster or the harpsichordist playing the continuo for this role. Some modern orchestras also do without conductors, particularly smaller orchestras and those specializing in historically accurate performances of baroque music and earlier.

The most frequently performed repertoire for a symphony orchestra is Western classical music or opera. However, orchestras are sometimes used in popular music, used extensively in film music, and sometimes used in video game music.

The Budapest Symphony Orchestra.

History of the orchestra

Early history

The history of the modern orchestra that we are familiar with today goes all the way back to Ancient Egypt. The first orchestras were made up of small groups of musicians that gathered for festivals, holidays or funerals. During the time of the Roman Empire, the government suppressed the musicians and informal ensembles were banned, but they reappeared after the collapse of the Empire. It was not until the 11th century that families of instruments started to appear with differences in tones and octaves. True modern orchestras started in the late 16th century when composers started writing music for instrumental groups. In the 15th and 16th centuries in Italy the households of nobles had musicians to provide music for dancing and the court, however with the emergence of the theatre, particularly opera, in the early 17th century, music was increasingly written for groups of players in combination, which is the origin of orchestral playing. Opera originated in Italy, and Germany eagerly followed. Dresden, Munich and Hamburg successively built opera houses. At the end of the 17th century opera flourished in England under Henry Purcell, and in France under Lully, who with the collaboration of Molière also greatly raised the status of the entertainments known as ballets, interspersed with instrumental and vocal music.

In the 17th century and early 18th century, instrumental groups were taken from all of the available talent. A composer such as Johann Sebastian Bach had control over almost all of the musical resources of a town, whereas Handel would hire the best musicians available. This placed a premium on being able to rewrite music for whichever singers or musicians were best suited for a performance—Handel produced different versions of the Messiah oratorio almost every year.

As nobility began to build retreats away from towns, they began to hire musicians to form permanent ensembles. Composers such as the young Joseph Haydn would then have a fixed body of instrumentalists to work with. At the same time, travelling virtuoso performers would write concerti that showed off their skills, and they would travel from town to town, arranging concerts along the way. The aristocratic orchestras worked together over long periods, making it possible for ensemble playing to improve with practice.

Mannheim School

This change, from civic music making where the composer had some degree of time or control, to smaller court music making and one-off performance, placed a premium on music that was easy to learn, often with little or no rehearsal. The results were changes in musical style and emphasis on new techniques. Mannheim had one of the most famous orchestras of that time, where notated dynamics and phrasing, previously quite rare, became standard (see Mannheim school). It also attended a change in musical style from the complex counterpoint of the baroque period, to an emphasis on clear melody, homophonic textures, short phrases, and frequent cadences: a style that would later be defined as classical.

Throughout the late 18th century composers would continue to have to assemble musicians for a performance, often called an "Academy", which would, naturally, feature their own compositions. In 1781, however, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra was organized from the merchants concert society, and it began a trend towards the formation of civic orchestras that would accelerate into the 19th century. In 1815, Boston's Handel and Haydn Society was founded, in 1842 the New York Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic were formed, and in 1858, the Hallé Orchestra was formed in Manchester. There had long been standing bodies of musicians around operas, but not for concert music: this situation changed in the early 19th century as part of the increasing emphasis in the composition of symphonies and other purely instrumental forms. This was encouraged by composer critics such as E. T. A. Hoffmann who declared that instrumental music was the "purest form" of music. The creation of standing orchestras also resulted in a professional framework where musicians could rehearse and perform the same works repeatedly, leading to the concept of a repertoire in instrumental music.

Performance standards

In the 1830s, conductor François Antoine Habeneck, began rehearsing a selected group of musicians in order to perform the symphonies of Beethoven, which had not been heard of in their entirety in Paris. He developed techniques of rehearsing the strings separately, notating specifics of performance, and other techniques of cuing entrances that were spread across Europe. His rival and friend Hector Berlioz would adopt many of these innovations in his touring of Europe.

Instrumental craftsmanship

The invention of the piston and rotary valve by Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel and Friedrich Blühmel, both Silesians, in 1815, was the first in a series of innovations, including the development of modern keywork for the flute by Theobald Boehm and the innovations of Adolphe Sax in the woodwinds. These advances would lead Hector Berlioz to write a landmark book on instrumentation, which was the first systematic treatise on the use of instrumental sound as an expressive element of music.[2]

The effect of the invention of valves for the brass was felt almost immediately: instrument-makers throughout Europe strove together to foster the use of these newly refined instruments and continuing their perfection; and the orchestra was before long enriched by a new family of valved instruments, variously known as tubas, or euphoniums and bombardons, having a chromatic scale and a full sonorous tone of great beauty and immense volume, forming a magnificent bass. This also made possible a more uniform playing of notes or intonation, which would lead to a more and more "smooth" orchestral sound that would peak in the 1950s with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra and the conducting of Herbert von Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic.

During this transition period, which gradually eased the performance of more demanding "natural" brass writing, many composers (notably Wagner and Berlioz) still notated brass parts for the older "natural" instruments. This practice made it possible for players still using natural horns, for instance, to perform from the same parts as those now playing valved instruments. However, over time, use of the valved instruments became standard, indeed universal, until the revival of older instruments in the contemporary movement towards authentic performance (sometimes known as "historically informed performance").

At the time of the invention of the valved brass, the pit orchestra of most operetta composers seems to have been modest. An example is Sullivan's use of two flutes, one oboe, two clarinets, one bassoon, two horns, two cornets (a piston), two trombones, drums and strings.

During this time of invention, winds and brass were expanded, and had an increasingly easy time playing in tune with each other: particularly the ability for composers to score for large masses of wind and brass that previously had been impractical. Works such as the Requiem of Hector Berlioz would have been impossible to perform just a few decades earlier, with its demanding writing for twenty woodwinds, as well as four gigantic brass ensembles each including around four trumpets, four trombones, and two tubas.

Wagner's influence

The next major expansion of symphonic practice came from Richard Wagner's Bayreuth orchestra, founded to accompany his musical dramas. Wagner's works for the stage were scored with unprecedented scope and complexity: indeed, his score to Das Rheingold calls for six harps. Thus, Wagner envisioned an ever-more-demanding role for the conductor of the theater orchestra, as he elaborated in his influential work "On Conducting".[3] This brought about a revolution in orchestral composition, and set the style for orchestral performance for the next eighty years. Wagner's theories re-examined the importance of tempo, dynamics, bowing of string instruments and the role of principals in the orchestra. Conductors who studied his methods would go on to be influential themselves.

20th century orchestra

As the early 20th century dawned, symphony orchestras were larger, better funded, and better trained than ever before; consequently, composers could compose larger and more ambitious works. With the recording era beginning, the standard of performance reached a pinnacle. In recordings, small errors in a performance could be "fixed", but many older conductors and composers could remember a time when simply "getting through" the music as best as possible was the standard. Combined with the wider audience made possible by recording, this led to a renewed focus on particular conductors and on a high standard of orchestral execution.[4] As sound was added to silent film, the virtuoso orchestra became a key component of the establishment of motion pictures as mass-market entertainment.


In the 1920s and 1930s, economic as well as artistic considerations led to the formation of smaller concert societies, particularly those dedicated to the performance of music of the avant-garde, including Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg. This tendency to start festival orchestras or dedicated groups would also be pursued in the creation of summer musical festivals, and orchestras for the performance of smaller works. Among the most influential of these was the Academy of St Martin in the Fields under the baton of Sir Neville Marriner.

With the advent of the early music movement, orchestras where players worked on execution of works in styles derived from the study of older treatises on playing became common. These include the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the London Classical Players under the direction of Sir Roger Norrington and the Academy of Ancient Music under Christopher Hogwood, among others.

Recent trends

The late 20th century saw a crisis of funding and support for orchestras. The size and cost of a symphony orchestra, compared to the size of the base of supporters, became an issue that struck at the core of the institution. The drastic falling-off of revenues from recording, tied to no small extent to changes in the recording industry itself, began a period of change that has yet to reach its conclusion. Critics such as Norman Lebrecht were vocal in their diagnosis of the problem as the "jet set conductor" and the problems of orchestral repertory and management, while other music administrators such as Michael Tilson Thomas and Esa-Pekka Salonen argued that new music, new means of presenting it, and a renewed relationship with the community could revitalize the symphony orchestra.

Conductorless orchestras

The post-revolutionary symphony orchestra Persimfans was formed in the Soviet Union in 1922. The unusual aspect of the orchestra was that, believing that in the ideal Marxist state all people are equal, its members felt that there was no need to be led by the dictatorial baton of a conductor; instead they were led by a committee. Although it was a partial success, the principal difficulty with the concept was in changing tempo. The orchestra survived for ten years before Stalin's cultural politics effectively forced it into disbandment by draining away its funding.[5]

Some ensembles, such as the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, based in New York City, have had more success, although decisions are likely to be deferred to some sense of leadership within the ensemble (for example, the principal wind and string players).

Others have returned to the tradition of a principal player, usually a violinist, being the artistic director and running rehearsals (such as the Australian Chamber Orchestra and the New Century Chamber Orchestra).

Multiple conductors

The techniques of polystylism and polytempo music have recently led a few composers to write music where multiple orchestras perform simultaneously. These trends have brought about the phenomenon of polyconductor music, wherein separate sub-conductors conduct each group of musicians. Usually, one principal conductor conducts the sub-conductors, thereby shaping the overall performance. Some pieces are enormously complex in this regard, such as Evgeni Kostitsyn's Third Symphony, which calls for nine conductors.

Charles Ives often used two conductors, one for example to simulate a marching band coming through his piece. Realizations for Symphonic Band includes one example from Ives.

One of the famous example in the late century orchestral music is Karlheinz Stockhausen's Gruppen, for three orchestras placed around the public. This way, the sound masses could be spacialized, as in an eletroacoustic work. Gruppen was premiered in Cologne, in 1958, conducted by Stockhausen, Bruno Maderna and Pierre Boulez. Recently, it was performed by Simon Rattle, John Carewe and Daniel Harding.

Other meanings of orchestra

In Ancient Greece, the orchestra was the space between the auditorium and the proscenium (or stage), in which were stationed the chorus and the instrumentalists. The word orchestra literally means "a dancing place".

In some theaters, the orchestra is the area of seats directly in front of the stage (called primafila or platea); the term more properly applies to the place in a theatre, or concert hall reserved for the musicians.

See also


  1. ^ The Wagner Tuba
  2. ^ Hector Berlioz. Traite d'instrumentation et d'orchestration (Paris: Lemoine, 1843).
  3. ^ Richard Wagner. On Conducting (Ueber das Dirigiren), a treatise on style in the execution of classical music (London: W. Reeves, 1887).
  4. ^ See Lance W. Brunner, "The Orchestra and Recorded Sound", in The Orchestra: Origins and Transformations, ed. Joan Peyser (New York: Scribner's Sons, 1986), 479-532.
  5. ^ John Eckhard, "Orchester ohne Dirigent", Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik 158, no. 2 (1997): 40-43.


  • Peyser, Joan, ed. (1986). The Orchestra: Origins and Transformations. Charles Scribner's Sons. ISBN 0-684-18068-5. 
  • Raynor, Henry (1978). The Orchestra: a history. Scribner. ISBN 0-684-15535-4. 
  • Sptizer, John, and Neil Zaslaw (2004). The Birth of the Orchestra: History of an Institution, 1650-1815. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-816434-3. 

External links

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

ORCHESTRA (Fr. Orchestre; Ger. Kapelle, Orchester; Ital. Orchestra), in its modern acceptation (1) the place in a theatre or concert hall set apart for the musicians; (2) a carefullybalanced group of performers on stringed, wind and percussion instruments adapted for playing in concert and directed by a conductor. In ancient Greece the op X ?arpa was the space between the auditorium and the proscenium or stage, in which were stationed the chorus and the instrumentalists. The second sense is that which is dealt with here.

A modern orchestra is composed of (1) a basis of strings - first and second violins, violas, violoncellos and double basses; (2) flutes, sometimes including a piccolo; (3) the reed contingent, consisting of two complete families, the oboes with their tenors and basses (the cor Anglais, the fagotto or bassoon and the contrafagotto or double bassoon), the clarinets with their tenor and basses (the basset horn and the bass and pedal clarinets) with the addition sometimes of saxophones; (4) the brass wind, consisting of the horns, a group sometimes completed by the tenor and tenor-bass Wagner tubas, the trumpet or cornet, the trombones (tenor, bass and contrabass), the tubas (tenor, bass and contrabass); (5) the percussion instruments, including the kettledrums, bells, Glockenspiel, cymbals, triangle, &c. Harps are added when required for special effects.

Although most of the instruments from the older civilizations of Egypt, Chaldea, Persia, Phoenicia and of the Semitic races were known to the ancient Greeks, their conception of music led them to discourage all imitation of their neighbours' love of orchestral effects, obtained by combining harps, lyres, guitars, tanburs, double pipes and long flutes, trumpets, bagpipes, cymbals, drums, &c., playing in unison or in octaves. The Greeks only cultivated to any extent the various kinds of citharas, lyres and auloi, seldom used in concert. To the predilection of the Romans for wind instruments of all kinds, we owe nearly all the wind instruments of the modern orchestra, each of which had its prototype among the instruments of the Roman Empire: the flute, oboe and clarinet, in the tibia; the trombone and trumpet in the buccina; the tubas in the tuba; and the French horn in cornu and buccina. The 4th century A.D. witnessed the downfall of the Roman drama and the debasement of instrumental music, which was placed under a ban by the Church. During the convulsions which the migrations of Goths, Vandals and Huns caused in Europe after the fall of Rome, instrumental music was preserved from absolute extinction by wandering actors and musicians turned adrift after the closing of the theatres by command of the Church. Later, as demand arose, reinforcements of instruments, instrumentalists and instrument makers filtered through the Byzantine Empire and the Christian East generally on the one side and from the Moors on the West. It is towards the dawn of the 11th century that we find the first definite indications of the status of instrumental music in Western and Central Europe. Everywhere are the evidences, so conspicuously absent from the catacombs and from Romano-Christian monuments, of the growing favour in which instrumental music was held, to instance only such sculptures as those of the Abbey of Boscherville in Normandy, of the portico of the Cathedral of Santiago da Compostella (12th century) with its orchestra of 24 musicians, and the full-page illuminations of Psalters representing David and his musicians and of the 24 elders in the Apocalypses.

The earliest instrumental compositions extant are certain 15th-century dances and pieces in contrapuntal style preserved in the libraries of Berlin and Munich. The late development of notation, which long remained exclusively in the hands of monks and troubadours, personally more concerned with vocal than with instrumental music, ensured the preservation of the former, while the latter was left unrecorded. Instrumental music was for centuries dependent on outcasts and outlaws, tolerated by Church and State but beyond the pale. Little was known of the construction and technique of the instruments, and their possibilities were undreamed. Nevertheless, the innate love and yearning of the people for tone-colour asserted itself with sufficient strength to overcome all obstacles. It is true that the development of the early forms of harmony, the organum, diaphony, the discant and the richer forms of polyphony grew up round the voice, but indications are not wanting of an independent energy and vitality which must surely have existed in unrecorded medieval instrumental music, since they can be so clearly traced in the instruments themselves. It is, for example, significant of the attitude of loth-century instrumentalists towards musical progress that they at once assimilated Hucbald's innovation of the organum, a parallel succession of fourths and fifths, accompanied sometimes by the octave, for two or three voices respectively, and they produced in the same century the organistrum, named after Hucbald's organum, and specially constructed to reproduce it.

Shortly after the introduction of polyphony, instruments such as flutes-a-bec, or flaiols, comets, cromornes, shawms, hunting horns, bagpipes, as well as lutes and bowed instruments began to be made in sizes approximately corresponding in pitch with the voice parts. It is probably to the same yearning of instrumentalists after a polyphonic ensemble, possible until the 14th century only on organs, hurdy-gurdies and bagpipes, that we owe the clavichord and clavicembalo, embodying the application of keys, respectively, to the dulcimer and the psaltery.

There are two reasons which account for the development of the brass wind proceeding more slowly. (1) These instruments, trumpets or busines, tubas and horns, were for many centuries mainly used in medieval Europe as military or hunting signal instruments, and as such the utmost required of them was a fanfare. Specimens of 14th-century tablature and 16th-century notation for the horn, for instance, show that for that instrument rhythm alone was taken into account. (2) Whereas in most of the instruments named above the notes of the diatonic scale were either fixed or easily obtained, the acoustic principles of tubes without lateral holes and blown by means of a cup mouthpiece do not allow of a diatonic scale, except for the fourth octave from the fundamental, and that only in trumpets and horns, the notes of the common chord with the addition of the flattened seventh being the utmost that can be produced without the help of valves, keys or slides. These instruments were, therefore, the last to be added to the orchestra, although they were extensively used for special military, civil and religious functions and were the most highly favoured of all.

The earliest improvement in the status of the roving instrumentalists came with the rise of minstrelsy. The courts of the counts of Toulouse, Provence and Barcelona were the first to foster the art of improvising or composing songs known as trobar (or trouver in the north of France), and Count Guillaume of Poitiers (1087-1127) is said to have been the first troubadour. The noble troubadour seldom sang the songs he composed himself, this duty devolving upon his professional minstrel skilled in singing and in playing upon divers instruments who interpreted and disseminated his master's verses. In this respect the troubadour differed from his German contemporary the Minnesinger, who frequently sang himself. The professional musicians were included under the general term of jongleurs or jugleors, gleemen or minstrels, whose function was to entertain and amuse, but there were among them many subtle distinctions and ranks, such as chanteors and estrumanteors. Love was the prevailing theme in the south, while in the north war and heroic deeds inspired the bards. To the former was due the rapid development of bowed instruments, which by reason of their singing quality were more suitable for accompanying passionate love songs, while instruments of which the strings were plucked accorded better with the declamatory and dramatic style of the north.

The first assertive move towards independence was made by the wandering musicians in the 13th century, when some of these, tired of a roving life, settled down in cities, forming gilds or brotherhoods for the protection of their mutual interests and privileges. In time they came to be recognized by the burgomasters and municipalities, by whom they were engaged to provide music at all civic and private festivities, wandering musicians being prohibited from playing within the precincts of the cities. The oldest of these gilds was the Brotherhood of Nicolai founded in Vienna in 1288. In the next century these pioneers chose as patron of their brotherhood Peter von Eberstorff, from 1354 to 1376 known as Vogt der Musikanten, who obtained for the members an imperial charter. This example was gradually followed in other parts of Germany and elsewhere in Europe. In England, John of Gaunt was in 1381 chosen King of the Minstrels. In France there was the Confrerie of St Julien des Menestriers, incorporated in 1321. Exalted patrons of instrumental music multiplied in the 15th century, to instance only the dukes of Burgundy, the emperors of the House of Austria, the dukes of Lorraine, of Este, Ferrara and Tuscany, the electors of Saxony and the kings of France with their renowned institutions La Chapelle-Musique du Roi (c. 1440), la Musique de la Chambre, la Musique de la Grande Ecurie duRoi. At the time of the revival of the drama with music, afterwards modified and known as opera, at the end of the 16th century, there was as yet no orchestra in our sense of the word, but merely an abundance of instruments used in concert for special effects, without balance or grouping; small positive organs, regals, harpsichords, lutes, theorboes, archlutes and chittarone (bass and contrabass lutes), guitars, viols, lyras da braccio and da gamba, psalteries, citterns, harps, flutes, recorders, comets, trumpets and trombones, drums and cymbals.

Monteverde was the first to see that a preponderance of strings is necessary to ensure a proper balance of tone. With the perfected models of the Cremona violins at his disposal, a quartett of strings was established, and all other stringed instruments not played with the bow were ejected from the orchestra with the exception of the harp. Under the influence of Monteverde and his successors, Cavalli and Cesti, the orchestra won for itself a separate existence with music and laws of its own. As instruments were improved, new ones introduced, and old ones abandoned, instrumentation became a new and favourite study in Italy and in Germany. Musicians began to find out the capabilities of various families of instruments and their individual value.

The proper understanding of the compass and capabilities of wind instruments, and more especially of the brass wind, was of later date (18th century). At first the scores contained but few indications for instruments other than strings; the others played as much as they could according to the compass of their instruments at the direction of the leader. The possibility of using instruments for solos, by encouraging virtuosi to acquire great skill, raised the standard of excellence of the whole orchestra.

At first the orchestra was an aristocratic luxury, performing privately at the courts of the princes and nobles of Italy; but in the 17th century performances were given in theatres, and Germany eagerly followed. Dresden, Munich and Hamburg successively built opera houses, while in England opera flourished under Purcell, and in France under Lully, who with the collaboration of Moliere also greatly raised the status of the entertainments known as ballets, interspersed with instrumental and vocal music.

The revival of the drama seems to have exhausted the enthusiasm of Italy for instrumental music, and the field of action was shifted to Germany, where the perfecting of the orchestra was continued. Most German princes had at the beginning of the 18th century good private orchestras or Kapelle, and they always endeavoured to secure the services of the best available instrumentalists. Kaiser, Telemann, Graun, Mattheson and Handel contributed greatly to the development of German opera and of the orchestra in Hamburg during the first quarter of the century. Bach, Gluck and Mozart, the reformers of opera; Haydn, the father of the modern orchestra and the first to treat it independently as a power opposed to the solo and chorus, by scoring for the instruments in well-defined groups; Beethoven, who individualized the instruments, writing solo passages for them; Weber, who brought the horn and clarinet into prominence; Schubert, who inaugurated the conversations between members of the wood wind - all left their mark on the orchestra, leading the way up to Wagner and Strauss.

A sketch of the rise of the modern orchestra would not be complete without reference to the invention of the piston or valve by Stolzel and Bliimel, both Silesians, in 1815. A satisfactory bass for the wind, and more especially for the brass, had long been a desideratum. The effect of this invention was felt at once: instrument-makers in all countries vied with each other in making use of the contrivance and in bringing it to perfection; and the orchestra was before long enriched by a new family of valved instruments, variously known as tubas, or euphoniums and bombardons, having a chromatic scale and a full sonorous tone of great beauty and immense volume, forming a magnificent bass. (K. S.) xx. 6 a

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Simple English

File:Dohnanyi Orchestra
The Dohnanyi Orchestra performing. The conductor of this orchestra has the second violins on his right. The double basses are at the back

An orchestra is a group of musicians playing instruments together. They usually play classical music. A large orchestra is sometimes called a "symphony orchestra" and a small orchestra is called a "chamber orchestra". A symphony orchestra may have about 100 players, while a chamber orchestra may have 30 or 40 players. The number of players will depend on what music they are playing and the size of the place where they are playing. The word "orchestra" originally meant the semi-circular space in front of a stage in a Greek theatre which is where the singers and instruments used to play. Gradually the word came to mean the musicians themselves.


The conductor

The orchestra is directed by a conductor. He (or she) helps the players to play together, to get the right balance so that everything can be heard clearly, and to encourage the orchestra to play with the same kind of feeling. Some small chamber orchestras may play without a conductor. This was usual until the 19th century when the orchestras got very big and needed a conductor who made decisions and stood in front so that all the players could see him.

The instruments

An orchestral layout. There are various ways of positioning instruments. Quite often the woodwind are in straight lines instead of a curve as in this diagram, and the extra woodwind more often sit with the others: the piccolo with the flutes etc

The instruments of the orchestra are divided into families: the strings, woodwind, brass and percussion. Each section (group of instruments) will have a player who is the "section principal". If the music says "solo" in their part it is the principal who will play the solo. The principals will make decisions about seating arrangements, and about technical ways of playing the music: for example the principal of the string sections will make sure all the players move their bows up and down in the same direction. The violins are divided into first and second violins. The first violins usually have the tune while the seconds, most of the time, are part of the accompaniment. The principal of the first violins is the leader (or concertmaster) of the orchestra. In a professional orchestra they will be the most highly paid member of the orchestra

The strings

The strings are the biggest section, although there are only four kinds of instruments: violin, viola, cello, and double bass. This is because they are playing most of the time and usually form the basis of the music. If they are not playing the tune they will probably be accompanying. The first and second violins play different notes: the firsts usually have the tune. The strings sit at the front of the stage in a fan-shape in front of the conductor. The first violins are on the conductor's left, then come the second violins, then the violas and then the cellos. The double basses are behind the cellos. Some conductors prefer to have the second violins on their right and the cellos between the first violins and violas (see image of the Dohnanyi Orchestra).

The woodwind

The woodwind sit in one or two rows (depending on the size of the orchestra) behind the strings. There are four main woodwind instruments: flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon. Each of these four instruments also come in different versions:

The flute has a small version called the piccolo which plays an octave higher. It is the highest instrument in the orchestra. Occasionally there is an alto flute which is longer and plays a fifth (half an octave) lower than the flute. Most woodwind instruments need a reed, but the flute does not have a reed.

The oboe has a larger version called the cor anglais (or "English horn") which sounds a fifth lower than the oboe. It has a reed which fits into a curved crook.

The clarinet has a larger version called the bass clarinet. There is a smaller version: the E flat clarinet. There is also a clarinet larger than a normal clarinet but smaller than a bass clarinet: the E flat alto clarinet.

The bassoon has a larger version: the contrabassoon or double bassoon which sounds an octave lower. It is the lowest instrument in the orchestra.

An formal orchestra will always consist of two of the four main instruments. The variations of the instruments are used where the piece asks for it. Usually, the newer pieces written after 1850 will have more instruments.

Sometimes a player will double on these extra instruments, for example: one of the flute players may also play the piccolo in the same piece. It depends on the piece of music. Obviously a player cannot play the flute and piccolo at the same time. If the two instruments do play at the same time an extra player will be needed for the piccolo.

The brass

The brass section has four sections: trumpet, trombone, French horn, and tuba. Some of these come in several sizes. The article on transposing instruments explains more about it. The trumpet may have several slightly different sizes. The lowest kind is a bass trumpet. The trombone may be an alto, tenor, bass or contrabass trombone. The French horn, like the other brass instruments, has changed over the years. Modern horns have at least three valves and are usually in F. They often sit in a different place to the other brass. The tuba comes in different sizes and the player or conductor must decide which to use for the piece they are playing. There are large ones called contrabass tubas. A small tuba is commonly also seen and is called a euphonium or a baritone horn.

The percussion

The percussion section has the largest variety of instruments, but in an orchestra they will have the smallest number of players. This is because they are mostly loud and can be heard easily over the rest of the orchestra. The timpani (or "kettle drums") can be tuned to particular notes. They are the most common percussion instrument. Composers such as Haydn and Mozart nearly always used them, even with their small orchestras. This is the most commonly used percussion instruments and can be found in almost all pieces. The rest of the percussion section can include tuned percussion instruments like xylophone, glockenspiel, vibraphone, or marimba. Non-tuned percussion can be other kinds of drum like bass drum, snare drum, side drum, and a variety of others: tambourine, cymbal, castanets, triangle, woodblock, claves to name the most common ones. In an orchestral work, there can be many percussion instruments but a few players. The principal percussion player will have to decide which player will play which instrument(s). The percussionists have to work well together as a team so all parts can be covered.

The piano can also be found in an orchestra.

The history of the orchestra

It is difficult to say when the orchestra was invented because instruments have played together for many centuries. If we say that an orchestra is a group of string instruments with several players playing the same part, and that there may be wind instruments (i.e. woodwind and brass) or percussion playing as well, then the 17th century is the time that orchestras started. In Paris in 1626 King Louis XIII had an orchestra of 24 violins (called "24 Violons du Roi"). Later in the century the English king Charles II wanted to be like the French king and so he, too, had a string orchestra. Gradually the other instruments were added. At this time there was usually someone playing the harpsichord (the continuo part). It was often the composer himself, who would have conducted from the keyboard at important moments like the beginning and end of the piece.

Clarinets came into the orchestra at the end of the 18th century, and trombones at the beginning of the 19th century. Orchestras were still quite small, though. The saxophone was invented in the middle of the 19th century, but although they started to use it in orchestras, it soon became an instrument that was used in wind bands and later jazz bands. The opera composer Richard Wagner made the orchestra much bigger because he kept asking for extra instruments. He asked for a bass clarinet in his opera Lohengrin, and for his cycle of four operas called The Ring of the Nibelung he asked for an exact number of players: 16 first violins, 16 second violins, 12 violas, 12 cellos, 8 double basses, 3 flutes and piccolo, 3 oboes and cor anglais, 3 clarinets and bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 3 trumpets and bass trumpet, 3 tenor trombones and a double bass trombone, 8 horns with 4 of them playing a specially designed tuba, a bass tuba, percussion, and 6 harps.

Not all pieces written after that need quite such a large orchestra, but concert halls had become bigger and composers had got used to a bigger variety of sounds. Later composers sometimes added all sorts of unusual instruments: wind machine, sandpaper block, bottles, typewriter, anvils, iron chains, cuckoo, Swannee whistle etc. None of these are normal orchestral instruments. Sometimes a piano is used in the percussion section, e.g. Igor Stravinsky used one in Petrouchka. Sometimes voices are also used.

The orchestra today

File:Vienna Mozart
The Vienna Mozart Orchestra is a chamber orchestra (small orchestra)

Today orchestras can usually be heard in concert halls. They also play in opera houses for opera and ballet, or in a large stadium for huge open-air concerts. Orchestras may record in studios for making CDs or recording music for movies. Many of them can be heard easily and cheaply every summer in London at the BBC Proms.

Some of the greatest orchestras today include: the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Balmacewen School Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and the NHK Symphony Orchestra (Tokyo). Opera houses usually have their own orchestra, e.g. the orchestras of the Metropolitan Opera House, La Scala, or the Royal Opera House.

In many countries there are opportunities for school-age children who play instruments well to play in youth orchestras in their areas. In Britain some of the very best are selected to play in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. Other world-famous youth orchestras include the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar, Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, the European Union Youth Orchestra and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.


  • The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 1980; ed. Stanley Sadie; ISBN 1-56159-174-2
  • Orchestration by Walter Piston, London 1965.

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