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The Orchestra as we know it.

Have you ever thought about the make-up of the orchestra? Why certain instruments are included and others not? And when did the orchestra as we know it evolve – or had it always been around?

I didn’t know the answer to these questions until I started writing my latest course, although I had spent so much of my professional life in an orchestra, and I have to admit the answers astounded me.




So what is an orchestra?

Is it just a large body of instruments playing together?

If so, can an orchestra be a concert hall full of 3yr old Suzuki violinists playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star or a Javanese Gamelan?

Does it have to do with the instrumentation, the balance or how these elements interact with one another?

An orchestra is a very specific beast. When you go to an orchestral concert you pretty much know what you are going to see in front of you on the stage. You know the instrumentation, their placement and the sounds which will be produced.

But has this always been the case? And if not, how did it evolve and how did it differ over time to have the instrument combinations and set up that we now associate with an orchestra.

Here is the set-up of a late Classical Orchestra like Mozart or Haydn would have used. If this is our basic orchestra, how and when did it get to look like this?

Let’s start with the Renaissance period (from about 1400-1600). In the Renaissance, instrumental music was very much broken up into string music and wind music with very little music written for a combined group. The reason for this was that the wind instruments were very rudimentary and had little or no ability to tune themselves or with other instruments. As a result groups often had only one player per part. Tuning was such a big issue.

Then in 1607 Monteverdi wrote Orfeo. His inclusion of both bass, woodwind, strings and keyboards in the one work would have astounded Gonzaga’s audience. On the face of it, it looks like we could call this ensemble an orchestra. But we need to see how it worked together. And that is just it; it didn’t work together or even sit together. Each instrument group had its own set role in the ensemble and as a result never worked together. For example, keyboards and plucked strings accompanied the songs, while bowed strings and winds (not working together) accompanied the dances and the brass were used for fanfares.

So, although there were instrumental groups in the Renaissance we can see that they didn’t really constitute an orchestra.

By the Baroque period things were slowly changing. Composing for instrumental ensembles became much more popular as great improvements in instruments took place. This meant that wind and brass instruments became easier to tune; winds started to be made in sections which fitted together which could then be lengthened or shortened to tune with other instruments. Instruments including oboes, flutes and recorders started being regularly included in string music although the Basso Continuo (usually a sole keyboard instrument at this stage) was still de riguer.

Renaissance instruments which couldn’t be altered to fit the new tastes of the Baroque period simply died out.

In France, Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) made incredible strides towards what we would consider an orchestra with his Vingt-cinq violons du Roys (25 violins for the King). This group worked together as a unit playing for Louis XIV’s ballets, operas and his general entertainment. Lully (who was apparently a task master) insisted that techniques such as bowings be uniform throughout the group. His 5 part concept of string writing spread throughout Europe and became the norm.

The Baroque period is a very long time – from about 1600-1740. At the beginning of the period instrument groups were still, on the whole, playing separately. In the case of opera, musicians often sat behind the stage, in boxes by the stage and sometimes actually on the stage itself.

By the end of the period, music was being written for combinations of instruments from various instrument groups. They were beginning to work as a cohesive unit and were positioned at the front of the stage for operas and on the stage for ensemble playing.

So we move into the Classical period, from about 1740-1820. During this time other wind instruments were added to the strings like the newly invented clarinet and heavily altered horn. They were included in pairs (a little like Noah and his ark!). So we now have flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets being regular members of a ‘thing’ called an orchestra – a word that was actually being used to describe this group! In this period winds are not only being used to add tone colour and double the string parts, like the Baroque period, but also being used as solo instruments within the ensemble. And most importantly specific pieces called Symphonies were being written for this body of musicians.

As the Romantic period dawns, new instruments are added, the size of the orchestra is very much increased and people like conductors are added to the mix.

With all the modifications and changes that have taken place with the orchestra since the Classical period it has still remained the same beast at its core. Orchestral music gives audiences abundant pleasure and has so for over 250 year. It may have taken many centuries to be established but I don’t think it is going away any time soon!


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