The Evolution of the Orchestra


Today we will discuss the evolution of the orchestra: from the beginning until now.

Welcome to Our Music, A podcast to unlock your imagination to the possibilities of Classical music. I hope you are having an inspiring week.

The word “orchestra” comes from ancient Greece and originally meant the place where the chorus sang, danced, and played their instruments. [greek theater] The term slowly evolved to mean the players themselves. 

The orchestra outbreak has its roots in the italian renaissance as consorts were employed in noble households. These were groups of instrumentalists especially assembled for important occasions. As we discussed 3 episodes ago, “The birth of modern orchestras took place when the genre of opera was created during the 1600s.”

You can find a transcript of this episode and all the accompanying materials visiting our website. 

Lets see this chronologically:

Baroque Orchestra (1600 – 1750)

Originally made up of whichever instruments were available, in Baroque music the orchestra revolves around the strings, with the violin as the leading instrument. It was composed of 10 to 30 players, primarily strings. Woodwind and brass, particularly oboes and French Horns,  were mainly used to sustain the harmony. A Harpsichord was used to keep everyone together and bind the group harmonically.

Classical Orchestra (1750 – early 1800)

Classical composers exploited the individual tone colours of instruments and demanded specific instruments to be used, mainly because a classical piece emphasizes a greater variety and more rapid changes of tone colour.  With up to 60 players, Classical orchestras brought the current four defined sections: strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion, but with fewer numbers.

The first violins would normally  take the melody with the support of the lower strings providing an accompaniment. The woodwinds added contrasting tone colours and were often given melodic solos. The Brass (Horns and trumpets) brought power to loud passages and filled out with the harmony, not yet in charge of main melodies. The Timpani (normally 2 drums) were used for rhythmic bite and emphasis. 

Romantic Orchestra (1815-1910)

 As orchestras achieved independence from Opera and the number of players needed to play a symphony  scaled up quickly, Romantic orchestras ended up having as many as a hundred or more players, and featured greater use of brass and newly introduced keyboard instruments (piano, celesta) and harps. In general, the music itself grew in difficulty and expanded its emotional and intellectual range.

Modern Symphony Orchestra (Present)  [tape on a side]

Modern orchestras fluctuate in personnel requirements depending on the composer’s wishes, but typically has a strength of between 75 and 100. Some smaller ensembles label themselves Sinfonietta, and less than 40 players are recognized as chamber orchestras.

Normally, the strings are seated closer to the conductor, divided (18) into first and (16) second violins, (14) violas, (14) cellos and (10) double basses. Next, the woodwinds [3 of each instrument] are usually grouped in flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons. Regular guests on the repertoire, harps and piano sit normally behind the violins. Then there is the brass, which normally consists of (2 or 3) trumpets, (4 to 8) French Horns  (3) trombones, and a tuba. This splendid formation closes with the percussion, starting with the Timpani and including pretty much any instrument the composer may need. Now and then, we have also the opportunity to combine instruments and voices again, and you get to hear the symphonic choir in action.

By now you have noticed that all these musicians assemble in a regular basis so that you can share in this sonic adventure. Never stop exploring, asking, requesting, searching for music. Every day, the more you hear, the better you become.

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