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An orchestra is a large instrumental ensemble that contains sections of string, brass, woodwind, and percussion instruments. Other instruments such as the piano and celesta may sometimes be grouped into a fifth section such as a keyboard section or may stand alone, as may the concert harp and electric and electronic instruments. The term orchestra derives from the Greek ὀρχήστρα, the name for the area in front of an ancient Greek stage reserved for the Greek chorus. The orchestra grew by accretion throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, but changed very little in composition during the course of the 20th century.
A smaller-sized orchestra for this time period (of about fifty musicians or fewer) is called a chamber orchestra. A full-size orchestra (about 100 musicians) 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. Orchestras can also be found in schools. The term concert orchestra may sometimes be used (e.g., BBC Concert Orchestra; RTÉ Concert Orchestra)—no distinction is made on size of orchestra by use of this term, although their use is generally distinguished as for live concert. As such they are commonly chamber orchestras.
The typical symphony orchestra consists of 4 groups of similar musical instruments called the woodwinds, brass, percussion, and strings. Other instruments such as the piano and celesta may sometimes be grouped into a fifth section such as a keyboard section or may stand alone, as may the concert harp and electric and electronic instruments. 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 Ludwig van Beethoven's influence on the classical model.
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 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 untuned percussion—plus chorus and vocal soloists—in his finale, are his earliest suggestion that the timbral boundaries of symphony might be expanded for good. For several decades after his departure, symphonic instrumentation was faithful to Beethoven's well-established model, with few exceptions.
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 some 19th- through 21st-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, Sergei Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet Suites 1 and 2, Vaughan Williams' Symphonies No.6 and 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 Strauss, Béla Bartók, and others; it has a prominent role in Anton Bruckner's Symphony No. 7 in E Major. 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 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 period saw changes in accepted modification with composers such as Berlioz and Mahler, the 20th century saw that instrumentation could practically be hand-picked by the composer. Today, however, the modern orchestra has generally been considered standardized with the modern instrumentation listed below.
With this history in mind, the orchestra can be seen to have a general evolution as outlined below. The first is a Baroque music orchestra, the second is a typical classical orchestra (i.e. Beethoven/Joseph Haydn), the third is typical of an early/mid-romantic (i.e. Johannes Brahms/Antonín Dvořák/Tchaikovsky), late romantic/early 20th century (i.e. Wagner/Mahler/Igor Stravinsky), to the common complement of a present day modern orchestras (i.e. John Adams/Samuel Barber/Aaron Copland/Philip Glass/Krzysztof Penderecki).
Early Romantic orchestra
Late Romantic orchestra
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, with the second violins playing with lower registers than the first violins.
The principal first violin is called the concertmaster (or "leader" in the UK) and is not only considered the leader of the string section, but the second-in-command of the entire orchestra, behind only the conductor. The concertmaster leads the pre-concert tuning and handles technical aspects of orchestra management, usually sitting to the conductor's left, closest to the audience. In some U.S. and British orchestras, the concertmaster comes on stage after the rest of the orchestra is seated, takes a bow, and receives applause before the conductor (and the soloists, if there are any) appear on stage.
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. While the oboe often provides the tuning note for the orchestra (due to 300-year-old convention), no principal is the leader of the woodwind section though in woodwind ensembles, often the flute is leader. Instead, each principal confers with the others as equals in the case of musical differences of opinion. 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 in 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, 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, giving this role instead to the concertmaster or the harpsichordist playing the continuo. Some modern orchestras also do without conductors, particularly smaller orchestras and those specializing in historically accurate (so-called "period") performances of baroque and earlier music.
The most frequently performed repertoire for a symphony orchestra is Western classical music or opera. However, orchestras are used sometimes in popular music, extensively in film music, and increasingly often in video game music. Orchestras are also used in the symphonic metal genre. The term "orchestra" can also be applied to a jazz ensemble, for example in performance of big band music.
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The first orchestras were made up of small groups of musicians that gathered for festivals, holidays, or funerals. 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, traveling virtuoso performers such as the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 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.
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.
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 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.
The invention of the piston and rotary valve by 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.
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.
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. 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.
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. The influence of Gustav Mahler was particularly innovational; in his later symphonies, such as the mammoth Symphony No. 8, Mahler pushes the furthest boundaries of orchestral size, employing huge forces. By the peak years of Shostakovich, orchestras could support the most enormous forms of symphonic expression. 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. 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, smaller 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.
In the United States, 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. Few orchestras could fill auditoriums, and the time-honored season-subscription system became increasingly anachronistic, as more and more listeners would buy tickets on an ad hoc basis for individual events. Orchestral endowments and—more centrally to the daily operation of American orchestras—orchestral donors have seen investment portfolios shrink or produce lower yields, reducing the ability of donors to contribute; further, there has been a trend toward donors finding other social causes more compelling. Also, while government funding is less central to American than European orchestras, cuts in such funding are still significant for American ensembles. Finally, 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.
U.S. orchestras that have gone into Chapter 11 bankruptcy include the Philadelphia Orchestra (in April 2011), and the Louisville Orchestra, in December 2010; orchestras that have gone into Chapter 7 bankruptcy and have ceased operations include the Northwest Chamber Orchestra in 2006, the Honolulu Orchestra in March 2011, the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra in April 2011, and the Syracuse Symphony in June 2011. The Festival of Orchestras in Orlando, Florida ceased operations at the end of March, 2011.
Critics such as Norman Lebrecht were vocal in their diagnosis of the problem as the "jet set conductor" (whose salaries were presumably bleeding the orchestras dry); and several high-profile conductors have taken pay cuts in recent years; but the amounts of revenue involved are too small to account for the crisis. 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. The influential critic Greg Sandow has argued in detail that orchestras must revise their approach to music, performance, the concert experience, marketing, public relations, community involvement, and presentation to bring them in line with the expectations of 21st-century audiences immersed in popular culture.
It is not uncommon for contemporary composers to use unconventional instruments, including various synthesizers, to achieve desired effects. Many, however, find more conventional orchestral configuration to provide better possibilities for color and depth. Composers like John Adams often employ Romantic-size orchestras, as in Adams' opera Nixon in China; Philip Glass and others may be more free, yet still identify size-boundaries. Glass in particular has recently turned to conventional orchestras in works like the Concerto for Cello and Orchestra and the Violin Concerto No. 2.
Along with a decrease in funding, some U.S. orchestras have reduced their overall personnel, as well as the number of players appearing in performances. The reduced numbers in performance are usually confined to the string section, since the numbers here have traditionally been flexible (as multiple players typically play from the same part).
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.
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, Amsterdam Sinfonietta & Candida Thompson and the New Century Chamber Orchestra).
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. Benjamin Britten's War Requiem is also an important example of the repertoire for more than one conductor.
One of the best examples in the late century orchestral music is Karlheinz Stockhausen's Gruppen, for three orchestras placed around the audience. This way, the sound masses could be spacialized, as in an electroacoustic 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.
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.
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