An orchestra is a musical ensemble used most often in classical music. A small orchestra is called a chamber orchestra.
Full size orchestras may sometimes be called "symphony orchestras" or "philharmonic orchestras"; these prefixes do not indicate any difference either to the instrumental content or role of the orchestra, but can be useful to distinguish different orchestras based in the same city (for instance, the London Symphony Orchestra and the London Philharmonic Orchestra).
The typical symphony orchestra consists of four groups of instruments:
Nowadays, the musicians are usually led by a conductor, although early orchestras did not have one, instead being led by the principal violinst or the harpsichordist. Some modern orchestras also do without conductors, particularly smaller orchestras and those specialising in historically accurate performances of baroque music and earlier.
- the strings (violins, violas, cellos, double basses),
- the woodwinds (flutes, clarinets, oboes, bassoons),
- the brass (trumpets, trombones, tuba, french horns), and
- the percussion (timpani, snare drum, bass drum, celesta, etc.).
The most frequently performed repertoires for a symphony orchestra is Western classical music or opera. They are also used in popular music, however.
History of the 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 Henry 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 George Friderich Handel contributed greatly to the development of German opera and of the orchestra in Hamburg during the first quarter of the century. Johann Sebastian Bach, Gluck and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the reformers of opera; Joseph 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; Ludwig van Beethoven, who individualized the instruments, writing solo passages for them; Carl Maria von Weber, who brought the horn and clarinet into prominence; Franz Schubert, who inaugurated the conversations between members of the wood wind--all left their mark on the orchestra, leading the way up to Richard Wagner and Richard 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 Blilmel, 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 helped 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.
Description of a Symphony
The principal modern meaning of symphony is a sonata for the orchestra. The orchestral symphony originated in the operatic overture, which in the middle of the 18th century began to assimilate the essentials of the sonata style. At first such sonata-style overtures consisted of three movements, viz. a moderately quick binary movement, a short slow movement, and a lively finale. Thus Mozart, at the age of twelve, used his 7th symphony as the overture to La finta semplice, and Haydn's maturest symphonies are still called overtures in some early editions. La finta giardiniera, written by Mozart in his eighteenth year, marks the differentiation of the opera overture from the independent symphony, since it contains the usual first movement and slow movement, but the curtain rises with what sounds like the beginning of the finale.
The term was used by the Greeks, firstly, to denote the general conception of concord, both between successive sounds and in the unison of simultaneous sounds; secondly, in the special sense of concordant pairs of successive sounds (i.e. the "perfect intervals" of modern music; the 4th, 5th and octave); and thirdly as dealing with the concord of the octave, thus meaning the art of singing in octaves, or magadizi’ng, as opposed to singing and playing in unison. In Roman times the word appears in the general sense which still survives in poetry, viz, as harmonious concourse of voices and instruments. It also appears to mean a concert. In St Luke xv. 25, it is distinguished from xbpo~, and the passage is appropriately translated in the English Bible as "music and dancing." Polybius and others seem to use it as the name of a musical instrument.
In the 17th century the term is used, like concerto, for certain vocal compositions accompanied by instruments, e.g. the Kleine geistliche Concerte and Symphoniae sacrae of Schütz. Most of Schütz's works of this class are for from one to three solo voices in various combinations with instruments. The Geistliche Concerte are generally accompanied by figured bass and are to German texts; and the voices may in many cases be choral. The Symphoniae sacrae are to Latin texts and are written for various combinations of instruments, while the voice parts are evidently for solo singers. The word symphony is sometimes used for the instrumental ritornello of songs and vocal movements in aria form. In this sense it already appears in No. 28 of the second book of Schütz's Geistliche Concerte.
The sonata style was not at first invariably associated with what we now call sonata form, nor indeed was that form at first the most favourable to the dramatic expression desirable for operatic music. Hence the overtures of Gluck are generally in forms based on the contrast of loosely knit passages of various textures; forms which he probably learned from San Martini, and which may be found in the concertos of Vivaldi, so many of which were freely transcribed by Johann Sebastian Bach. These methods are no less evident in the symphonies of Philipp Emmanuel Bach, which thus occupy an analogous place, away from the normal line of the sonata style. The differentiation between symphony and overture was of immense importance in raising the dignity of the symphony; but the style was more essential than the form; and in Mozart's and Haydn's mature works we find the sonata form as firmly established in the overture as in the symphony, while nevertheless the styles and scope of the two forms are quite distinct. Mozart's most elaborate overture, that of Die Zauberflöte, could not possibly be the first movement of one of his later symphonies; nor could the finale of his "Jupiter" symphony (which has often been compared with that overture because of its use of fugalo) conceivably be used as the prelude to an opera.
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