How the Modern Orchestra Took Shape
Changes Throughout History
The existence of a symphony orchestra in a community invariably serves as a source of civic pride, the focus of a community’s musical life, a standard of artistic concern and a measure of the highest musical talent. The sight of forty, eighty, even a hundred or more musicians clad in white tie and tailcoat led by a conductor of seemingly godlike powers on a brightly-lit stage can induce feelings of awe and reverence in the most casual of concertgoers. But the orchestra didn’t always look like this. In times past it was much smaller. Many of the instruments we see on stage today either didn’t exist in the form we know them now or weren’t used in the orchestra at all in earlier times. How the orchestra evolved over the years into the ensemble we know today is a fascinating study in slow growth.
Symphony ... Orchestra - What's the Difference?
Before going any further, let’s clear up a source of widespread confusion. The word “symphony” can refer to both a musical composition (Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4, for example) or to the ensemble of musicians who play it (the Toronto Symphony or the Winnipeg Symphony). The word comes from the Greek, meaning simply “sounding together.” Many concertgoers are uncertain as to the difference between a “symphony,” an “orchestra” and a “symphony orchestra.” Is there a difference? The answer, in a nutshell, is no. It is simply a matter of preference what the ensemble has chosen to call itself. Ottawa has a National Arts Centre Orchestra but Victoria has a Symphony. Many cities use both words for their ensembles: the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra or the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.
… and Philharmonic, Philharmonia
Further complicating the picture are the words 'philharmonic' and 'philharmonia' (also of Greek derivation, meaning fond of music). Again, it is merely a matter of usage, not meaning. Calgary has a Philharmonic. Boston has two orchestras, the Boston Symphony Orchestra (the city’s leading orchestra), and the Boston Philharmonic. In London there is a London Symphony Orchestra, a London Philharmonic Orchestra, a Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and a Philharmonia Orchestra. Tokyo has ten professional orchestras, with barely enough names to go around!
How Many Members?
The standard large orchestra today contains eighty to one hundred members. Slight differences in size are usually determined by how many string players are employed. An average number would be 16 first violins, 14 second violins, 12 violas, 10 cellos and 8 basses. A “chamber orchestra” is a smaller ensemble consisting of about twenty to thirty musicians. The National Arts Centre Orchestra occupies a middle position, with about sixty permanent members.
The Greek and Roman "Orchestra"
Like “symphony,” the word “orchestra” is also Greek-derived but it originally had a very different meaning. To the ancient Greeks, the orchestra was the semi-circular area in front of the stage where the chorus sang and danced. To the ancient Romans, the orchestra meant the area in a theater reserved for senators and wealthy patrons. Not until the eighteenth century did the term come to be associated with an organized body of instrumental musicians. Of course such ensembles existed before that time, but under a different name.
During the Middle Ages and early Renaissance (the years from about 1200-1500), each prince and potentate had his own church chapel (cappella in Italy, Kapell in German-speaking lands) consisting of singers only (instruments were associated with secular pursuits, and hence banned). As times changed, instruments were gradually added, and by the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century (depending on the place) many chapels were essentially small orchestras led by a maestro di cappella or a Kapellmeister who eventually took charge not only of church services but also of concerts, chamber music and opera.
The Modern Orchestra Takes Shape
Chapels often consisted of whatever assortment of instruments were available at the time. So too were the ensembles assembled for performances of the first operas. Many of the instruments used in these chapels and for these operas did not survive into the Classical period of Haydn and Mozart (the mid-to-late eighteenth century). Plucked strings like lutes and theorbos, keyboard instruments, and the whole family of viols except for the double bass were replaced by the more powerful and brilliant sounds of violins and their cousins, the violas and cellos, all used in multiples. The use of more than one player to a part in the string sections became a defining element in the orchestra as we know it today. Until well into the eighteenth century, through the era of Bach and Handel, an orchestra consisted essentially of a homogeneous body of strings plus whatever wind players happened to be available for the occasion for which a composition was written. If those wind players were especially talented, the composer might write music of virtuoso character for them, such as for the horn in Bach’s B-minor Mass, the solo trumpet in Handel’s Messiah or the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, which features dazzling solo writing for the flute, violin and keyboard.
The Late Eighteenth Century
By the late eighteenth century, the foundation of the orchestra as we know it was assured: a string body consisting of two violin sections, violas, cellos and double basses, though in numbers far smaller than what we commonly see today. Depending on the time and place, an orchestra in Mozart’s day might have had a total of somewhere between twenty and thirty string players. Pairs of oboes and horns were standard additions; there might also be a flute and usually a bassoon to strengthen the bass line or, in late Mozart, two bassoons, each with an independent part. Trumpets and timpani (again, in pairs) were incorporated into festive music but trombones were reserved for operatic or religious works. Not until the very end of the eighteenth century do we commonly find flutes and oboes in the same piece. Mozart was largely responsible for adding the clarinet, an instrument he came to love towards the end of his short life. Opera orchestras in major cities like Paris, Milan, Naples and Dresden tended to be larger than those that played only concerts.
The next big chapter in the development of the orchestra was written by Beethoven. With rare exceptions, the Beethoven orchestra consisted of pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets and timpani, plus the string body. Beethoven gave the double basses their own parts to play (no longer merely doubling the cello line an octave lower). In his Fifth Symphony he used trombones for the first time in a work of that name. He also incorporated two other instruments previously used only in operatic or religious music, the piccolo and contrabassoon. In the Ninth he added a second pair of horns and expanded the percussion department to include triangle, bass drum and cymbals, all in addition, of course, to the chorus and vocal soloists. But above all what Beethoven brought to the orchestra was a sense of power, grandeur and explosive energy. The depth of sound was greater, the volume louder, the range of emotional expression more intense than anything that had come before. Symphony No. 3, the Eroica, is a perfect example of this heightened intensity of expression. The stage was set for the romantic orchestra of the nineteenth century.
The Nineteenth-Century Romantic Orchestra
Schubert, Mendelssohn, Weber, Schumann and Brahms all pretty much followed in the footsteps of Beethoven for their orchestral needs during the Romantic Period. Due to continuing improvements in the design and manufacture of woodwind and brass instruments, composers could now write more demanding parts for them. Woodwinds gained more keys and levers. Horns acquired valves, now allowing them access to the complete chromatic scale spanning several octaves whereas formerly they were limited to pitches of the overtone series, severely hampering agility and use of the low range.
Two composers who went beyond the Beethoven orchestra were Berlioz and Wagner. Berlioz made the orchestra into a collective virtuoso instrument, exploiting sounds and effects for their own sake, particularly in his epochal Symphonie fantastique (1830) with its squealing high E-flat clarinet, glistening harps, snarling trombones, galloping bassoons, raspy horns and the thunderous rumbling of four (!) sets of timpani. He enlarged the woodwind and brass sections, divided each string section into multiple parts and added harps plus much more percussion. The Berlioz orchestra played louder, faster, higher, more passionately and aggressively than anything in the past. It became a spectacle in itself. Listen to the delicate opening of the Overture to his opera Béatrice et Bénédict. It sparkles and glitters like the brilliant Mediterranean sun on the Tyrrhenian Sea near Messina, Sicily, where the story takes place. A moment later the full orchestra blazes forth in full glory. This is truly sound as spectacle.
Wagner too employed an expanded orchestra. Woodwinds in threes rather than in pairs became his standard, in addition to regularly using the auxiliary members of each section: piccolo, English horn and bass clarinet (strangely enough, he ignored the contrabassoon, which had been around since Haydn’s day). Wagner was also one of the first to bring the bass tuba into the orchestra. For his huge, fourteen-hour, four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (1852-1876), he increased the horn section to eight and added such novelties as a quartet of Wagner tubas (not related to the bass tuba), a bass trumpet and contrabass trombone. Anvils, a thunder sheet and extra timpani made terrific noises at the appropriate moments. The tidal waves of sound rushing from the Wagnerian orchestra at peak intensity could nearly wash you out of the room. Naturally, the size of the string section had to be increased to complement all these additional wind and percussion instruments. The string section was now nearing sixty members in the best and largest orchestras such as those in Vienna, London, Berlin and Leipzig. Wagner was also capable of writing gentle, delicate music of chamber music proportions, such as the beautiful Siegfried Idyll, music composed as a combination birthday and Christmas present for his wife.
Bigger and Bigger
Eight horns was a luxury few orchestras could afford. After Wagner, the only nineteenth-century composers to use this many were Bruckner in his final three symphonies (Nos. 7, 8 and 9) and Mahler (7 in his First, 10 in the Second, 8 in the Third). But the cult of the colossal had taken hold, and between approximately 1890 and 1915, orchestras of a size seen never before and seldom thereafter could be found in such works as Mahler’s gigantic Eighth Symphony (the Symphony of a Thousand), Strauss’s devastating opera Elektra and Schoenberg’s monumental cantata Gurre-Lieder, all of which required enormous orchestras of 120 musicians and up plus chorus.
The Twentieth Century
The First World War (1914-1918) largely put an end to these extravagances, at least temporarily. But the twentieth century had something special to add to the orchestra – the greatly expanded use of percussion in both quantity and variety. In this regard, the expression “everything but the kitchen sink” came close to being true. In addition to the commonly encountered cymbals, triangle, gong, tam-tam, tubular bells, xylophone, glockenspiel, snare drum, bass drum, tambourine, celesta, castanets, ratchet and wind machine – all used by Mahler, Strauss, Prokofiev and Ravel among others – one can now hear such items as a guiro, a lion’s roar, fire sirens, car horns, water gongs, wind chimes, rattles, marimbas, whistles, bongos, wood blocks, Chinese temple blocks, chains, maracas, claves and other exotica imported from Africa, Latin America and the Far East. Castanets and tambourine are clearly audible in Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Percussion is especially prominent in the music of Canadian composer Michael Colgrass. In his Schubert Birds, flute, piccolo and shimmery percussion begin interacting right at the very beginning.
Famous Orchestras Today
The most famous European orchestras – those of Leipzig, Berlin, Vienna, Amsterdam, London and Paris, were born in the nineteenth century. Those of the New World – Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Baltimore , etc. – came a bit later, most of them around the turn of the twentieth century or a bit later, although those of Boston (1881), St. Louis (1880) and New York (1842!) went back well into the previous century. Canada began to sprout orchestras of importance during the second quarter of the last century: Toronto (1922), Vancouver (1930) and Montreal (1934) ranking among the oldest. But Quebec City holds the title of oldest continuously operating orchestra in the country, having celebrated its centennial year in 2002. By comparison, the NAC Orchestra, founded in 1969, is a relative newcomer to the scene. Orchestras have been a growth industry for the past half century or so. In Canada, between 1973 and 1986, the number of orchestras grew from forty to over a hundred. Today there nearly 150 including youth and school orchestras. In the United States there are nearly a thousand!
What is it that accounts for our continuing fascination with the orchestra? The British critic Frank Howes has an answer: “The orchestra is capable of adventure and of flights into the realm of the sublime; it can execute the most subtle nuances of thought and expression; it may be independent of any story, drama or program and may therefore be regarded as pure. In fact, orchestral music is the most highly evolved music which requires for its presentation the most highly evolved instrument – the modern full orchestra.”