Exploring Music's Complexities

What is an Orchestra?

Oρχήστρα

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The word “orchestra” has its roots in the Greek word, ορχήστρα, which defined the section of the stage that was reserved for the Greek chorus (1). It’s history, however, dates back to Ancient Egypt. At that time orchestras consisted of a small groups of musicians gathered for festivals, holidays and funerals. Early images of orchestras dating from 7th century BC displayed portable harps, dulcimers, and double reed pipes and drums (2).

The true modern orchestra began in the late 16th century when composers began writing music for instrumental groups. The 15th and 16th century musicians provided music for dancing and the court. These gatherings resulted in the development of permanent ensembles that practiced together over time. The 17th century’s interest in theatre provided musicians an opportunity to write for groups of players in combination or orchestral playing (2). Opera has been described as originating in Italy in the 16th century soon to be followed by Germany (3). By the end of the century opera houses flourished in England and France.

History records the evolution of the instrumentation of the orchestra beginning with the Romantic period. Over time the 20th century orchestra expanded the use of instruments to where it is today (These changes will be further described in the next newsletter).

Today’s orchestras number about 100 musicians grouped into one of four sections: woodwinds, brass, percussion, and strings. Smaller-sized orchestras of 50 or so musicians are called chamber orchestras. Full-sized orchestras are often referred to as “symphony orchestras” or “philharmonic orchestras” but these terms are not an indication of the instrumental constitution or the role of the orchestra. These designations are useful if a city has more than one orchestra (2).

The Conductor

In all orchestral situations the figure on the podium is the Boss. The conductors’ score is organized into the sections described above, with woodwinds on top and strings on the bottom. When the Conductor is present the players may not improvise and must conform to the established hierarchy. The Conductor is responsible for creating a specific interpretation of a composer’s piece – like it or not.

Musicians are seated in a semi-circle facing a Conductor. Strings sit in front, woodwinds and brass in the middle and percussion at the very rear. Each section has a Principal who is responsible for leading the group and playing solos (4 ).

Strings

Five sub-categories of string instruments make up the largest group in the orchestra. These include First Violin, Second Violin, cello and bass or contrabass. All make music by vibrating the strings of the instrument, amplified by the wood of which it is constructed. This section of the orchestra is responsible for the steady, sustained sounds or the short almost percussive tones being heard by the listener.
The violinist to the farthest left serves as Concert Master and is subordinate only to the Conductor.

Woodwinds

The tone colors produced by woodwinds range from shrill to sonorous. The highest sounds are produced by the flute and piccolo. The lowest timbres are produced by oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and contrabassoon.

Brass

Brass instruments produce their sounds by sympathetic vibration of air in a tubular resonator when the player’s lips vibrate. These instruments are called labrosones, meaning lip-vibrated instruments (4).

Modern brass instruments are classified as valve or slide instruments. This group includes the trumpet, French horn, euphonium, tuba, cornet, flugelhorn, tenor horn, baritone horn, sousaphone, and the old saxhorn. In these instruments the valves are usually piston valves.

Slide brass instruments use a slide to change the length of the tubing. This group includes the trombone family. These instruments tend to play very well with both woodwinds and brass.

Percussion

Percussion instruments make sounds by causing vibrations produced when a player strikes the instrument. Percussion instruments are often grouped into two sub-categories: pitched and non-pitched percussion. The pitched instrument actually makes a sound, the non-pitched makes sounds that can’t be considered notes.

Most common pitched percussion instruments are the tympanic drums. The non-pitched group includes the snare drum and the tambourine. Other percussion instruments are those played with mallets, such as vibraphone, xylophone, glockenspiel, wind chimes and gongs. The piano may, at times, be considered a percussion instrument in orchestral terms.

Today many orchestras are experiencing a crisis in funding and support. Changes in the economy and major changes in the recording industry provide considerable worry for many US orchestras.

References

Much of the background descriptions regarding the instrumentation of an orchestra was found at http://www.squidoo.com/Orchestra-101.

Liddell, H.G.., Scott, R. A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus.
What is an orchestra? http://www.squidoo.com/Orchestra-101.
Raynor, H. (1978). The Orchestra: a history. Scribner. 0-684-15535-4.
Orrey, L., Milnes, M. Opera: A Concise History, , World of Art, Thames & Hudson.

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