The History of the Orchestra

Despite currently still writing my composition in short score on the piano, thoughts wander frequently to the orchestration of my piece and the instruments that I can start to ‘hear’ at certain points.

I originally planned to write my piece for the symphony orchestra, but following on from my tutor’s advice and observations at Assignment 3, I have now decided to reduce my arrangement to a chamber orchestra, which already feels a lot more manageable.

However, I thought it would be useful to re-visit the history of the orchestra and how it came to be because that way, I can understand more fully the development of its ‘sound’.

Early History of Orchestras and Orchestration
Throughout history, music has been made by playing instruments together, perhaps not initially in the structured, formalised orchestral setting that we know today, but nonetheless at the same time and within a group.  It wasn’t until the last 400 years that we’ve seen combinations of instruments develop into the modern day orchestra.

Indeed, the first known example of orchestration can be found in Giovanni Gabrieli’s ‘Sacre Symphoniae’, in 1597.  Monteverdi followed suit in 1607 with his score to one of the first operas ‘L’Orfeo’.  Thanks to his patron, he had available to him a large and varied group of instruments: viols, flutes, organ, trumpets.

During the 17th century the violins replaced the viols, which became the main string instrument, which in turn made the sound created much richer. By the end of the century, the parts were divided into 4 parts or sections; the 1st, 2nd violins, cello and double bass. The latter two instruments were at this time playing the same part but an octave apart; it would be the 19th century that introduced independent parts for the cello and bass.

Woodwinds featured in the early orchestras but not frequently and very much playing ‘second fiddle’ to the strings. Two oboes and a bassoon was common, with the flutes sometimes playing instead of the oboes; indeed, it wouldn’t be until late in the 18th century that the flute would become an established regular orchestral instrument.

Trumpets were used occasionally during the 17th century, but came standard inclusion from 1700 onwards and the French Horn was fully accepted by 1750. The other brass instrument of note was the trombone, which did appear in early church music before the 17th century but took until after 1800 to become a standard orchestral instrument.

During the Baroque period through to the late half of the 18th century, the basso continuo was still integral to the orchestral gatherings, providing a harpsichord or chord playing instrument above a figured bass.  The treble and bass parts were strong and the middle part were left to the continuo part to play.  Therefore, the texture at this time was quite bare and thin.  Orchestral groupings were smaller too.  JS Bach would often use around 18 players for his larger works and Handel approximately 30.

The Eighteenth-Century Classical Orchestra
The classical orchestra was established by the latter half of the 18th century. The continuo was dropped and the clarinet was introduced, often used as an alternative to the oboe.  With the continuo going, there was a greater independence for the string parts, which could fill the harmony unaided, and this opportunity meant four distinct parts could now be heard.

By the late works of Haydn and Mozart, the orchestra had been standardised; pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, French horns, trumpets, timpani and strings.  With more woodwind, they were able to carry the melody which enhanced the colour and texture of the sound.

The Nineteenth-Century Orchestra
By the early 19th century and Beethoven’s pieces, the brass became more prominent. The trombone was used more regularly and with the valve being invented in 1813, the horn and the trumpet became fully chromatic and therefore could take the melody lines.

The tuba was introduced around 1835-50, which gave the brass section the contrabass range it lacked before, and in turn, helped to shape the lower sounding aspects of the orchestra.

The 19th century also saw the woodwinds improving and increasing in capabilities, which as a result, caused the strings section to expand to balance them out.

The growth of the orchestra in size meant that composers in the 19th century saw the potential for large sizes of players.  Mozart and Beethoven often used 40 players.  Weber and early Wagner pieces used 55.  Wagner’s Ring Cycle (1854-74) used 110 players, whilst Strauss’s ‘Elektra’ used 115.  Berlioz influenced the increased awareness of orchestral colour and the use of a larger orchestra; his ‘Traite d’Orchestration’ envisioned an ideal orchestra of 465 players.

But like most excesses, it wasn’t going to continue. Composers soon reacted to orchestral gigantism.  Debussy’s impressionism demonstrated a more restrained, distinctive use of instruments, deliberately avoiding to use large sounds.

Twentieth Century Innovations
Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ (1913) is a good example of how the 20th century became interested in diverse orchestral combinations of instruments and original uses of those instruments’ capabilities.  Composers would continue to explore novel use of instruments in the 20th century, but preferred to use more modest orchestral sizes (75-90 players).

Essentially, through history, the development of instruments directly contributed towards the increased colour palette available to composers.  Groupings of instruments increased and more ‘order’ was required to keep the music together, and the birth of the orchestra was ineffable.

The sound of the orchestra changed as the range and combination of instrumentation grew; early orchestral settings proved thin in texture and the instruments reedy and flat; only the harpsichord, organ and bassoon providing the basso continuo helped to plump up otherwise fine and wispy sound.

Once the strings became established as the foundation of the orchestra, tonal qualities shifted to a much richer, warmer sound and this could only be enhanced by the addition of more brass and woodwind instruments. Of course, composers such as Berlioz, Wagner and Strauss took things to extreme and became musically ‘gluttonous’ with their vast orchestral head-counts, but things soon tempered down to more reasonable levels and with Debussy came a more restrained, perhaps more deft use of the instrumentation available.  The mastery now came in what instruments were excluded from the arrangements.

Unknown. (Unknown). Orchestra and Orchestration: History. Available: Last accessed 20 September 2015.



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