What Makes an Orchestra Special?
Join Active Minds as we delve in to the unique world of a symphony orchestra. What makes it tick (literally)? What are their origins? Who’s really in charge? Why do they sit where they do? Beautiful musical examples will highlight a discussion of ways you can enhance your appreciation of this universal experience. No prior music knowledge is necessary. Just bring your sense of humor and zest for great music!
Key Lecture Points:
• An orchestra is a musical ensemble most often associated with classical music and/or setting the mood for motion pictures. The actual number of musicians performing varies according to the work being played and the size of the venue. A small orchestra—25 to about 40 players—is called a chamber orchestra. A full-sized orchestra—roughly 60 to 100 players—may sometimes be called a "symphony orchestra" or "philharmonic orchestra.” There aren’t any differences in the titles; the names serve only to distinguish one from another: e.g. the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and the Colorado Philharmonic. The primary and ongoing mission of any orchestral ensemble is: “We will play together,” in pitch, in rhythm and in volume.
• The violin is the distinguishing instrument of an orchestra, as opposed to a brass or woodwind ensemble, and has the greatest number of players. The origins of the orchestra as we now know it had its roots in accompanying early opera and ballet performances. As instrument technology improved in the late 17th Century, it became easier to stay in tune and play together; composers began writing for larger numbers and incorporating more and different instruments. Flutes, oboes, horns, and trumpets became part of the typical orchestra by the early eighteenth century. A typical classical orchestra also included clarinets, bassoons, violins, violas, cellos, basses, and timpani. As the numbers of musicians increased within the ranks of the orchestra, it became necessary for someone to lead them, in order to keep the rhythm uniform and to begin and end phrases. Early on, the first chair violinist led the group; later a conductor was placed in front, not only to keep everyone together, but also to act as a pair of ears to balance the sound. It wasn’t until much later that the conductor also became the sole interpreter of the music.
• Beginning in the latter 17th Century, remarkable culmination of efforts came together to create the orchestra as we now know it. They are as follows (these “8Ts” are the orchestra’s “genetics.”): A standard Tuning for all instruments was established. Tradesmen began making better instruments with uniform dimensions. Technology was improved with the use of better materials. The Treasury of governments and the aristocracy assured the growth of the orchestra. Playing Techniques were refined, improved and standardized; while Teachers could better instruct musicians by way of conservatories of music. The concept of Teamwork solidified the orchestra acting as a single body. The orchestra as we know it may not have occurred had it not been for the Timing of all these elements coming together when they did.
• Between 1680 and 1780, and thanks to great composers, such as Mozart and Haydn, the orchestra grew into a solidly predictable musical body with distinct directions, decorum and disciplines; a show piece for the wealthy and a symbol of national and civic pride. Scores of musicians were graduating from conservatories throughout Europe, populating great orchestras in nearly every large European city. Composers, who were most-often the conductor as well, could begin to be creative. Composers of the following century, beginning with Beethoven, relied on great virtuosos to perform their works, large private concert halls and public venues which produced a greater volume of works. By the mid-19th Century, the orchestra was in full flower and in 20th Century the orchestra has become a staple cultural amenity in nearly corner of the world.
• Today’s orchestras are usually made up of the finest musicians in a region on their particular instruments. They are the best prepared, most rehearsed and finest performing team imaginable. There are generally no mistakes during a performance and the repertoire spans five centuries. Each year more and more people have better access to orchestral performances and musicians can join a vast array of existing community orchestras. The survival of many orchestras, however, is frequently threatened by ongoing funding challenges.
• What is the primary role of a conductor?
• How can an orchestra be considered the “consummate team?”
• Why do the strings sit in the front of the orchestra?
• Which instrument can you pick out from the others?
• Will knowing more about an orchestra improve your next listening experience?
More to Explore:
• Symphony Orchestra: http://library.thinkquest.org
• Colorado Symphony Orchestra: www.coloradosymphony.org/
Books For Further Reading:
• Del Mar, Norman. Anatomy of the Orchestra. University of California Press. 1983. 512 pages. Before his death in 1994, Norman Del Mar was acknowledged as one of the world's foremost authorities on the orchestra. "Anatomy of the Orchestra" is written not only for fellow conductors, players, students, and professional musicians, but also for everyone interested in the performance of orchestral music. Click here to order.
• Koscielniak, Bruce. The Story of the Incredible Orchestra: An Introduction to Musical Instruments and the Symphony Orchestra. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2003. 40 pages. A fact-filled, entertaining picture book that follows the development and trends of musical instruments and the orchestra over the last four hundred years. Click here to order.