‘Orchestra’ has been used in a generic sense to mean any large grouping of instrumentalists. Thus one reads of an Indonesian gamelan orchestra, a Japanese gagaku orchestra, a Chinese drum and gong orchestra, the ‘orchestra’ of a Renaissance intermedio, or even the ‘orchestras’ of the Old Testament. In this article, ‘orchestra’ is treated in a specific and historical sense, as a characteristically European institution that arose in the 17th and 18th centuries and subsequently spread to other parts of the world as part of Western cultural influence. Related information will be found in other articles, for example Concert (ii), Conducting and Instrumentation and orchestration; see also Band (i).
3. Pre- and proto-orchestral ensembles (1500–1700).
4. Lully and Corelli (1650–1715).
5. The birth of the orchestra (1680–1740).
6. The Classical orchestra (1740–1815).
7. The Romantic orchestra (1815–1900).
8. The modern orchestra.
JOHN SPITZER, NEAL ZASLAW
Analysis of orchestras from the 18th century to the present reveals a series of interrelated defining traits (Zaslaw, 1988, 1993). (a) Orchestras are based on string instruments of the violin family plus double basses. (b) This core group of bowed strings is organized into sections within which the players usually perform the same notes in unison. This practice of doubling string instruments is carried out unequally: there will almost always be more violins than lower strings. (c) Woodwind, brass and percussion instruments are usually present, in numbers and types differing according to time, place and repertory. (d) Orchestras of a given time, place and repertory usually display considerable standardization of instrumentation. Such standardization facilitates the circulation of repertory among orchestras. (e) Most orchestras are standing organizations with stable personnel, routines of rehearsal and performance, an administrative structure and a budget. (f) Because orchestral music requires many instrumentalists to play the same thing at the same time, orchestras demand a high degree of musical discipline. Such discipline involves unified bowing, the ability to play at sight and strict adherence to the notes on the page. (g) Orchestras are coordinated by means of centralized direction, provided in the 17th and 18th centuries by the first violinist or a keyboard player and since the early 19th century by a conductor.
Instrumental ensembles that manifest all the traits listed above can be designated unequivocally as ‘orchestras’, wherever they are found and whatever they are called. Ensembles with many but not all of these traits are often called orchestras and can at the least be said to function orchestrally. Orchestras may be further categorized into a number of sub-types, including theatre orchestras, symphony or concert orchestras, string orchestras, chamber orchestras, café or salon orchestras, radio orchestras, studio orchestras and others. This article will give the most attention to theatre orchestras and symphony orchestras.
The word ‘orchestra’, which in ancient Greece and Rome referred to the ground level of an amphitheatre, was revived in the Renaissance to designate the area immediately in front of the stage. In the early 17th century this became a favourite spot to place the instrumentalists who accompanied singing and dancing, and ‘orchestra’ began to mean ‘the place where the musicians sit’ (E. Phillips, The New World of English Words, London, 1658). By the 18th century the meaning of the word had been extended to the instrumentalists themselves and to their identity as an ensemble (J.-J. Rousseau, Dictionnaire de musique, Paris, 1768). Before the word ‘orchestra’ had established itself in various European languages, a variety of other expressions were used to indicate large ensembles of instrumentalists. In Italian such groups could be called capella, coro, concerto, concerto grosso, sinfonia or gli stromenti. The use of ‘orchestra’ to designate such ensembles can be dated in Rome from 1679 at the latest. In French one finds les violons, les concertants, les instruments and la symphonie. The use of ‘orchestre’ or ‘orquestre’ to refer to an instrumental ensemble rather than a place in the theatre appears in French around 1670 at the latest. In German the term Kapelle (‘chapel’) was widely employed in the 17th and 18th centuries as a name for court, church and private musical establishments, meaning instrumentalists and vocalists taken together. In addition Germans designated instrumental ensembles as Chor, die Musik, Konzert, Symphonie and die Instrumenten. The use of ‘Orchester’ in this sense turns up in German by 1713 as a borrowing from the French. In English, too, the word was imported from French around 1700, displacing such words as consort, band, company of musick, the musick, musick-meeting and the violins (Strahle, 1995).
3. Pre- and proto-orchestral ensembles (1500–1700).
In the 16th and 17th centuries instrumental ensembles, some of them quite large, played for ballets and dances, for operas and other dramatic entertainments, for church services and for banquets. The instrumental ensembles of early opera developed out of ensembles for intermedi and similar entertainments at 16th-century courts in Italy and France. These might include lutes, viols, violins, flutes, trombones, trumpets, cornetts, keyboard instruments and others, assembled and deployed variously according to the occasion. The principal roles of the instruments seem to have been to double the singers in vocal polyphony and to provide the remaining parts of a polyphonic texture during vocal solos. In dances, sinfonias or other interludes the instruments played alone. Descriptions of the Florentine intermedi of 1539, 1565, 1589, and 1608 provide examples of this sort of instrumentation (Brown, 1973; Coehlo, 1998). A similar French practice is seen in the Balet comique de la Royne of 1581. The instrumentalists who played for these entertainments were hidden offstage or placed onstage in costume. The scoring for such ensembles has been characterized as ‘programmatic’: for instance, gods were accompanied by an ‘Olympian’ ensemble of lutes, viols and harps; flutes, shawms and pipes accompanied pastoral scenes; an ‘infernal’ grouping of trombones and bass viols evoked the underworld (Weaver, 1961). There seems to have been no notion that a single, standard ensemble should accompany an entire work; instead, groups of musicians with a variety of instruments communicated and reinforced meanings through their costumes and the symbolic associations of their instruments.
During the 17th century, court-sponsored festival operas celebrating occasions of state were accompanied by lavish ensembles of the intermediotype, for example in Monteverdi's Orfeo (1607, Mantua), The Triumph of Peace, a masque for Charles I (1634, London) and Cesti's Il pomo d'oro (1668, Vienna). More modestly financed public operas, beginning in Venice in 1637 and soon adopted elsewhere, were accompanied mainly by a small group of strings, harpsichords and lutes, with wind instruments added for special effects (see fig.1). Late 16th- and 17th-century large-scale sacred music was characteristically polychoral and often called for large numbers of instrumentalists. The instruments, however, did not form their own ensemble but were distributed into choirs mixed with the singers, whose parts they usually doubled. Judging from the number of performers, the instruments most often played one-to-a-part. A watercolour by Pierre Paul Sevin of a performance in Rome (fig.2) shows many voices and instruments divided into four similar sized ensembles grouped around four organs. The Missa salisburgensis, attributed to Biber, has individual parts for 37 instruments, divided into six ensembles, some mixed with singers, some exclusively instrumental, distributed in various places around the cathedral.
String bands or consorts, made up of viols or violins of several sizes, with four to six players performing one-to-a-part, were popular in many parts of Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. For balls, weddings, dining in state and similar social events the more penetrating violins were favoured, playing an international repertory of dances, often from memory. By the end of the 16th century Parisian violin bands, which played for civic festivities and also at the court of Louis XIII, had begun to perform their repertory with several instruments to each part. By 1607, 12 string players (‘violons’) held official appointments as the ‘violons du Roi’, offices that could be passed on to their sons or sons-in-law or sold outright. A court document of 1618 mentions ‘24 violons ordinaires’, who received a New Year's bonus (Bardet, 1992). The ensemble remained the ‘24 violons du Roi’ for over a century, until it was abolished by royal decree in 1761. Marin Mersenne in 1636 described how the 24 violins were disposed in their characteristic five-part texture: six dessus (violins), four haute contres (small violas), four tailles (medium-sized violas), four quintes (large violas) and six bassesde violon(oversized cellos). The development of a similar court string band in London at about the same time was cut short by the Interregnum (Holman, 1993). Violin bands, sometimes with several players on the parts, were also assembled at the Spanish court of Naples, in Sweden at Queen Christina's court and in Germany at several courts, including those at Wolfenbüttel, Kassel and Stuttgart. The French violin bands, with violin-family instruments in five sizes, unequal doubling and a repertory of dance music, can be singled out as the origin of the orchestra.