Orchestras: Past History

The typical orchestra consists of four groups of musical instruments: brass, percussion, strings, and woodwind. Historically, the “standard complement” of double winds and brass was popularized by Beethoven in certain symphonies for a then-innovative effect. Saxophones, guitars, and other (even solo) instruments were gradually added or substituted, and a resultant “free style” of orchestra developed. However, more classical orchestras even today often tend to follow a paradigm than other experimental constituencies.

While groups of different-instrument-playing musicians gathered in the 11th century, it was during the 15th and 16th century that the modern orchestras gained momentum – mainly with parties for the rich (nobles), whereas opera required orchestral involvement. Composers such as Bach and Handel, with Haydn and Mozart, contributed to composition and performance. Eventually, orchestras like those of Mannheim who were facile at performing “on the fly” allowed melody emphasis, whereas the late 18th century composers’ assemblies of musicians for an “academy” led to eventually civic orchestras and “pure forms of music” (e.g. classical music) being performed instead of mainly operas.

New instruments such as the saxophone and the concept of instruments playing together led to an actual book on “instrumentation” – with a chromatic scale and sonorous tone (with bass sound from tubas, e.g.). Expansion of winds and brass led to greater abilities to play together, and more complex compositions.

Orchestras: Present Status

Subsequently, in the 20th century, orchestral performance which was more complex (e.g. Gustav Mahler) was introduced, and the role of music in silent movies was important. However, in the 1920s for about two decades, smaller works were played by orchestras; in the latter part of the 20th century, for different reasons orchestras were limited – mainly due to limited funding.

Ideas of “conductorless orchestras” or “multiple conductor orchestras” have been attempted with limited success.

Composition of Orchestras Today: A hierarchy among instrument groups and within groups exists, with a principal who leads the group; some instruments, e.g. violins, are divided into first and second violin groups (the latter playing lower registers) – with the principal first violin noted as “concertmaster.”

Also, specific arrangements of instrument groups on the floor are present, with, for example, the strings towards the audience, the winds central towards the middle, and brass to one side towards the rear (away from the audience), with percussion lining the distant periphery away from the audience.

The principal is in charge of pre-concert tuning and technical aspects, sometimes coming on stage before the conductor for recognition with taking a bow; similarly, the principal trombone leads low brass with principal trumpet leading entire brass. The flute may lead the winds, while the oboe provides the tuning note (following the 3-century tradition).

Musicians on the “inside” (away from audience) or “outside” (near audience) may have different, divisive parts to play for certain portions. The conductor may be replaced by the concertmaster or harpsichordist in traditional “period” piece performances.

Orchestras: Future

Numerous orchestras have attempted to be “modernized” – with notably The Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) as a professional orchestra which received awards for “adventurous programming” and “strongest commitment to new American music.”

The future for orchestras, however, may be more related to less musical and more social, financial, and meaningful issues – for example, in a list of “5 Bizarre Dark Sides to Modern Orchestras” from www.cracked.com, low job satisfaction, low money (only 30% of a budget is now covered by ticket sales, compared to 80% in the past), sexism (need for greater female representation, which now 35% in American orchestras compared to <10% in German orchestras; similarly, less than 15% of conductors are female), impact on hearing worsening, and doing (non-narcotic) drugs typically for performance anxiety control.

Among these, the support and interest of the public remain vital, with numerous well-known citywide orchestras filing bankruptcy in the not-too-distant past, and likely more on the way due to the numbers (or attendance and finances).

Despite these issues, orchestras have represented sometimes a group of disparate instruments which are able to put together melodious sounds – in effect, to make sweet music together… which could be a symbolic goal of many communities and hence a microcosm of life (if one so experiences such when listening to music).

(Information above has been acquired from numerous sources, including www.bmop.org, www.cracked.com, www.wikipedia.org, english-online.at, and www.musiced.about.com)