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The National Symphony Orchestra


A full-sized modern orchestra consists of more than one hundred musicians usually playing anywhere from eighteen to twenty-five different kinds of instruments. The instruments are divided into four overall "sections": the strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. Within these sections there are groups of instruments that are also called "sections": the viola section is part of the string section, for example, and the trumpet section is part of the brass section. Here is how the sections break down, with the standard number of players per section:

I. Strings 64–68
  1. Violins 32–34
a. First violins
b. Second violins
  2. Violas 12
  3. Cellos 12
  4. Double basses 8–10
II. Woodwinds (sometimes just called Winds) 16
  1. Flutes 4
(One section member specializes in piccolo.)
  2. Oboes 4
(One section member specializes in English horn.)
  3. Clarinets 4
(One section member also plays bass clarinet, and one plays a higher-voiced instrument called an E-flat clarinet.)
  4. Bassoons 4
(One section member specializes in contrabassoon.)
III. Brass 14–15
  1. French horns 5–6
  2. Trumpets 4
  3. Trombones 4
(One section member specializes in bass trombone.)
  4. Tuba 1
IV. Percussion 4
  1. Timpani 1
  2. Other percussion instruments 3
(These include such instruments as snare drum, bass drum, triangle, cymbals, glockenspiel, chimes, xylophone, celesta, and tam-tam.)
  Harp 1–2
  Piano (used occasionally) 1

Other instruments, such as the saxophone and the guitar, are added on the rare occasions they're needed. And among the regular members of an orchestra, not everybody plays all the time: for any one piece, the kinds and (especially in the case of the woodwinds and brass) numbers of instruments on stage depend on what the composer has specifically called for in the music.

Because most orchestra members play sitting down, a person's position in an orchestra is called a "chair." (Percussion players stand, and double bass players support themselves with special tall stools or chairs.) The player who occupies the "first chair" in a section is called the "principal" of that section. The first-chair oboist is called the "principal oboe" (or "principal oboist"), for example, and the first-chair cellist is called the "principal cello" (or "principal cellist"). The first-chair player of the first violin section, however, is called the "concertmaster," and has special responsibilities. In general, the responsibilities of the principal players include playing the orchestral solos that are written for their instrument, setting the style and tone for their section, and leading their section by setting high standards of beauty, accuracy, and rhythmic reliability. In each string section, all the players, including the principal, generally play the same part. They play the same notes, in other words. Composers usually write different parts for each woodwind, brass, and percussion instrument, with the parts for the principal players being the most prominent. A piece with four French horns, for example, will generally have separate parts called "first horn" (played by the principal French horn), "second horn," "third horn," and "fourth horn." Second horn, third horn, and fourth horn are also the names of the positions, or chairs, of the people who play those parts.

Because they play separate parts, the woodwind, brass, and percussion players all need separate music stands, too, while the string players sit two-to-a-stand. In the string sections, it's the job of the person on the "inside" chair of the stand — the chair farther from the audience — to turn the pages of the music. In the old days in professional orchestras, and as recently as fifteen to twenty years ago in this country, the seating arrangement in each string section was fixed, and constituted a rigid hierarchy. The front of the section was better than the back, and an outside chair was "higher" than an inside chair. In theory, the hierarchy was based on skill or accomplishment, but in practice it was often a matter of seniority. Nowadays, in the interest of equity and morale, many professional orchestras use rotating seating plans for the string sections, with only the first two or three positions in each section fixed.

Musicians get their jobs in most professional orchestras through a competitive audition process. Major American orchestras announce their openings by placing advertisements in The International Musician, the official monthly news organ of the American Federation of Musicians, the musicians' national union. Each orchestra announces openings by specific position, such as principal trumpet, second horn, assistant principal viola, or "section cello" (member of the cello section, but not principal or assistant principal). Musicians send résumés, and sometimes tapes, as part of an initial screening process, and if accepted they then audition in person. Anywhere from a dozen to two hundred people may show up for an audition, depending on the orchestra and the opening. There are usually at least two stages in the audition process: preliminaries and finals. Preliminary auditions take place before a committee of orchestra members, often with a screen separating the committee and the candidate to preserve the candidate's anonymity and reduce the opportunities for favoritism. Only the most highly qualified candidates pass on to the finals. For the finals, the music director (conductor) joins the audition committee. He or she may consult with the committee, but in most orchestras the music director has complete and final authority to choose the winner of the audition — or to decide that none of the candidates is acceptable. Once a musician joins an orchestra, there is usually a one-year probationary period, at the end of which he can be retained or dismissed at the music director's discretion. If the musician is asked to remain in the orchestra, his position is then considered tenured. Music directors may still dismiss players after they're tenured, but in orchestras with strong union contracts there are strict dismissal procedures, which usually include official warnings, opportunities to demonstrate improvement, and appeals to a committee of orchestra members.


Is there a difference between an orchestra that calls itself a "philharmonic" orchestra and one that calls itself a "symphony" orchestra? No. They're exactly the same kind of orchestra; they have the same makeup and they play the same kinds of music. (Both words have Greek roots, too: philharmonic is from the Greek word for "music-loving," and symphony is from the word for "sounding together.") The only difference is that symphony orchestra can also be used as a generic term, while philharmonic orchestra only occurs as part of a proper name. It's correct to say that the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra is a symphony orchestra, for example, but you wouldn't say that the National Symphony Orchestra is a "philharmonic orchestra." Basically, orchestras pick their names because they like the way they sound, and some orchestras, like the Cleveland Orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra, have avoided the "Symphony" versus "Philharmonic" issue completely.


The first instrumental groups that could be called orchestras were assembled for Italian opera in the early 1600s, but throughout the Baroque period (ca. 1600–1750) the makeup of orchestras, whether for opera or for purely instrumental music, varied widely. In any particular city, or for any particular occasion, the size and constitution of the orchestra usually depended on the forces — and the money — available. Baroque composers often didn't even specify which instruments, or how many, would be required to perform their pieces.

By the mid-eighteenth century, orchestral instrumentation had become standardized to a great extent, partly as a result of the example set by the famous orchestra of Mannheim, Germany. The Mannheim Orchestra, reputed to be the best in all of Europe, normally consisted of strings — first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses — and two each of flutes, oboes, bassoons, French horns, and trumpets, along with two timpani. This formation, which was enlarged later in the century by the addition of clarinets, became the foundation for the modern orchestra. The total number of players, especially string players, in eighteenth-century orchestras was usually much smaller than what's typical today, but as in earlier times, this was not always a matter of choice. There's evidence, in fact, that eighteenth-century composers were very happy with big orchestras when they could get them. In April 1781, for example, Mozart wrote a letter to his father telling of a recent performance of one of his symphonies. The orchestra, especially for those days, had been huge — forty violins, ten violas, eight cellos, ten double basses, and twice the normal number of winds (including six bassoons) — and Mozart described the performance as "magnifique."

The nineteenth century, the era of Romanticism, saw an enormous expansion in the forces of the orchestra, and it was Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) who set the process of expansion in motion. Before Beethoven, composers had used the trombone, for example, mainly in opera, usually reserving it for special or "supernatural" effects. Beethoven included trombones in his Fifth, Sixth, and Ninth symphonies. In the Ninth Symphony, he also augmented the standard orchestra with triangle, cymbals, bass drum, piccolo, and an early form of the contrabassoon, and he called for four French horns instead of the usual two. He also used the contrabassoon in the Fifth Symphony, and the piccolo in the Fifth and Sixth. Other instruments that joined the orchestra in the nineteenth century, after Beethoven's time, include the harp, the tuba, the English horn, the bass clarinet, the modern contrabassoon, the bass trombone, and the E-flat clarinet. Among the Romantic composers for whom better definitely meant bigger — especially when it came to the woodwind, brass, and percussion sections — were Hector Berlioz (1803–1869), Richard Wagner (1813–1883), Anton Bruckner (1824–1896), Gustav Mahler (1860–1911), and Richard Strauss (1864–1949). Berlioz and Wagner, especially, were truly revolutionary figures in the history of orchestration.


CHAMBER ORCHESTRA: A chamber orchestra is a small orchestra, usually consisting of twenty to forty players. Like larger orchestras, chamber orchestras are usually led by a conductor. The term itself is a twentieth-century invention, and the first pieces specifically written for chamber orchestra were by such composers as Béla Bartók (1881–1945), Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971), and Paul Hindemith (1895–1963). Many composers, including Bartók, Stravinsky, and Hindemith, have written both for large orchestra and for chamber orchestra.

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[NPR Logo] The NPR® Classical Music Companion: Terms and Concepts from A to Z by Miles Hoffman, published by Houghton Mifflin Company. Copyright © 1997 by Miles Hoffman and National Public Radio. All rights reserved.