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:
|4. Double basses||810|
|II.||Woodwinds (sometimes just called Winds)||16|
(One section member specializes in piccolo.)
(One section member specializes in English horn.)
(One section member also plays bass clarinet, and one plays a higher-voiced instrument called an E-flat clarinet.)
(One section member specializes in contrabassoon.)
|1. French horns||56|
(One section member specializes in bass trombone.)
|2. Other percussion instruments||3|
(These include such instruments as snare drum, bass drum, triangle, cymbals, glockenspiel, chimes, xylophone, celesta, and tam-tam.)
|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
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
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:
The first instrumental groups that could be called orchestras were assembled for Italian opera in the early 1600s, but throughout the Baroque period (ca. 16001750) 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 "
The nineteenth century, the era of Romanticism, saw an enormous expansion in the forces of the orchestra, and it was Ludwig van Beethoven (17701827) 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 (18031869), Richard Wagner (18131883), Anton Bruckner (18241896), Gustav Mahler (18601911), and Richard Strauss (18641949). Berlioz and Wagner, especially, were truly revolutionary figures in the history of orchestration.
|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.|