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History of the Orchestra: Growth of Orchestral Music Throughout History

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  • 0:03 The Orchestra
  • 0:49 Origins of the Orchestra
  • 2:49 Developing the Orchestra
  • 4:56 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Orchestral music is one of the classical foundations of Western culture. In this lesson, you will explore the history and development of this art form, then test your understanding with a brief quiz.

The Orchestra

Who wants to go see an orchestra? Of course you do! Orchestras are awesome. At its most basic, an orchestra is a large musical ensemble. Traditional orchestras have sections for woodwind instruments, brass instruments, strings, and percussion. But why? How did the orchestra end up looking like this?

Well, guess what? Special treat - we're not just seeing one orchestra, we're going to see all the orchestras! I mean we're going to see the development of the orchestra throughout history! Just hop on in to one of these convenient time-travelling concert hall seats, and buckle up for safety because away we go.

Origins of the Orchestra

And here we are. Nice togas. Yep, we're back in ancient Greece, about as far back as you can go in Western music. And since this is ancient Greece, and we're in an auditorium, that means one of only two things. Either it's time for the Olympics or we're watching a play. And it's a play. Theater was one of the most venerated traditions of the Greeks. They absolutely loved it, and what is theater without music? This is where we first see the idea of an orchestra, which, in Greek, meant the front part of the stage reserved for instruments and the chorus. Since the chorus sang much of the plot, music was an integral part of theater.

Now, let's move on. Roman empire, Byzantine empire, medieval courts - you may notice that for the next several centuries, formal music mostly consisted of small groups that performed for select audiences - generally the royalty or a church parish - and were mostly vocal.

And we arrive at the Italian Renaissance, the period of intellectual and artistic development from the late 14th to early 16th centuries. Art, literature, poetry, and of course, music were major fascinations for the Italians. However, while composers wrote more complex music, the music only described the notes to be played, and really could be performed with any assortment of instruments.

Then, in 1607, the Italian composer and founding figure of opera, Claudio Monteverdi, decided that he knew exactly what he wanted his music to sound like. So, he wrote music specifically for the instruments he wanted: two violins, four flutes, two cornets, one harp, etc. This was a huge ensemble, with specific roles for each instrument - the original version of what we think of today as the modern-day orchestra.

Developing the Orchestra

So, the orchestra got its basic form as we know it today in the early 1600s. Over the next several centuries, instruments were added and removed, and what we call the modern orchestra began to take shape. In the 17th century, violins became the primary string instrument of the orchestra. More woodwind instruments were added in, and by the 18th century, French horns, trombones, and trumpets became regular additions.

Throughout the 17th century, orchestras were not much larger than about 18-20 members, and the composer was usually a performer, often on the harpsichord or violin. This meant that there wasn't really a director. Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were some of the most influential composers of the 18th century, increasing the popularity and importance of orchestral music with masterpieces that inspired kings and peasants alike. It was during this time that concert performance really became a respected profession.

The next big step came with a guy named Ludwig van Beethoven, the 19th-century composer who standardized the orchestra by using pairs of each woodwind and brass instrument. Beethoven created compositions that made full use of the entire range of instruments, from high to low, and gave each section more important roles, rather than letting the strings carry most of the melody by themselves.

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