Symphony Orchestra Brief Introduction

Symphony Orchestra Brief Introduction

An orchestra is a large instrumental ensemble that contains sections of string, brass, woodwind, and percussion instruments. Other instruments such as the piano and celesta may sometimes be grouped into a fifth section such as a keyboard section or may stand alone, as may the concert harp and electric and electronic instruments. The term orchestra derives from the Greek ὀρχήστρα, the name for the area in front of an ancient Greek stage reserved for the Greek chorus. The orchestra grew by accretion throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, but changed very little in composition during the course of the 20th century.

A smaller-sized orchestra for this time period (of about fifty musicians or fewer) is called a chamber orchestra. A full-size orchestra (about 100 musicians) may sometimes be called a symphony orchestra or philharmonic orchestra; these modifiers do not necessarily indicate any strict difference in either the instrumental constitution or role of the orchestra, but can be useful to distinguish different ensembles based in the same city (for instance, the London Symphony Orchestra and the London Philharmonic Orchestra).

A symphony orchestra will usually have over eighty musicians on its roster, in some cases over a hundred, but the actual number of musicians employed in a particular performance may vary according to the work being played and the size of the venue. A leading chamber orchestra might employ as many as fifty musicians; some are much smaller than that. Orchestras can also be found in schools. The term concert orchestra may sometimes be used (e.g., BBC Concert Orchestra; RTÉ Concert Orchestra)—no distinction is made on size of orchestra by use of this term, although their use is generally distinguished as for live concert. As such they are commonly chamber orchestras.


The first orchestras were made up of small groups of musicians that gathered for festivals, holidays, or funerals.

It was not until the 11th century that families of instruments started to appear with differences in tones and octaves. True modern orchestras started in the late 16th century when composers started writing music for instrumental groups. In the 15th and 16th centuries in Italy the households of nobles had musicians to provide music for dancing and the court, however with the emergence of the theatre, particularly opera, in the early 17th century, music was increasingly written for groups of players in combination, which is the origin of orchestral playing.

Opera originated in Italy, and Germany eagerly followed. Dresden, Munich and Hamburg successively built opera houses. At the end of the 17th century opera flourished in England under Henry Purcell, and in France under Lully, who with the collaboration of Molière also greatly raised the status of the entertainments known as ballets, interspersed with instrumental and vocal music.

In the 17th century and early 18th century, instrumental groups were taken from all of the available talent. A composer such as Johann Sebastian Bach had control over almost all of the musical resources of a town, whereas Handel would hire the best musicians available. This placed a premium on being able to rewrite music for whichever singers or musicians were best suited for a performance — Handel produced different versions of the Messiah oratorio almost every year.

As nobility began to build retreats away from towns, they began to hire musicians to form permanent ensembles. Composers such as the young Joseph Haydn would then have a fixed body of instrumentalists to work with. At the same time, traveling virtuoso performers such as the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart would write concerti that showed off their skills, and they would travel from town to town, arranging concerts along the way. The aristocratic orchestras worked together over long periods, making it possible for ensemble playing to improve with practice.

Later in the 1800s, the orchestra reached the size and proportions we know today and even went beyond that size. Some composers, such as Berlioz, really went all-out writing for huge orchestras. Instrument design and construction got better and better, making new instruments such as the piccolo and the tuba available for orchestras.