New to Classical Music
The word orchestra originally comes from the ancient Greek meaning the space in front of the stage where a chorus sang and danced.
Orchestra began to be applied to a group of musicians during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Both the meaning of the word and the orchestra itself have evolved over time to be what we now mean today - "an organised body of bowed strings with more than one player to a part, to which may be added any number of wind and percussion instruments" (Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians).
Today’s orchestra in Britain does not mean just an orchestra that performs concerts. As the wide variety of Listen Up! events show, a vital part of the modern orchestra is working off the stage in various situations in the community. One British orchestra has gone as far as to describe itself as a ‘music development agency’ as this better reflects the diversity of the work of its musicians.
For further information on professional orchestras in the UK,
Association of British Orchestras
The History of the Orchestra
The orchestra as a particular group of musicians first became prominent in the Baroque period (approx AD 1650 – 1710) and mainly consisted of string instruments with a continuo keyboard instrument, such as the harpsichord, and some wind instruments when required. At this time, the orchestra was mainly directed by the person playing the keyboard continuo instrument and later by the principal first violin.
• Pairs of wind instruments became an established part of the orchestra during the Classical period (approx 1750 – 1810).
• Through the Romantic period (approx 1810 – 1914), the number of wind and brass instruments used was expanded as composers looked to use a wider variety of sounds in their orchestral music.
• The changes in the instruments used as a standard part of an orchestra are clearly linked to the technical advancements made by instrument makers.
• During the twentieth century the number and range of percussion instruments used was expanded.
• The role of the chamber orchestra developed in the early twentieth century partly as a result of a reaction to the excesses of the Romantic era, but also to the idea of playing music with the forces it was written for at the time.
• The end of the twentieth century saw the development of orchestra education and community work as a core part of the orchestra’s activity.
Brief Guide to the Orchestra
The core repertoire of the orchestra is based around symphonies, concertos, overtures, suites and choral works, and a great variety is on offer during Listen Up! The style of music written has changed considerably over time as the orchestra evolved and composers experimented with new ideas and developed the art form.
The four periods mentioned above each have particular characteristics:
• Baroque: an emphasis on polyphony (many lines weaving together), ensemble writing, colourful ornamentation of musical lines. Main composers: Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Handel and JS Bach.
• Classical: an emphasis on balance, clear melody and harmony, refined style. Main composers: Haydn, Mozart. Late Classical / Early Romantic: Schubert, Beethoven.
• Romantic: an emphasis on emotional expression, expanded use of harmony and tone colour, the idea of the ‘heroic’ encouraged increasingly virtuosic writing. Main Composers: Brahms, Berlioz, Dvorak, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Wagner. Late Romantics: Mahler, Rachmaninov, Richard Strauss, Elgar, Sibelius.
• Twentieth Century: there is no defining characteristic of twentieth century music apart from its pluralism. Different composers chose different experimental paths and it has left a rich and complex legacy. In Britain, the legacy of Elgar and his compatriots saw the revitalisation of composition and orchestral music. Some of the main developments are:
1) Serialism and atonalism: the old hierarchical ideas of harmony were discarded in favour of equality of each note in the chromatic scale.
2) Neo-classicism: composers used the styles of the past in a modern context.
3) Minimalism: composers wrote works based on a minimal number of notes and harmonies which are often very repetitive in style
4) The birth of film music (recent examples are on offer during Listen Up!).
5) The rediscovery of early music and its use as a source of inspiration and changes in performance practice.
6) The influence of other types of music, for example jazz, and the discovery of the rich traditions of other cultures around the world.
7) Technology: the development of electronics and recording equipment expanded the possibilities available to composers.
Some of the main Twentieth century composers are:
Serialists Schoenberg, Webern, Berg;
Early part of century Debussy, Nielsen, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Shostakovich;
Later part of century Adams, Berio, Boulez, Henze, Lutoslawski, Messiaen, Nono, Pärt, Stockhausen;
Some British composers Ades, Arnold, Benjamin, Birtwistle, Britten, Macmillan, Maxwell Davies (recently appointed Master of the Queen's Music), Tavener, Tippett, Vaughan Williams, Walton, Weir.
At the start of the twenty-first century, we have access to a dazzling variety of music in the concert hall and on our stereos, ranging from medieval times to the rich traditions of a variety of cultures across the world.
Your Handy Guide to Concert Going
Participating in Orchestral Life
Professional Orchestras in the UK
Listen Up! Competition - The tune is the from Dvorak's symphony No 9 'New World', second movement - largo.
on radio 3
on the web
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