Orchestra Origins

In the long and exultant history of music, particularly in musical performance, the symphony orchestra is a relative newcomer to the concert scene.

In the Middle Ages and early Renaissance period, large instrumental ensembles were virtually non-existent. There were a few exceptions, of course, as larger groups sometimes were used for ceremonial and festive occasions. The various instrumental combinations were actually more reminiscent of chamber music rather than orchestral music.

The development of the orchestra had its roots in the 16th century. It was not until the early Baroque period that instrumental music foretold what it would become later.


Giovanni Gabrieli (1567-1612), wrote for specific instruments for each part. He wrote, Sacrae Symphoniae in 1597. He also wrote Sonata pian e forte for two instrumental groups, one was soft and one was loud.

The Opera Orfeo of 1607 was written by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643).  He was one of the first early composers to write for individual instruments for special expressive purposes.

The most famous and renowned orchestra of its time, in the mid-18th century, was the court orchestra in Mannheim, Germany. This orchestra recruited the best players and composers available. The Composer, Johann Stamitz (1717-1757), was prominent in the evolution and development of this ensemble. It was known for its precision; technique; beauty of tone; range; dynamic shading and contrasts, virtually unknown before.

Stamitz trained the musicians in the technique of gradually changing intensity and using a sudden fortisimi (very loud) as a means to stir emotions.

This orchestra was truly the forerunner and prototype of the modern symphony orchestra. It was the leading ensemble of the day. From these humble beginnings sprang forth the pacesetter of all instrumental ensembles – the modern symphony orchestra.


Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), was known as the “Father of the Symphony.”  He further developed the growth of the Mannheim Orchestra. Haydn standardized the instrumentation of the classical orchestra. The String section included: Violins, violas, cellos and string basses. Woodwinds: two flutes, two oboes and two bassoons. Brass had two horns, two trumpets and a pair of timpani. The harpsichord, used to fill in harmonies, was eliminated from Haydn’s orchestra.  In 1766 he started with a group of 17 musicians and by 1790 he had 50 members in the orchestra.


Wolfgang Mozart (1756-1791), further developed the orchestra by adding more instruments. A big change was the addition of the newly invented clarinet. This instrument was added to his later symphonies. Mozart continued the style of Haydn but went beyond the scope of his predecessors in several ways. He had a more perfect balance between harmony and counterpoint (notes played against each other) and he was very gifted in the creation of spontaneous melodies. He had a harmonic vocabulary, including the use of dissonance (lack of harmony), that was advanced for its time. Mozart was extremely versatile in all types of composition including symphonies; concerti; sonatas for various instruments; chamber music; opera and sacred music. All of these various forms contributed to the advancement of symphonic writing.


The composer that contributed more to the establishment of the modern orchestra is Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827). He used the model of Haydn and Mozart with his own style that has never been surpassed. His orchestral innovations include: adding new instruments, new roles for all of the instruments and the bold use of the human voice and chorus in the 9th Symphony. The addition of the trombone, for the first time, is in his 5th Symphony and he also used established instruments more widely.

Beethoven wrote more complex and demanding parts for all the instruments. In order to do all these innovations, he had to have a deep understanding of the capabilities, limitations and knowledge of all the instruments in the orchestra. He went beyond traditional roles established by his illustrious predecessors. He used the basic instruments of the Haydn orchestra but increased the numbers of established instruments and added new ones. The English horn, clarinets, trombones and more percussion instruments were added.

Beethoven did something that had not been done before to any great extent; he wrote detailed directions for performance of his work. He left instructions regarding tempo, dynamics, phrasing and expression. Until this time, interpretation of a piece was largely left open for speculation by both performers and conductors. The role of the conductor really wasn’t present until around 1800. Then conductors could relate to the players how the composers wanted their work performed.

The modern day symphony orchestra has grown to around 100 to 110 players. In the String section there are: 30-40 violins; 10-12 violas; 10-12 cello and 8-10 string basses. Woodwinds: 3 flutes; 1 piccolo; 2-3 oboes; 1 English horn; 3 bassoons; 1 contra bassoon; 2-3 clarinets and 1 bass clarinet. Brass: 3 to 4 trumpets; 4 to 6 horns; 3 trombones; 1 bass trombone and 1 tuba. Percussion: 4 Timpani; snare drum; bass drum; symbols; gong or tam-tam; xylophone; orchestra bells; chimes and various auxiliary percussion instruments. Also used are the Celesta, piano, harp and organ.

Beethoven used the orchestra as a means of personal expression. His music, reflected to a certain extent, how he felt and viewed the world. He was a true genius in every sense of the word.

The Symphony Orchestra was, and is today, the cornerstone of the performing arts. Generations have thrilled to the sound of the orchestra throughout the world and will, thankfully, continue to do so in the future.

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