The History of the Orchestra Part II

The first part of this series looked at the history of the term ‘orchestra’ as well as the overall form of this type of ensemble. This article will focus on its developments, as well as the instruments most frequently used.

Beethoven is one of the most important figures in the evolution of the orchestra form. He had an influence in what is today known as the ‘standard complement’. It consists of the use of double wind and brass instruments. It should be noted that that Beethoven himself did not follow the ‘standard complement’ in all of his orchestra compositions. For example in his Symphony no. 4, his piano concerto no. 4, and his Violin concerto, Beethoven himself omits the complement altogether. The effect of the ‘standard complement’ is very subtle. It has a lot of thought and subtlety behind it, requiring a lot of knowledge and expertise to be fully appreciated.

Another very significant development the orchestra form has undergone is in its instrumentation. Originally, there were much fewer instruments for each of the four classes, whereas from the 19th to 20th century not only were new instruments introduced but the number of some of the instruments was increased as well. Some less conventional instruments that have been used in orchestras over time include the classical guitar, the harpsichord, and saxophones. The saxophone was rarely used during the 19th to 20th century compositions. The composers Sergej Rachmaninov and Modest Mussorgsky both made use of these instruments in some of their orchestral compositions. The French composer Ravel used the saxophone in his Bolero and the composer Prokofiev used it in his score for Romeo and Juliet. Tchaikovsky even used a cannon in his 1812 Overture.

In modern times the orchestra has undergone a much more radical change of instrument repertoire. Today the orchestra can be almost entirely handpicked by the composer rather than adhering to a set standard of specific instruments in each class.