The History of the Orchestra

This article takes a look at some of the turning points and major developments that the orchestra has undergone throughout history.

As mentioned, the term stands to illustrate a grouping of instruments of varying classes including woodwind, string, percussion, and brass. The term itself has meant different things at different times – all related to theatre. Early on in its use, the term ‘orchestra’ could even describe a space like dancing area and not the band of musicians led by a conductor.

At present a small orchestra is defined usually as around 30 musicians or less. This size is also referred to as a chamber orchestra. It is important not to confuse ‘chamber orchestra’ with ‘chamber music’. Chamber music is an even smaller grouping of instruments performing and does not have a set class of strings, brass and so on, but may comprise just for example a piano and violin. Chamber music uses around 2-15 instruments at the very most.

Larger orchestras are of the order of around 100 musicians – these are often referred to as a ‘symphony orchestra’ and even more commonly a ‘philharmonic orchestra’. The latter distinguishing term is also used to specify an orchestra of a specific city, for example the Philharmonic Orchestra of Berlin, or London. Philharmonic is the term conventionally reserved for orchestra groupings of 80 musicians or more. However the size of both a philharmonic and symphony orchestra is not fixed but varies as needed. Different compositions have different needs – some need less instruments some need more. The orchestra adapts to the piece being performed.

The form of the orchestra as it is known today was standardised in the classical era (mid 1700s to early 1800s). The composer Ludwig van Beethoven also played a significant role in bringing the orchestra to its present form.