The orchestra in the modern sense of the word did not exist before the 17th cent. Previous instrumental ensemble music was chamber music, except for occasional ceremonies when as many instruments as were available would be massed together. Until well into the 17th cent. there was little thought of specifying what instrument should play a part; any available instrument with the proper range was used. The first known example of orchestration occurs in Giovanni Gabrieli's (see under Andrea Gabrieli) Sacrae Symphoniae (1597). Monteverdi's Orfeo (1607), one of the first operas, demands a large and varied group of instruments—all, in fact, that were available to him through his patron.
During the 17th cent. the violin family displaced the viols, except the double-bass viol, as the principal strings of the orchestra. By the end of the century a division into four parts had become standard: first and second violins, violas, and cellos, with the double basses playing the cello part an octave lower. (Not until the 19th cent. did the cellos and basses frequently have different parts to play.)
Woodwinds appeared in the earliest orchestras, though infrequently and subordinate to the strings—usually two oboes and a bassoon, with flutes sometimes replacing the oboes. The flutes were established as regular orchestra members, playing together with the oboes, only late in the 18th cent. The trumpets, inseparable from the kettledrums through the 17th and 18th cent., were used occasionally in the 17th cent. and became standard in the orchestra by about 1700. The French horn was fully accepted by 1750. The trombone was used in church music even before the 17th cent. and occasionally in opera thereafter; it did not become a regular member of the symphony orchestra until after 1800.
Throughout the baroque period and into the second half of the 18th cent., the basso continuo was an integral part of the scoring and required that a harpsichord or some other chord-playing instrument fill in the harmonies above the figured bass. The treble and bass were strongly emphasized, while the middle parts were often left to the continuo alone. The orchestra was rather small at this time; Bach had as few as 18 players for his larger church works, and Handel usually used about 30.
During the latter half of the 18th cent. the classical orchestra was gradually established through the disuse of the continuo and the acceptance of the clarinet. The abandonment of the continuo led to much greater independence in the string parts, which now had to fill the harmony unaided. Instead of both violin parts doubling the melody and the violas, cellos, and basses doubling the bass, there were now four distinct parts. The clarinet, like the flute, first appeared as an alternate for the oboe, but in the late works of Haydn and Mozart the orchestra was standardized, with pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, French horns, trumpets, and kettledrums in addition to the strings. All the wind instruments, especially the woodwinds, could carry the melody, providing desired changes of color.
In the 19th cent., beginning in the works of Beethoven, the brass took an increasingly prominent place. The trombone was used regularly, while the invention of the valve in 1813 soon made the horn and trumpet completely chromatic. All the brass thus became melody instruments, instantly available in the most remote keys. The horn section was increased to four early in the century, and the introduction of the tuba (c.1835–50) gave the brass a dependable contrabass register it had previously lacked. The woodwinds also were improved mechanically in the 19th cent., greatly enlarging their technical capabilities. Throughout the century the string section was expanded to balance the increasing numbers of wind players.
The scores of Mozart and Beethoven generally required an orchestra of about 40; those of Weber and early Wagner called for about 55; Wagner's Ring cycle (1854–74) called for about 110; and Strauss's Elektra for 115. Hector Berlioz was highly influential in increasing awareness of orchestral color and in encouraging the use of a larger orchestra; his Traité d'orchestration, a fundamental work of its kind, envisioned an ideal orchestra of 465. After the climax of orchestral bulk in the works of Wagner, Mahler, Strauss, and several others, composers reacted against orchestral gigantism, first in the impressionism of Debussy and his followers. They still used a large orchestra, but more restrainedly, making more distinctive use of the instruments and largely avoiding massive sonorities.
Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (1913) illustrates the early 20th-century interest in diverse instrumental combinations and original exploitation of the instruments' capabilities. In general, composers of the 20th cent. have continued exploring novel uses of instruments and have preferred a moderate-sized orchestra. Seventy-five to ninety players suffice for most 20th-century scores; a reduced, or chamber, orchestra of classical or baroque dimensions has also been much used. In this century the percussion section is used more prominently; new instruments have been devised and the playing of old ones varied.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.