orchestra and orchestration: Early History of Orchestras and Orchestration

Early History of Orchestras and Orchestration

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.

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