Disclaimer: Gods of Musicology, forgive me for I am about to make some very wide generalizations in the name of amusement and general knowledge…
Why do we use Orchestras?
Money, money, money (and huge compression) …
It was in late Renaissance/Baroque when the show business was really born. Someone had the brilliant idea of charging an entrance fee to publicly-held events (including music performances). These events became the meeting point where different social classes would stare at each other in astonishment and complete lack of understanding (both poor and rich people were seriously amused by each other) but having something very important in common; they had all paid for it.
The concept of charging for musical events completely changed the nature of performance. Now, the more people attended the event the greater the profits for the organizer would be. This meant that increasing ticket sales became number one priority and in order to achieve that, the music should be made available to a larger audience. With the smaller ensembles previously used (think of Chamber music) the business wouldn’t have been so successful….This development was parallel to the one of Bel Canto, following the same criterion: raising the volume!! If the singer couldn’t be heard in the last row, that row wouldn’t pay for their ticket.
Of course, it also meant that not only the music should reach the entire audience physically by means of a higher volume but it also had to reach them emotionally so that they would come back to the event….and this defined the writing of a great part of music until the 20th century (but this is another story!).
So, back to the orchestra; what else was caused by this increase of ensemble sizes and the need for music to emotionally ‘move’ the audience? Well, complex harmony! Right then and there arose the need for instruments that would tune perfectly with each other, otherwise playing together would become a nightmare of harmonics, dissonances and other evil acoustic phenomena. If you have ever written anything for micro-tuning world instruments you’ll immediately understand what I mean! And even tuned perfectly, you need to provide them with music that will actually sound nice!
By the way, that same time is when conductors also showed up for the first time in history (for smaller ensemble sizes there was no need for someone external to coordinate). The first conductors where the composers themselves, usually giving instructions from their harpsichords while accompanying the performers – that could have been you!
Darwin and the Orchestra
The survival of the fittest instruments …
With all this in mind, it’s easy to understand that the instruments which survived through history were the ones that could be easily tuned with each other and could play at high volumes (Bye bye harpsichord! Nice having played you viola da gamba!). The instruments we see today in orchestras are fierce predators that pushed out all their competition by tuning better and achieving a higher volume. And it’s a tough ecosystem in perfect balance! Each little instrument has its own niche and they tend not to compete for range or, if they do, their very different timbres make them target a different place in the audience’s hearing range and attention. The orchestra is a diabolic, perfectly-tuned machine that can play the most varied works ever thought of, with hundreds of years of experience and refinement in its technique….and it’s coming for you!!
Meet the Strings, the Brass, the Woodwinds and the Percussion!
Why those families of instruments?
The key to the success of the orchestra as the most amazing musical instrument is balance. The number of members and their nature has been defined and refined over and over again through history, always seeking balance in the sound and versatility in the performance. The specific features of each family of instruments have been studied so they blend together perfectly and in balance, not mudding each other and covering as much of the hearing and attention spectrum as possible. For example, the strings need a larger number of members and act like an army – they need to compete in volume with the brass. The woodwinds, on the other hand, don´t need such a large number of members since they can very well “cut through the mix”. Then again, when the orchestra has “guests” such as a piano, harp or bel canto singers it must be rearranged either in the orchestration or on the components so they also have a niche where they can properly develop.
So what determines their seating on stage?
The issue of seating has also varied largely through history, in the search of different effects and colours in the works performed. However, some things usually remain constant due to common sense (at least in live performances … studio recording is another story!) : percussion and brass are seated in the background or the audience would never be able to hear the strings; the violins and violas will most likely be seated on the left side of the stage so the bodies of their instruments face the audience, directing the maximum volume towards them.
This all sounds very interesting…Can I have some names and dates that I can accidentally drop in a conversation so it looks like I have read many manuals about this?
“Orchestra” comes from Greek “orchistra”, meaning “a dancing place”, and it designated the area in Ancient Greek theaters where the performance would take place. Funnily enough, back in the day the musicians were not always placed there!
It isn´t until beginning of 7th Century that Isidore of Seville used the term for meaning “stage” in his Etymologiarium (in general, Isidore of Seville is one of those names that you can accidentally drop just because, he seemed to have an opinion on everything).
I would like to know more about this…
Yeah, me too!! (Ok, here you are some sources worth taking a look at:)
J. Spitzer and Neal Zaslaw: The Birth of the Orchestra: History of an Institution 1650 – 1815, Oxford University Press (Oxford 2004)
S. Sadie , ed., ; Orchestra, Orchestration: The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, vol. 13 (pp. 679-700), (London: Macmillan Publishers Limited, 1980)