A Complete Guide to Orchestra
The soft sounds of a Violin, the glorious tunes of the Cello, the triumphant melodies of a Trumpet, dramatic sombre from the Piano, flowing tunes from the Flute and the uplifting tone of the drums – there’s so much that a single orchestra performance can offer.
For centuries, the orchestra has been used to mirror a theme or narrate a story without words. Using a section of string, percussion and keyboard instruments with concert harp and other electronic musical instruments, the orchestra produces standalone compositions that can be classical or Western in nature.
Orchestras are led by a conductor. This is a person who directs a musical performance through visible gestures of arms, face, hands and the head. They unify performers and set the tempo, execute different beats and upbeats while critically shaping the overall sound of all musical instruments. Orchestras usually have a unified theme, a set tempo, shape and sound of the ensembles that creates a unique effect.
Just a few decades ago, Western classical music struggled for a place in India, especially because the country itself has a vibrant tradition of classical music. However, in recent times Western Classical Music has emerged in the country and the artists here have stunned the world with a fine blend of Indian -Western Orchestra. In fact, several famous orchestra conductors around the world have Indian lineage.
India’s Symphony Orchestra of India is considered a pioneer in the field. The country does have a number of smaller orchestras as well. In the last few years, the country has produced some of the finest orchestral performances.
An Introduction to the Instrumental Ensemble
A classical foundation of the Western Culture, orchestra is often considered to be art, an instrumental ensemble. It includes woodwind instruments, strings, percussion and brass musical instruments. Played in a theatre, which is often called the orchestra pit, this form of music is derived from Greek Chorus, where a number of artists perform together in symphony.
The musical ensemble used in orchestra includes violin, cello, double bass and piano, celesta and sometimes electronic instruments or concert harp with flutes and reed instruments. Orchestras that include a group of 70 -100 musicians are known as symphony or philharmonic orchestra. The smaller sized orchestra with fewer than 50 musicians is called a chamber orchestra.
Orchestras are played for several reasons and have a diverse repertoire, which includes symphonies, concerts, ballets, operas and overtures.
Beginnings from ‘Greek Chorus’- Exploring the History
Let’s travel back to a few centuries and rediscover the origin of Orchestra in Greece.
In classical Greece, Greek Chorus involved a group of non -individualized performers, who homogenously performed with a collective voice. This Greek chorus is the inspiration for the development of orchestra, where instead of singers, musicians performed collectively. Here is how orchestra has evolved over the centuries.
- While Greek Chorus laid the foundations for the orchestra, the actual concept didn’t evolve until the Italian Renaissance. Before that, during the Roman Empire formal music mostly included small group of musicians who performed for selected audiences.
- It was during the early 16th century and periods of Italian Renaissance that the concept evolved and major transformations were designed for complex music.
- Italian composer and founding figure of Opera, Claudio Monteverdi was the first one who wanted more musicians and large set of instrumental ensembles for his events. This was the original version of modern -day orchestra.
- Over the next several centuries, the concept evolved rapidly. While the 17th century saw orchestras with up to 20 members, they didn’t have a director or a present day conductor. Instead, they had composers who performed during the orchestra. This included influential composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart who created orchestral music masterpieces.
- It is believed that Ludwig van Beethoven, the 19th century composer is the one who standardized orchestra. Double winds and brass instruments used in orchestra are generally attributed to him. His major symphonies included clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, oboes and flute.
- Expanded instrumentation came during the 20th century works by Bela Bartok, Strauss and Anton Bruckner.
- By the 20th century, orchestra and the number of instruments were divided on the basis of their periods. For instance, Baroque Orchestra and Classical Orchestra were before the 20th After which came the early romantic orchestra, late romantic orchestra and modern orchestra.
- In India, Western Classical Music and Orchestra in particular have been popularized in the last 50 years. While Mehli Mehta in 1930s bought the concept to India, major transformations were only noticed in 2006, when Symphony Orchestra of India was founded and housed at NCPA in Mumbai.
- Today a number of conductors and Western classical musicians work in India and a lot more are being trained to master in the field.
Construction and Conducting in an Orchestra
When it comes to constructing and conducting an orchestra, a general principle of hierarchy is to be followed. Each instrumental group in the orchestra has a principal individual, who leads the group and plays solos during the orchestra. Other concepts are mentioned in detail below.
- In orchestra, violins are divided into two groups. The second violin group is supposed to play lower registers than the first ones and Concertmaster or the leader is the principal who leads the first violin group. This individual is also considered to be the leader of string section and second in command of the orchestra.
- Concertmaster is trusted with a variety of responsibilities. For instance, s/he handles musical aspects of orchestra management, deals with pre -concert tuning among others. S/he sits to the left of the conductor and is closest to the audience.
- In low brass section, principal trombone is the leader whereas the brass section is led by the principal trumpet. Flute is the leader for woodwind ensembles. A principal percussionist assigns parts to section percussionists.
- Modern orchestras are led by conductors, such as Zubin Mehta or A.R. Rahman (also a musician) who guide musicians. This wasn’t the common practice during early orchestras where a concertmaster used to take the lead.
- Concerts and orchestras are usually performed at an orchestra pit, which is a theatre specifically designed for musicians. This pit can be of any size and has walls designed to provide best possible acoustics.
Forms of Orchestra
Orchestras perform a variety of music, most of which includes ballets, operas, symphonies, overtures and concerts. Some of the distinct forms of orchestra are discussed below.
- Symphony – A symphony includes 50 -100 musicians with strong, percussion, woodwind and brass instruments. Always led by a conductor, symphonies are extended compositions that are notated in a musical score. Some symphonies, such as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony also contain small vocal parts.
- Chamber – This kind of orchestra is a smaller version of a symphony and has less than 50 musicians. The reason why it is called a chamber is because the musicians can fit in a public hall or a private room. However, the number of string instruments played in the chamber is usually the same as symphony orchestra.
- String – String Orchestra is the kind of orchestra which only includes violin, viola, cello and other string instruments. On an average 8 instruments are used for this ensemble. Sometimes, a conductor isn’t required for these orchestras because of the smaller size.
- Indian Orchestra – An Indian Orchestra is an instrumental ensemble, which when performed in the traditional way has four kinds of instruments – string, wind, drums and non -drum percussion. Indian orchestra includes instruments like Sitar and Tambura, Veena, Sarangi and Santoor, Bagpipes, flutes and harmonium. They may include other drums and instruments as well.
Conducting an Orchestra
Conducting is one of the most crucial aspects of the orchestra. It is an art of directing a musical performance. Conductors use visible gestures through their heads, face, arms and hand. As a conductor, the individual has to unify all the performers and ensure that they execute clear preparations and beats. They also have to listen and give shape to the sound of an ensemble.
Since conductors are pivotal during performances, they have to be seen by every member of the orchestra group as well as the audience. They stand on a raised podium with a large music stand, and use a baton if needed.
Most conductors for modern orchestra don’t play music at the event. However, during the historical times, conductors played the instruments as well. In fact, leading an ensemble with an instrument was common.
A conductor’s responsibility doesn’t just end at directing. They also choose the works to be performed and study the scores. They make adjusts to the tempo or articulation, work out an interpretation and streamline communication. They also plan concerts, promote ensembles and selecting members for the team.
Orchestra in Modern Indian Culture
In India, Western Classical Music, particularly the orchestra was considered non-existent in the first half of the 20th century. However, Western classical music and orchestra’s relevance has soared in the last few years. Indian history of Orchestra can be traced back to Zoroastrian community and other smaller groups who have been exposed to Orchestra and Western Classical Music for centuries. Another significant group is the Protestant Christian Community.
Orchestra is a reflection of Indian culture in a two -fold way. First, it narrates how the country has shown acceptance for music genres and styles from all over the world. Secondly, it also represents the music concerts and symphonies from Indian classical music.
Today, Indian modern orchestra has grown considerably, thanks to the establishment of a number of institutions. This includes KM Music Conservatory, founded by A.R. Rahman and Delhi School of Music. Other institutes include Calcutta School of Music, Eastern Fare Music Foundation and Bangalore School of Music.
India’s Best Orchestra Conductors
Some of the prominent Indian orchestra conductors’ are –
Zubin Mehta: Music Director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Zubin Mehta is India’s premier Indian Orchestra conductor. He is also the main conductor for Valencia’s Opera House and directs tens of Orchestra instruments with ease. He made his conducting debut in Vienna and rose the rank of chief conductor in just two years and since 1958, Mehta has performed around the world.
His performance style has dynamic interpretations which makes him such a popular name. He is an honorary citizen of Florence and Tel Aviv.
Mehli Mehta: Father of Zubin Mehta, Mehli Mehta was an Indian conductor and an exceptional violinist. Born in a Parsi family, he was the pioneer in Indian musical world. He was the founder of Bombay Symphony Orchestra in 1935. Mehta studied from University of Bombay and Trinity College of Music in London. A Maestro, he had conducted Orchestras across Europe, in Asia and America.
Andre de Quadros: A professor of music at Boston University, Quadros is a conductor and ethnomusicologist. He received his education in India and Australia and conducted orchestras around the world. His historic projects were completed at Palestine and Israel. He served as the former artistic director of Melbourne International Festival of Choirs.
Illaiyaraaja: The first Indian to perform at Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London, Illaiyaraaja is an admirable force when it comes to music. He has integrated folk, South Indian, Bollywood and Western Classical Music together to form symphonic orchestra. His orchestra conduction was typically marked with the use of traditional Indian instrumentation.
Apart from him, Ravi Shankar is the only Indian who worked on a full symphony orchestra at the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He has received a Padma Bhushan from the Government of India.
Param Vir: A PIO, Param Vir is a composer and conductor. Vir’s strong interest in music stemmed while attending a Roman Catholic Secondary School. Later, he went to Britain and studied music further. His compositions made him highly popular.
Over the years, he has performed as a composer and conductor around the world and his work has been premiered by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London among other orchestra pits.
List of Orchestra Accessories
Orchestra’s accessories can be divided into instruments and other accessories used to make orchestral events possible. Following are the instrumental accessories used for orchestra.
- Double Bass
- Snare Drums
- Bass Drums
- Electric Guitar
- Pope Organ
- Tubular Bells
- Tambourine and others.
Other accessories include
- Bridges and tailpieces
- Orchestral mutes
- Pickups and transducers
- Orchestral pitch pipe and tuners
- Orchestral polishes and cleaners
- Orchestral Pegs
- Orchestral Mutes
- Orchestral Cases
Some miscellaneous items could be
- Shoulder Rest for Violin
- Endpin Floor Protectors
- Light Rosin
- Violin’s strings
- Dark Rosins for Violin, Viola and Cello
- Shoulder Rests for Viola
- Violin Cases
- String Bass Bags
- Cello Bags
- Soft Case with Nylon
- End Pin Rest
- Finger Position Indicator and other items
Records For Orchestra
First Symphony Orchestra: The record for India’s first and only professional symphony orchestra is with the Symphony Orchestra of India, SOI, which is based at the National Centre of Performing Arts in Mumbai. Founded in 2006, SOI has renowned violin virtuoso Marat Bisengaliev as the Music Director. Two series of concerts are organized at the place, one in spring and other in autumn every year.
Flautists World Record: India also holds the record for an orchestra with only wind instruments. 4000 flautists from India performed together on a single stage at Nashik and set the record for the largest number of orchestra members performing together in 2015. Event was organized by The Art of Living.
In a Nutshell
Orchestra is considered to be one of the most diversified elements of musical components. It has such a large range of musical instruments, each one with a specific tone and style. The endless rhythms composed by an orchestra can leave an indelible imprint on the mind! Philharmonic Orchestras in particular can be inspiring, and a dedicated reflection of a million expressions.
The fact that an orchestra can use tens and hundreds of instruments makes it so enticing – and such a great representative of moods. These instruments, when used together can make a melody that’s nothing less than artwork. It includes woodwind instruments, strings, percussion and brass musical instruments.
Some prominent conductors of Western-Classic Orchestra includes Zubin Mehta, Mehli Mehta, Illaiyaraaja, A.R. Rahman and Andre de Quadros among others.
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