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Face the Music

What is the history of the orchestra? What is its origin?

Photo of John WilliamsOrchestras have been around for at least four centuries, maybe longer. There is no one date to point to as the beginning. What is certain is that instrumentalists in groups accompanied theatrical performances, mainly operas, as early as 1600. The orchestra first emerged from its background role supporting singers in the early 18th century. Works called sinfonia were written for instrumentalists alone, and these pieces ultimately led to the great symphonic music of the late 18th and 19th centuries. If you could travel back in time 200 years and attend a symphony performance, what would you see and hear? First you would notice that the orchestra is smaller -- a little less than half the size of the Boston Pops Orchestra. Then you'd wonder, where's the conductor? Early orchestras didn't generally have conductors; a violinist or keyboard player would start and stop the group. The instruments, particularly the stringed instruments, would be similar to those in today's orchestras, but the variety, range, and power of the woodwinds and brass would be more limited than their modern counterparts.

As for the music, you'd probably hear a symphony, a work for the orchestra alone, or a concerto, a piece for orchestra and soloist. More than 12,000 such pieces were written in the 18th century, during what we might call Part One of the orchestra's history. In particular, you might have been lucky enough to encounter the first performance of an orchestral work by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) or Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 -1809). Their compositions include the first masterpieces written for the orchestra and remain popular today.

Painting of BeethovenPart Two of the orchestra's history coincides with the Romantic era in music, in particular with the works of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). During this period, the orchestra increased in size and power. More musicians performed on instruments which were capable of making louder sounds. Beethoven's nine symphonies, still the most famous and frequently performed works in the orchestral repertoire, expanded everything orchestras were about. The pieces were longer with more complex musical ideas. The technical demands on the instrumentalists and the conductor (who had become a nearly absolute necessity) were much greater than ever before. Beethoven's symphonies created musical worlds full of strong contrasts and dissonance. Some of his works shocked listeners on first hearing them, and even today they remain fresh and surprising.

As the 19th century progressed, composers took advantage of Beethoven's newly expressive orchestra. A wide range of composers, including Franz Schubert (1797-1828), Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), Robert Schumann (1810-1856), Hector Berlioz (1803-1869), Franz Liszt (1811-1886), Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), Anton Bruckner (1824-1896), Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) and the opera composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883), expanded what the orchestra was capable of presenting. During this century, the great civic orchestras we know today were founded, including the Boston Symphony and Boston Pops.

The Pops movement was an effort born in London -- then, as now, one of the most active musical cities in the world. In 1858, a series of "Pops," or "Popular orchestral concerts," was offered to educate music lovers about symphonic works. The Pops trend caught on quickly. Soon Pops concerts were part of many orchestras' seasons, and most U.S. orchestras still have one or more popular concerts, often free of charge, during the year.

Photo of Keith LockhartPart Three of the symphony's history takes us from 1900 to today. Composers have continued to write symphonies that expand on the Romantic tradition in conservative or radical ways. Noted 20th-century symphonists include Russian composers Dimitry Shostakovich (1906-1975), Sergey Prokofiev (1891-1953), and Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971); French composers Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) and Claude Debussy (1862-1918); and German composers Richard Strauss (1864-1949) and Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). Closer to home, the American Aaron Copland (1900-1990) has contributed major symphonic works to the repertoire.

At the dawn of the new millennium, are people still writing for symphony orchestras? The answer is a resounding yes! The Boston Symphony programs include many works by living composers from all over the globe, including frequent world premieres, and signs look good for a Part Four of the symphony's history.

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Photos courtesy of Michael Lutch.

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