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An orchestra is a musical ensemble used most often in classical music. A small orchestra is called a chamber orchestra.

Full size orchestras may sometimes be called "symphony orchestras" or "philharmonic orchestras"; these prefixes do not indicate any difference either to the instrumental content or role of the orchestra, but can be useful to distinguish different orchestras based in the same city (for instance, the London Symphony Orchestra and the London Philharmonic Orchestra).

The typical symphony orchestra consists of four groups of musical instruments:

Nowadays, the musicians are usually directed by a conductor, although early orchestras did not have one, using instead the principal violinist or the harpsichordist playing the continuo for this role. Some modern orchestras also do without conductors, particularly smaller orchestras and those specialising in historically accurate performances of baroque music and earlier.

The most frequently performed repertoire[?] for a symphony orchestra is Western classical music or opera. They are also used in popular music, however.

History of the orchestra

At first the orchestra was an aristocratic luxury, performing privately at the courts of the princes and nobles of Italy; but in the 17th century performances were given in theatres, and Germany eagerly followed. Dresden, Munich and Hamburg successively built opera houses, while in England opera flourished under Henry Purcell, and in France under Lully, who with the collaboration of Moliere also greatly raised the status of the entertainments known as ballets, interspersed with instrumental and vocal music.

The revival of the drama seems to have exhausted the enthusiasm of Italy for instrumental music, and the field of action was shifted to Germany, where the perfecting of the orchestra was continued. Most German princes had at the beginning of the 18th century good private orchestras or Kapelle, and they always endeavoured to secure the services of the best available instrumentalists. Kaiser, Telemann, Graun, Mattheson and George Friderich Handel contributed greatly to the development of German opera and of the orchestra in Hamburg during the first quarter of the century. Johann Sebastian Bach, Gluck and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the reformers of opera; Joseph Haydn, the father of the modern orchestra and the first to treat it independently as a power opposed to the solo and chorus, by scoring for the instruments in well-defined groups; Ludwig van Beethoven, who individualized the instruments, writing solo passages for them; Carl Maria von Weber, who brought the horn and clarinet into prominence; Franz Schubert, who inaugurated the conversations between members of the woodwind--all left their mark on the orchestra, leading the way up to Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss.

A sketch of the rise of the modern orchestra would not be complete without reference to the invention of the piston or valve by Stolzel and Blilmel, both Silesians, in 1815. A satisfactory bass for the wind, and more especially for the brass, had long been a desideratum. The effect of this invention was felt at once: instrument-makers in all countries helped with each other in making use of the contrivance and in bringing it to perfection; and the orchestra was before long enriched by a new family of valved instruments, variously known as tubas, or euphoniums and bombardons[?], having a chromatic scale and a full sonorous tone of great beauty and immense volume, forming a magnificent bass.

List of orchestras This list contains orchestras with entries in the Wikipedia plus other particularly noted orchestras.



United Kingdom

United States


For a list of conductors, see list of famous conductors.

Many important theatres have their own orchestra; in relatively recent times (but mainly starting from the 1930s), many important TV broadcast companies too, have created their own orchestras. Orchestras are also frequently assembled for use in film scores, as well as using already established orchestras for musical performances.

In ancient Greece the orchestra was the space between the auditorium[?] and the proscenium (or stage[?]), in which were stationed the chorus and the instrumentalists. This is how the modern orchestra got its name.

In some theaters, the orchestra is the area of seats directly in front of the stage (called "primafila" or "platea"); the term more properly applies to the place in a theatre, or concert hall[?] set apart for the musicians.

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