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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:

Contemporaneously, 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.

Table of contents
1 History of the orchestra
2 List of orchestras

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.

In the 17th Century and early 18th Century instrumental groups were taken from all of the available talent. A composer such as Johann Sebastian Bach had control over almost all of the musical resources of a town, where as Handel would hire the best musicians available. This placed a premium on being able to rewrite music for whichever singers or musicians were best suited for a performance - Handel produced different versions of the Messiah oratorio almost every year.

As nobility began to build retreats from towns, they began to hire standing bodies of musicians. Composers such as the young Franz Joseph Haydn would have, then, a fixed body of instrumentalists to work with. At the same time, travelling virtuoso performers would write concerti which featured their skills, and travel from town to town, arranging concerts from whoever was there.

This change - from civic music making where the composer had some degree of time or control, to smaller court music making and one off performance - placed a premium on music which was easy to learn, often with little or no rehearsal. The results were changes in musical style and emphasis on new techniques. Mannheim had one of the most famous orchestras of that time, where notated dynamics and phrasing, previously quite rare, became standard (see Mannheim school). It also attended a change in musical style from the complex counterpoint of the baroque period, to an emphasis on clear melody that would later give rise to the classical style.

Through out the late 18th century composers would continue to have to assemble musicians for a performance, often called an "Academy", which would, naturally, feature their own compositions. In 1781, however, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra was organized from the merchants concert society, and it began a trend towards the formation of civic orchetras which would accelerate into the 19th century. In 1818, Boston's Handel and Haydn Society was founded, in 1842 the New York Philharmonic was created, in 1848 the Vienna Philharmonic was formed, as was the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester. There had long been standing bodies of musicians around operas, but not for concert music - this change ansion in composing symphonies and other purely instrumental forms. This was encouraged by composer critics such as ETA Hoffman who declared that instrumental music was the "purest form" of music.

In the 1830s conductor François Habeneck, in order to perform the symphonies of Beethoven, which had not been heard in their entirety in Paris, began rehearsing a selected group of musicians. He developed techniques of rehearsing the strings separately, notating specifics of performance, and other techniques of cuing entrances which were spread across Europe. His rival and friend Hector Berlioz would adopt many of these innovations in his touring of Europe.

This was paralleled by a rapid standardization of instruments, the invention of the piston or valve by Stolzel and Blilmel, both Silesians, in 1815, was the first in a series of innovations, including the use of valves for the flute by Theobald Boehm and the innovations of Adolphe Sax in the woodwinds. These would lead Hector Berlioz to write his famous treatise on instrumentation, meaning the use of instrumental sound as an expressive element of music.

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. This also made possible a more uniform playing of notes or intonation, which would lead to a more and more "smooth" orchestral sound which would peak in the 1950's with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra and the conducting of Herbert von Karajan.

During the transition to using these instruments, which made the performance of more difficult works easier, many composers, including Wagner and Berlioz, would demand the use of "natural" chromatic stops rather than the use of valves for their compositions. However, over time, the valved instruments became standard, and their use universal until the revival of older instruments in the contemporary movement towards authentic performance or "historically informed perfromance".

With the formation of standing orchestras, and the expansion of the winds and brass, as well as the ability of winds and brass instruments to be intune with each other, it created the ability of the wind and brass to be more easily massed. It also created a professional framework where musicians could rehearse and perform the same works over and over again, leading to the concept of a repertoire in instrumental music.

The next major expansion of symphonic practice came, ironically, from Wagner's Bayreuth orchestra, founded to play his musical dramas. Wagner needed to have a series of composers and notators for the complex scores which he wrote, and had a specific role for the conductor of an orchestra that he described in his influential work "On Conducting". This lead to a revolution in orchestral practice, and set the style for orchestral performance for the next eighty years. Wagner's theories changed tempi, dynamics, bowing of string instruments and the role of principals in the orchestra. Conductors who studied his methods would go on to be influential themselves.

As the early 20th Century dawned, symphony orchestras were larger, better funded and better trained than ever before, and consequently composers could compose larger and more ambitious works for them. With the recording era beginning, the standard of performance reached a pinnacle, with many older conductors and composers remembering a time when simply "getting through" the music as best as possible was the standard. Since recordings could "fix" small errors in a particular studio performance, and reach people who would never have been able to travel to distance cities - the ability of listeners to compare performances across decades lead to a renewed focus on particular conductors and on a high standard of orchestral execution.

In the 1920's and 1930's economic and artistic considerations lead to the formation of small concert societies, particularly those dedicated to the performance of music of the avant-garde, including Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg. This tendency to start festival orchestras or dedicated groups would also be pursued in the creation of summer musical festivals, and orchestras for the performance of smaller works. Among the most influential of these was the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields under the baton of Sir Neville Marinner.

With the advent of the early music movement, orchestras were players worked on execution of works in styles derived from the study of older treatises on playing became common. These include the London Classical Players under the direction of Sir Roger Norrington and the Academy of Ancient Music under Christopher Hogwood, among others.

The late 20th century saw a crisis of funding and support for orchestras in the United States and, to a lesser extent, in Europe. The size and cost of a symphony orchestra, compared to the size of the base of supporters, became an issue which struck at the core of the institution. Along with the drastic falling off of revenues from recording, tied to no small extent to changes in the recording industry itself, a period of change began which has yet to reach its conclusion. Critics such as Norman Lebrecht were vocal in their diagnosis of the problem as the "jet set conductor" and the problems of orchestral repertory and management, while other music administrators such as Michael Tilson Thomas and Essa-Pekka Salonen argued that new music, new means of presenting it, and a renewed relationship with the community could revitalize the symphony orchestra.

List of orchestras

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



The Netherlands

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 instrumentalistss. 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.