What Is Orchestral Music? With 9 Top Examples & History
Heard of Orchestral music but aren’t 100% sure what it means? Well today you'll find out.
We cover what it is exactly, popular songs in the genre, orchestral musicians, history and more. Let’s get into it.
Definition: What Is Orchestral Music?
The definition of orchestral music is a type of music where many musicians play together. The standard orchestra many people think of contains a few sections:
Those sections may have sub-sections, such as violins, violas, cellos, and double basses in the string section. Some earlier works use smaller orchestras, such as strings and only a few wind players.
A conductor often stands in front of the orchestra and guides them. They'll typically use a baton to keep the beat and show other musical aspects, such as dynamics.
Orchestral Music Characteristics
The characteristics of orchestral music can vary between pieces. Many works are symphonies, so they tend to feature the orchestra equally. Meanwhile, a concerto will feature one soloist with the orchestra acting as accompaniment.
More specific characteristics differ based on the composer. Early works by Bach and Mozart use smaller orchestras. On the other hand, works by Holst or Stravinsky call for more players.
9 Examples of Orchestral Music
There are dozens of popular orchestral works out there, and it can be hard to narrow your listening list. Consider some of the top examples of orchestral music throughout history.
Beethoven Symphony No. 5
Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 is probably the most well-known orchestral work. It has the famous intro theme that musicians and non-musicians recognize.
This work features a standard string section of first and second violins, violas, cellos, and basses. You'll hear flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoon, and contrabassoon in the woodwinds. You can also hear the piccolo in the fourth movement.
As far as brass instruments go, this piece has two horn parts, two trumpet parts, and three trombone parts. Like the piccolo, the trombones only play on the last movement. This work is a crowd-pleaser and an excellent introduction to orchestral music.
Brahms Symphony No. 4
Another famous symphony to listen to is Brahms Symphony No. 4. The piece is in E minor and contains four movements. It's also the only symphony in which Brahms wrote the last movement in a minor key.
Along with strings, this piece contains flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, and trombones. There's also a timpani part and a triangle part for percussion players.
Each movement is a bit different, but they all work together to sound great. The movements feature various sections with solos, so you can hear how the various sections sound.
Dvorak Symphony No. 9
Also known as the “New World Symphony,” Dvorak Symphony No. 9 is another famous work. It has a larger wind and percussion section than some works. There are flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons.
Brass instruments include four horn parts, two trumpets, three trombones, and a tuba. The work also includes timpani, triangle, and cymbals.
The second movement features the English horn (an alto version of the oboe) with a well-known theme. This piece is long like other symphonies, but it's fun to play and listen to.
Holst The Planets
Gustav Holst wrote The Planets, and each movement features a planet (aside from Earth). The composer took inspiration not from mythology or astronomy but from astrology. He swapped Mars and Mercury, but the rest of the planets are in order from the sun.
Each movement has a different character based on its namesake planet. This work has a massive orchestration, including four flutes, clarinets, and bassoons. There are also six horns and six timpani (played by two people).
Many woodwind parts involve doubling on auxiliary instruments, such as piccolo, English horn, or bass clarinet. It's a huge undertaking, but you can also listen to some movements and not the whole thing.
Prokofiev Symphony No. 1 “Classical”
A shorter orchestral work you should know is Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1 “Classical.” Prokofiev wrote it based on the classical music style of composers such as Mozart and Haydn. You can hear some of the influence in the “lightness” of the melody.
However, this symphony pushes the boundaries of some instruments in ways earlier symphonies didn't. For example, the flute solo in the fourth movement includes some of the instrument's highest notes.
This work follows the outline of earlier symphonies with four movements. That even includes the smaller instrumentation of two flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets. Of course, it has a full string section and a timpani part.
One of Ravel's most well-known works is Bolero, which is for orchestra. The piece is based on the Spanish dance and musical form, the “bolero” (hence the title).
Unlike other orchestral works, this one doesn't have any development. Instead, the melody starts with the flute and moves to other instruments throughout the group. However, the melody does occur in various keys, such as C major, G major, and E major.
This work calls for some less common instruments, such as oboe d'amore, sopranino saxophone, and tenor saxophone. Meanwhile, the snare drum must keep the beat by playing a repeating pattern for the entire length of the piece.
Stravinsky The Rite of Spring
Not many composers could say the premiere of their work caused a riot. However, that's what happened after the initial performance of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. While it's technically a ballet, you can listen to the orchestra without watching the dancers.
Since it's a ballet, the music follows scenes of the ballet. It also features a massive orchestration, including five members of each woodwind section. You can also hear eight horns, four trumpets, and a piccolo trumpet.
The beginning of the piece starts with a bassoon solo, though it's high for the instrument. This piece is best for advanced musicians to play. It's also not the best for new listeners, but if you like orchestral music, you should try this piece.
Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4
Tchaikovsky wrote Symphony No. 4 after a low period in his life. He had writer's block, and he'd just ended his marriage to a former student. The music easily showcases the feelings Tchaikovsky had at that time.
At times, the piece sounds almost violent. It's also a tough piece for many musicians to learn and perform. The orchestration is pretty standard for pieces at the time, including flutes, a piccolo, oboes, clarinets, and horns, among other winds and brass.
While the composer wrote many symphonies, this is a good one to start with. It can be a bit jarring, but it can also make his other works more approachable.
Vivaldi Four Seasons
One of the earliest top orchestral works is Vivaldi's The Four Seasons. It's a violin concerto, meaning a violinist plays many of the melodies and solo lines. Each season is its own concerto, and they have unique melodies to emulate the changing seasons.
Since it's a Baroque piece, the orchestration is quite small. Aside from the solo violin, there are only parts for other strings and basso continuo.
You can listen to or learn to play one of the concertos at a time. Or you can combine all four to perform the entire year of weather changes.
5 Top Orchestral Musicians
When learning about orchestral music, you may wonder about famous musicians. Not all well-known classical musicians focus on orchestral performance.
Here are some that play in orchestras now or did in the past.
Joshua Bell is more of a soloist, but he first played violin with an orchestra when he was only 14 years old. He's since soloed with orchestras all over the country and the world.
Not only has he performed western orchestral music, but he's also performed with Chinese orchestras. The groups used traditional Chinese instruments, and he soloed on his western violin.
Other orchestras he's played with include the New York Philharmonic and the St. Louis Symphony. He's even gone busking on the subway in New York City. Like many famous violin players, he has played a Stradivarius since the 1700s.
Arnold Jacobs was a famous orchestral tuba player and member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He became well known for his teachings on brass pedagogy and on breathing for brass players as well as woodwind players and vocalists.
Jacobs played with the CSO for over 40 years. However, he did go on leave to tour with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Before working in Chicago, he played in the Indianapolis and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestras.
While you can't hear him live, he was part of many recordings during his life. If you listen to Chicago Symphony Orchestra Recordings from the 40s through the 80s, he'll most likely be the tubist you hear.
Anthony McGill is the principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic. He's the first African American principal player in that organization. McGill has also soloed with the NY Phil and other orchestras, such as the Metropolitan Opera.
He was also the principal clarinet of the Metropolitan Opera and associate principal of the Cincinnati Symphony. Outside of orchestral playing, he teaches at the Curtis Institute of Music and The Juilliard School.
McGill founded the McGill/McHale trio with his brother, flute player Demarre, and pianist Michael McHale. The clarinetist is also a proud music education advocate and helped bring classical music to underserved communities.
Principal flute of the Berlin Philharmonic, Emmanuel Pahud, is another famous orchestral musician today. After moving around as a child, Pahud studied at the Paris Conservatory, one of the best music schools in the world.
He began his current position when he was 22 years old. That made him the youngest member of the orchestra at the time. Now, he and Andreas Blau share the role of the principal flute.
Outside of orchestral playing, Pahud has performed as a soloist. He's played all over the world and with other orchestras, such as the London Philharmonic and the Baltimore Symphony. Over the years, he's also played chamber music in various countries.
Philip Smith was the principal trumpet of the New York Philharmonic. He began his career with the orchestra in 1978 as the co-principal trumpet. A decade later, he became the principal player until he retired from orchestral playing in 2014.
Now, he mainly teaches and performs chamber music. He's also performed in marine bands and other settings. However, you can hear him in an orchestra on many NY Phil recordings from his tenure.
Smith has also been a clinician at festivals and conferences. He has adjudicated trumpet competitions as well. While he no longer works as an orchestral musician, he's still had a successful music career.
The History of Orchestral Music
Orchestral music has a long and varied history. Many changes have happened that have affected the world of orchestral music.
Changes in the design and function of instruments as well as the addition of new instruments have helped orchestras expand. Consider the history of this type of music and how that history influences the genre today.
Claudio Monteverdi was one of the first composers to write for an orchestra. He included an orchestra in his opera “Orfeo” in 1607. Before this, any group of instruments that played together was usually a consort or instruments from the same family but of different sizes.
Monteverdi knew the sound he wanted out of the opera accompaniment. His development helped the modern orchestra get its start.
Development of the Orchestra
While there are some orchestral works from the Baroque era, many of them are for strings. In the 1800s, the orchestra started to grow. Composers began using instruments such as woodwinds and brass.
The orchestra would change along with the development of those instruments. In some cases, the development of the orchestra would require instrument makers to adapt. That way, the flutes, and other woodwinds could keep up with the sound and volume requirements, for example.
Another significant change was the addition of a conductor. Initially, the principal first violin (the concertmaster) would lead the group. However, it got to the point where not everyone could see the concertmaster, so a conductor started to direct orchestras.
Composers would frequently conduct their own works. However, conducting has since become its own art, and some musicians only focus on conducting. By the end of the 19th century, the orchestra reached the size and instrumentation we know today.
Early 20th Century
Composers in the early 20th century continued to experiment with orchestras. Some added more instruments, up to 150 players at times.
Harps and keyboards also became more popular in orchestral works. Additional woodwinds, such as piccolos, English horns, bass clarinets, and contrabassoons, also gained popularity. Brass sections grew and started to include more trombones and a tuba or two more often.
It was also during this time that women slowly joined the orchestra. Women weren't allowed to play music for many centuries, certainly not professionally. Some people even considered wind and brass instruments to be unladylike. Luckily, times have changed.
Another significant change throughout the 20th century was movie music. Composers such as John Williams wrote music that used a variety of orchestral instruments but for films.
Instead of giving live concerts, though, musicians usually record the music in a studio. They might record as an ensemble together or separately, depending on the project.
Many orchestras today offer pops or movie concerts. The orchestra will play the music from the popular movie, and some may even play the movie in the background.
Even if you've never been to an orchestra concert, you may have heard orchestral music. Most movies today have some sort of film score, and the score could feature an entire orchestra.
Multiple Levels of Orchestra
Today, you can find orchestras at various levels, from beginner to professional. Many schools and colleges have orchestras that students can join, usually through an audition.
Adults might also be able to join a community orchestra in their area. These groups may or may not require an audition. However, they can be very selective when it comes to the wind and brass sections due to the lack of parts.
Of course, many people know of and have listened to professional orchestras. These groups tend to play some of the most difficult works. But many community orchestras also operate at a high level and can play famous pieces.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
In the past few years, some orchestras have focused on a diversity of programming. Groups may try to feature the works of living composers and of women and other minorities.
Of course, orchestras probably won't stop playing Beethoven and Brahms. However, they're making room for new music that composers publish.
Historically, orchestras have been something only the wealthy can enjoy, but that's starting to change.
What Is Orchestral Music? Final Thoughts
Many people will wonder, ‘what is orchestral music?’ It refers to music that a large group of musicians play.
A lot of orchestras feature strings, winds, and percussion instruments. However, the number of players has changed throughout history.
Be sure to consider some top orchestral works and players. Then, you can learn more about this style of music.
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