Ensembles similar in size to the classical orchestra emerged just after 1600 in connection with the early development of opera. Subsequently, and until the middle of the 1700s, the size and composition of the orchestra varied greatly, depending on both practical and financial conditions. Frequently, composers of the time included only rudimentary indications (or none at all) as to which or how many instruments were required for a specific work. Parts were more or less randomly assigned to the instruments available, and while strings eventually developed into the grouping used today (two groups of violins, violas, cellos and possibly double basses), it took far more time to reach a similarly common standard for the use of winds.
The basis for the modern orchestra goes back to the widely renowned Court Orchestra in Mannheim during the 1750s, a time at which the baroque continuo group was gradually disappearing. Consisting of strings, two flutes, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets and kettledrums, the Mannheim School developed the individualization of the woodwinds, while the strings began to use coordinated bowing. Later, two clarinets were added, and the advent of Beethoven initiated an ongoing extension of the orchestra. Until then, trombones had been used almost exclusively in church music and for special dramatic effects in operatic works, but Beethoven prescribed one or more trombones in his 5th, 6th and 9th symphonies (in addition to a number of percussion instruments in the latter). The 5th symphony also requires an early form of double bassoon, the 5th and 6th a piccolo flute, and eventually the number of horns was increased from two to three or four. At times Beethoven wrote individual parts for the double basses (which until then almost without exception had doubled the cellos), a practice that soon became more common.
In the later part of the 1800s, helped along by Berlioz’ innovations, instruments such as harp, modern tuba, English horn, bass clarinet, Eb clarinet, modern double bassoon, bass trombone, etc., eventually became standard in the largest orchestras. Further extensions were mainly limited to brass and percussion. During the first half of the 1800s, valve instruments became increasingly common among horn and trumpet players along with natural instruments, in the long run all but replacing natural instruments. But some composers, notably Brahms and Wagner, continued to use natural instruments, convinced that their timbre was unsurpassed.
Orchestral size has always been subject to variation, although the development towards ever larger orchestras clearly continues up to the time around World War I. This gradual increase was initially connected to the transfer of the orchestra from royal courts to the public domain. In 1782, the permanent staff of the Mannheim Orchestra included 23 violins (12/11), 3 violas, 4 cellos, 3 double basses, 4 flutes, 3 oboes, 4 clarinets, 4 bassoons, 6 horns, and kettledrums. Around 1800, the string group had grown to 7 violas, 5 cellos and 7 double basses, and from here on the size of the string section was repeatedly extended. In his opera Salome, Richard Strauss calls for 16 1st and 16 2nd violins, 12 violas, 10 cellos and 8 double basses. Along with the growth of the orchestra and the disappearance of the baroque continuo, the convention of leading the orchestra from a keyboard instrument (customary even at the time of Mozart) or entrusting this function to the leader of the 1st violins, also disappeared. The history of the conductor – a non-playing musician – really took off after 1800.
When the composer’s instructions are followed, Mahler’s 8th symphony (nicknamed “Symphony of a Thousand”) demands an orchestra of around 120 musicians, two choirs (each with a minimum of 32 singers), 8 vocal soloists and a boy’s choir. The score of Arnold Schonberg’s Gurrelieder (1901–10) calls for 20 1st and 20 2nd violins, 16 violas, 16 cellos, 12 double basses; 4 piccolos, 4 flutes, 3 oboes and 2 English horns, 7 clarinets (among these 2 in Eb and 2 bass clarinets), 3 bassoons and 2 double bassoons; 10 horns, 6 trumpets and a bass trumpet, alto trombone, 3 trombones, bass trombone, double bass trombone and tuba. Plus 4 harps, a keyboard player and 5 percussionists. In all 144 musicians, not counting a narrator, five vocal soloists, a huge choir and a separate male choir.
The financial slowdown after the First World War and the worldwide Depression during the 1930s led to a decrease in orchestral size, and since the Second World War the orchestra has essentially stalled at the relative size at which we find it today. But even today, orchestral forces vary considerably due to a number of conditions: economy, the size of the stage or hall, function (for instance opera), score requirements, acoustics, repertoire, the conductor’s special wishes, local traditions, etc.
Following World War II, chamber orchestras (usually of approximately 40 players) became common as an alternative to the costly symphony orchestra, later followed by the so-called “sinfonietta” ensemble, today usually composed of only a single representative of the basic instruments in a symphony orchestra, including solo strings.
A modern full-scale symphony orchestra consists of approximately one hundred permanent musicians, most often distributed as follows: 16–18 1st violins, 16 2nd violins, 12 violas, 12 cellos, 8 double basses, 4 flutes (one with piccolo as a specialty), 4 oboes (one with English horn as a specialty), 4 clarinets (one with bass clarinet as a specialty, another specializing in high clarinets), 4 bassoons (one with double bassoon as a specialty). In theory, all woodwind players are expected to be able to play all auxiliary instruments in addition to their main instrument. Furthermore 5–8 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones (one with bass trombone as a specialty), 1 tuba, 1 kettledrum player, 3–4 percussionists (of whom at least one must also play kettledrum), 1–2 harps and a keyboard player (piano, celesta, harpsichord, etc.).
Musicians mastering instruments such as saxophone, guitar, bass oboe (heckelphone), ondes martenot, synthesizer, etc., usually do not have a permanent position, but are engaged for special projects or concerts. Similarly, extra players are engaged when a score calls for extended brass, percussion, etc.
Every instrumental section in the orchestra has a leader (often referred to as a principal) who leads the group and plays solo when this is required, for example flute solo, horn solo, cello solo or trumpet solo. The leader of the 1st violins is called concertmaster and is in charge of the overall leadership of the entire string section.
Today, in the interest of equality and the individual player’s sense of responsibility, many orchestras have rotation schemes among the strings, with the possible exception of the first two desks. Musicians are recruited based on competitive auditions (today usually behind a screen) for specific positions, e.g. second bassoon. The principal conductor takes part in the final selection. Permanent employment will normally require a test period, usually from six months to one year, after which a player with a permanent position can be dismissed only according to strict union agreements and internal rules.
With roots dating back to the beginning of the 20th century, the most common orchestral setup today places percussion in the back to the left, trombones/tuba to the right, and kettledrums between these two groups. In the next row (here, as in the following, from left to right) horns, clarinets, bassoons and trumpets, and in front of this flutes and oboes. The two groups of violins are placed to the left of the conductor in a triangle divided by a 30-degree line, so that some 1st violins sit along the edge of the stage, facing the audience. Violas are placed in front of the conductor, sometimes a bit to the right. To the right of the conductor are the cellos vis-à-vis 1st violins, with doubles basses placed behind the cellos (and sometimes partly behind the violas). Piano, celesta and harp are placed to the left, behind the violins, frequently in line with flutes and oboes.
When stage conditions or other circumstances allow, the layout may have the shape of a fan. Percussion occupies the whole back row, still with kettledrums in the middle, followed by horns, trombones and trumpets in the next row, then clarinets and bassoons, and in front (just behind the violas) flutes and oboes.
If the stage has the shape of a half circle, certain modifications may be required. In this case, percussion, trumpets and trombones often make up a half circle in the back, followed by harp, piano, horn and tuba in the next half circle, woodwinds in the middle and strings in a wide outer circle, as described above.
Exactly why this layout has won broad international acceptance is not easy to say. The fact that it became common among the large and excellent American orchestras emerging at the beginning of the last century may be part of the explanation. Using the Vienna Philharmonic as a model, the late romantic orchestra placed the two violin groups antiphonally on each side of the conductor, with (from the left) basses and cellos placed where the 2nd violins usually are seated today. This layout most often has the brass to the left, percussion to the right, but still with kettledrums in the middle. Horns are placed in the middle, in front of the trumpets. Sometimes these two different layouts are referred to as “American” and (old) “German”, respectively. After the Second World War, the “German” layout became practically extinct, even in Germany.
Placing 1st and 2nd violins next to each other with close visual contact undoubtedly makes it easier for musicians to ensure coordination in terms of rhythm and bowing, but the price is high. Only by placing the violins on each side of the conductor (standard even today in the Vienna Philharmonic) will the independent lines and the refined counterpoint between them – typical, for example, of Mahler’s symphonies – be brought fully to life. When the violins are seated together in a single “cluster,” the acoustic result will inevitably be blurred. Additionally, the “Mahler layout” brings about a subtle difference in timbre between the two violin groups, because the 1st violins sit with the front of their instrument (and the f-shaped holes) turned towards the audience, whereas the 2nds have the back of the violin turned in this direction.
A “stereophonic” passage like the one below is tremendously effective when played with the “Mahler layout,” while with today’s standard seating it may well appear unclear and almost chaotic.
Note the clear, unmixed colors that characterize every musical element in this passage, a testimony to Mahler’s inherent modernity and a prophetic harbinger of the dry woodwind textures that emerged after the World War I in the music of composers as different as Alban Berg, Kurt Weill, Igor Stravinsky and Edgar Varèse.
As mentioned earlier, the bell of the horn points backwards to the right of the player in a normal playing position. Since the standard layout usually places horns to the left, the sound may be experienced as somewhat less intense and vivid in the hall. According to some learned opinions, the layout with “treble” to the left and “bass” to the right essentially results in a heavier, less transparent and homogenous orchestral sound.
In spite of these and similar arguments, no one should expect a move back to the “Mahler layout.” CD recordings, of course, allow for almost unlimited adjustments by means of microphone setup and sound technology at the discretion of studio producers.
Since orchestral layout varies considerably all over the world, it is difficult to take advantage of the “topography” of the orchestra in a controlled way. The use of specific antiphonal effects, echoes and the like involving the precise placement of sound in space, presupposes that a particular seating arrangement will work as intended, as clearly demonstrated by Mahler’s stereophonic polyphony. This is most likely the reason why such effects are largely achieved by placing musicians “offstage,” using a “distant orchestra” and similar solutions to ensure the intended result.
The most famous early example is probably the distant trumpet call in Beethoven’s third Leonora Overture.
Famous offstage examples abound in the opera literature, for example in the 1st act finale of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the 3rd act of Strauss’ Rosenkavalier and the 2nd act of Puccini’s Tosca, to mention only a few. In his opera Les Troyens,Berlioz used a group of offstage trumpets, and no less than four groups of brass instruments in his Requiem, seated apart from the orchestra at each of the four corners of the compass. In Mahler’s symphonies, such effects of perceived distance occur as the rule rather than the exception, and Mahler indicates precisely how he wants the different groups placed in relationship to the orchestra.
In Rued Langgaard’s Music of the Spheres, a small ensemble is placed on a side balcony or behind the audience to produce the effect of very distant music.
Also the use of a distant choir singing vowels, rather than text, has fascinated several composers such as Debussy in Nocturnes and Holst in The Planets. In Daphnis et Chloé, Ravel used a choir similarly, but with the intention of fusing the choral sound completely with that of the orchestra.
In orchestral music composed since World War II, spatial separation of different sound sources is almost a regular feature. Well-known examples include Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gruppen for three orchestras and Elliott Carter’s A Symphony of Three Orchestras. In his piano concerto …quasi una fantasia…,György Kurtag places only the piano and kettledrums on stage, while strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion are distributed in groups either behind or above the audience, on balconies, and the like.
Such examples abound and seem to indicate that the development of the endlessly fascinating sound world of the symphony orchestra is nowhere near coming to an end.
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 A peculiarity in the history of the modern orchestra is the degree of male domination. Orchestras did not begin to include female musicians until after the Second World War, and in Germany, women were generally excluded until the 1980s. Only by the end of the 90s – and after endless battles – did the Vienna Philharmonic finally accept female musicians. The tradition of employing women as harp players, however, goes back a long time.
Most modern string quartets use the “American” seating – first and second violin, viola and cello in a half circle from left to right. But the front placement of the cello with its powerful sound can easily distort the balance, and some quartets reasonably prefer to place the second violin or viola in front. It should be noted, however, that after what may amount to many years of work in a certain seating arrangement, chamber players cannot simply swap places overnight. Musical communication depends heavily on habits and routines, and cannot be changed at the snap of the fingers. It may be worthwhile to add that the “American” seating arrangement has a variant in which the cellos and violas exchange places, and Wilhelm Furtwängler used a variation of the “German” layout with violas in front of the second violins and cellos in the middle.