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date: 15 October 2019

Orchestra (It.; Fr. orchestre; Ger. Orchester)locked

  • John Spitzer
  •  and Neal Zaslaw


(It.; Fr. orchestre; Ger. Orchester)

‘Orchestra’ has been used in a generic sense to mean any large grouping of instrumentalists. Thus one reads of an Indonesian gamelan orchestra, a Japanese gagaku orchestra, a Chinese drum and gong orchestra, the ‘orchestra’ of a Renaissance intermedio, or even the ‘orchestras’ of the Old Testament. In this article, ‘orchestra’ is treated in a specific and historical sense, as a characteristically European institution that arose in the 17th and 18th centuries and subsequently spread to other parts of the world as part of Western cultural influence. Related information will be found in other articles, for example Concert, Conducting and Instrumentation and orchestration; see also Band .

Analysis of orchestras from the 18th century to the present reveals a series of interrelated defining traits (Zaslaw, 1988, 1993). (a) Orchestras are based on string instruments of the violin family plus double basses. (b) This core group of bowed strings is organized into sections within which the players usually perform the same notes in unison. This practice of doubling string instruments is carried out unequally: there will almost always be more violins than lower strings. (...

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