the Music Master

What Is the Difference Between an
Orchestra and a Chamber Orchestra?

Size makes a difference. In another word: intimacy.

Throughout this layering of era upon era, so too developed the patrons of the music. In the beginning, it was primarily the reigning churches of the day and location. With the development of the upper and middle classes and individuals who found great financial success, the patronage shifted and along with it, the messages of the music, the instrumentation, the harmony, and the location—the venue.

When one speaks of an orchestra in the world of classical music, one thinks of large numbers of musicians. Perhaps 40 strings minimum, 8-10 woodwinds, 8-12 brass instruments, sundry percussion instruments in addition to a set of timpani, sometimes a harp (or two). Again, large numbers.

Accordingly, the music is designed to make full use of the massive potential and great breath of sound available with an orchestra, especially a “full symphonic orchestra.”

To truly appreciate chamber music at its best is to experience it in small concert halls or rooms, with small audiences, and with close proximity to the musicians.

The “chamber orchestra,” on the other hand, refers to similar instrumentation, but in much fewer numbers. In this setting, one might find six “1st violin players” as opposed to 12, with a total of maybe only 20 string players. Woodwinds would be in pairs as in a full orchestra, but sometimes fewer. Instead of four French horns, there would be two; perhaps one or two trumpets, but no trombones, tuba, or percussion, except for a set of 2-4 timpani, but usually two.

A Many of the symphonies of Mozart and Haydn—who actively composed during the late 1700s—are well-suited for the smaller orchestra. With Beethoven came the bridge and evolution into larger orchestras and more complex and demanding music.

As its name implies, the “chamber” orchestra share qualities with “chamber” music, meaning music designed for more intimate settings. For much of his career, Franz Josef Haydn’s was employed by the powerful Esterhazy family in Austria. His job was to compose music for their estate on a weekly basic. His music then, was directed for a setting of family and friends—likely lots of friends—but not as found in a large concert hall.

Many composers in our “modern” era favor smaller ensembles or “chamber orchestras” because of the intimacy implied and achieved. Two of my favourites are by Hungarian composer Bela Bartok, and Swiss composer Frank Martin.

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String Quintet

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