Toward a History of American Orchestras examines how the concept and function of symphonic orchestras changed through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. During this period, orchestral composition, orchestral instrumentation, and orchestral music education were all undergoing radical changes. It also outlines the evolution of symphonic thought.
A symphonic orchestra is a musical ensemble that composes and performs a lengthy work, normally consisting of several large movements. They can include wind, string, and percussion instruments. The main purpose of a symphonic orchestra is to perform classical and operatic repertoire, but can also perform film music. An orchestra can be a professional group, an amateur group, or even a student group.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, there were two main types of orchestras. One was the classic orchestra, composed of a small to medium-sized string section and a wind section of pairs of flutes and oboes. Another type of orchestra was the chamber orchestra, which developed in reaction to the excesses of the Romantic era. These were usually composed of a smaller number of members and included a basso continuo group that played harpsichord and other bass instruments.
Toward a History of American Orchestras suggests that a permanent orchestra, the ideal of the United States, would be a professional ensemble that has an adequate financial base and a continuity of organization. It would also have a full-season contract with the musicians. In addition, a permanent orchestra would have a conductor.
For many decades, a sixty-member orchestra was considered satisfactory. In the early 1900s, however, economic considerations forced a reduction in the size of the orchestra. There were several professional and amateur groups in New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Chicago. Some of these orchestras were thriving.
The Neoclassical movement dominated the early twentieth century and brought about a return to a traditional, formal approach to symphonic composition. It introduced new techniques for dynamic coherence and reexamined the role of the principals in an orchestra. This included a new emphasis on the bowing of string instruments.
By the end of the twentieth century, many cities had begun to establish professional orchestras. However, Portland, Seattle, and Dallas were experiencing serious breaks in continuity. Despite this, the majority of American orchestras are still able to play several times a year. Many are subsidized by the government, and receive charitable donations.
The 19th century was marked by the emergence of the great symphonists of the period, such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Joseph Haydn, and Anton Bruckner. Their works reexamined the relationship of tempo, orchestral form, and the role of the orchestra as a whole.
The twentieth century saw the emergence of community orchestras and the formation of symphonic orchestras in the Los Angeles area. While these orchestras had relatively limited budgets, they testify to the interest of the average citizen in concerted music.
The last few decades have seen many changes in the way American orchestras are operated. Several critics have argued that these organizations need to revise their approaches to orchestral performance and marketing.