The many types of Orchestras…and how they have evolved

Since I’ve been collecting data on Orchestras in the US I’ve come across a bewildering number of types. Contrary to the idea that a Modern Orchestra is simply the culmination of an early-19th/mid-20th century Anglo-European styled large ensemble designed to play repertoire that requires large forces, the orchestra never stopped evolving. My previous post was about how the field is alive because it’s still constantly evolving.  This post is a just a brief summary of how Orchestras have evolved since the early 20th century.  For relevant links to my lists of some of the types of ensembles, just go to the navigation bar above.

Not that the orchestra wasn’t evolving during that earlier period–new instruments and increasingly larger forces were being added due to the repertoire demands of a number of composers, but essentially, it was mostly an expansion of the same animal from Beethoven’s time to the large forces required of, say, Mahler’s Symphonies.

At the end of the 19th century, however, we’re already seeing the culmination of the rise of Mandolin Orchestras (by some estimates, there were some 500 Mandolin Orchestras in the US during this period) which stayed in vogue for some decades (1880s – 1930s), and the first half of the 20th century saw the creation of “hybrid” orchestras, often incorporating local and indigenous art music elements in non-Western countries.

Dayton Mandolin Orchestra early 1900s
Dayton Mandolin Orchestra early 1900s
The Cairo Congresses of the 1930s practically insured that Western Orchestras would be the models for Arabic and Turkish Orchestras by the 50s and beyond. Composers like Mohammend Abdul Wahhab (1902-1991), often referred to as the “Beethoven of the Middle East”, Baligh Hamdi (1932-1993), and Farid al-Atrash (1910-1974) would write music in the native maqams and iqas with full string sections–modeled after Western orchestra string sections, oud section, qanuns, neys, and a battery of native percussion: dumbek, riq, daf. There are now a number of these orchestras in the US.

These types of fusions happened throughout the early to mid 20th century. While the central Soviet Union adopted a relatively straightforward Western Orchestra model, the satellite countries in Central Asia and the Balkans created hybrids to varying degrees.  From the Bulgarian Folk Orchestras (which were often better funded than the Western styled orchestras) to the Azerbaijan Mugham Orchestras/Opera, the the Georgian National Ballet which fused folk dance elements with Ballet while retaining the folk instruments for the music, new types of orchestras were constantly being experimented with.

During the cultural revolution in China, Western styled orchestras were used primarily for propaganda purposes and to accompany People’s Opera. The creation of the Traditional Chinese Orchestra which used Chinese instruments rather than Western instruments to play guoyue (modernized traditional music) as well as to build new repertoire for these new orchestras, became a focus after the revolution.  The first Traditional Chinese Orchestra established by the People’s republic of China was the 35-member Central Broadcasting Station Orchestra in Beijing. There are a couple dozen of these kinds of orchestras in the US.

By this time, due to the cold war and subsequent arms race, the mainstream US and Soviet Union were also engaged in a cultural arms race. Tons of money was being filtered into European styled orchestras via foundation grants and private donations. We shouldn’t underestimate how much the Ford, Rockefeller, Mellon foundations help create full-time Western Orchestras here in the states. At the same time that these global fusion orchestras were emerging, we were seeing the beginnings of fragmentation in mainstream classical music even while we had this growth.

The first permanent Baroque ensembles were formed in the early 50s: the Concentus Musicus Wien (Vienna, Austria) founded in 1953 by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and the Leonhardt Baroque Ensemble (Amsterdam, Noord-Holland, Netherlands) founded in 1954 by Gustav Leonhardt. The first guitar Orchestra, the Niibori Guitar Philharmonic Orchestra, was founded in Japan by Hiroki Niibori in 1957.

In the 60s we start seeing new music ensembles, many formed by the American minimalist composers to play their own music, and by the late 70s, largely due to Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music, baroque ensembles and orchestras had pretty much become a regular thing. It was also during the 70s that Walter Thompson and Butch Morris, seemingly independently, would create conducting/performance techniques for live real-time improvisation for large ensembles. While Morris’ “Conduction” is primarily used in the Jazz world, Thompson’s “Soundpainting” has become the basis of several dozen orchestras worldwide–most formed within the past couple of decades. Thompson also created his Soundpainting group, the Walter Thompson Orchestra, in 1984.

In 1977, the ‘Satellite Arts Project’ by Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz first connected artists on the East and West Coast via satellite. While the technology back then left much to be desired, Telematic performances have become a regular enough occurrence that there are now permanent Telematic ensembles and orchestras that do distributed performances with other musicians, artists, and dancers all around the world.

So, from the 1930s to the 1980s we’ve seen fragmentation and fusions from European Style Orchestras (and, tangentially, mandolin orchestras) into: Arabic Orchestras, Traditional Chinese Orchestras, Azerbaijan Mugham Orchestras/Operas, Baroque Orchestras, Guitar Orchestras, New Music Orchestras, Soundpainting Orchestras, Telematic Orchestras, and I’m sure other styles/genres I’ve yet to come across, or that are isolated (e.g. The University of Wisconsin Russian Folk Orchestra or the LA Drita Albanian Folk Orchestra).

Since the 80s, as I’ve been documenting at this blog, we’re seeing the almost exponential rise of ethnic orchestras (both in the US and worldwide), the formation of some US Latin-American Orchestras, the return of Mandolin Orchestras. Baroque ensembles and Orchestras are nearly as ubiquitous as the mainstream Symphonies, and new music groups, while generally smaller ensembles, do have the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and the American Composers Orchestra.

We’re also seeing, with the accessibility of technology, the rise of Telematic ensembles and Orchestras, and within the past decade or so, the rise of Laptop Orchestras

Mobile Phone Orchestras

and orchestras specializing in newer repertoire, like Film Score Orchestras and Video Game Orchestras

And while I haven’t been tracking mainstream orchestras as I have Opera Companies formed in the US since 2000 (recall that I’ve listed over 260 organizations so far), so it could be the case that the number of groups there is also exploding (I know that in my area 3 new orchestras have been formed in the past 4 years alone).

And that’s just a brief overview of primarily instrumental ensembles related to full symphony orchestras.  I have yet to begin looking at Concert Bands and Choirs (the latter of which seem to have exploded as well).  And other ethnic large ensembles–for example, earlier today I was looking at Gamelan groups in the US and have come across a few sources that list a few dozen that I want to verify. While the latter has less to do with the changing Classical Music world (and arguably, so do the other ethnic ensembles), what it might indicate is just the willingness of people to create groups (which probably parallels the rising number of amateur musicians in the local band scenes that some are discussing).

If we can’t look at the Classical World as a whole, then how do we know if it’s living or dying? And we can’t look at it if our criteria for inclusion in discussions of the field stops at an arbitrary evolutionary point on the continuum of (a) certain type(s) of ensemble(s) which may, or may not, actually be in decline.

5 thoughts on “The many types of Orchestras…and how they have evolved

  1. Jon- I was curious about the layout at the top of the post. It appears it is modeled after western orchestras. I was wondering though if China historically had large music ensembles laid out with an eye to grouping instruments together by type. I am only familiar with some of the regional opera forms which appear to have use fewer than 10 musicians.


    1. Joe, from what I understand, yayue (the traditional Court Art Music of China) orchestras were often divided up in different ways than the Western styled guoyue. Sometimes this would follow a yin/yang distinction between two separate groups of instruments, other times (especially in larger ensembles which were primarily instrumental), the groups would be arranged to fit the orientation of the courtyard (four corners/sides + center). The former yin/yang arrangement wasn’t grouped by instrument, but the latter seemed t invariably be so grouped (usually winds in center with bells/chimes/percussion at the corners/sides).

      Seems that yayue orchestras as large as 200+ players have existed in the past and many of these traditional elements/aesthetics translated into Korean and Japanese Court musics as well. And yes, the regional Chinese Opera forms had much smaller forces, that is unless we include the vocalists to be a part of the performing ensemble–ten musicians or fewer is typical for the opera genre.


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