In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Orchestral Music

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Discographies
  • Periodicals
  • Orchestral Music in Print
  • Orchestral Histories
  • Treatises on Orchestration
  • Conductors and Conducting
  • Performance Practice
  • Concert Life

Music Orchestral Music
D. Kern Holoman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0059


Music for the concert orchestra that coalesced in 18th-century Europe falls into two major genres: the symphony and the concerto, along with single-movement works (overtures, etc.) and a wide variety of music that arrived in the concert hall from the theater pit: opera overtures, suites of incidental music, and the like. Orchestral music as a concept is inextricably linked with the orchestras themselves—the players, the nature and manufacture of their instruments, the venues and publics for which their music was written, and how this was received at the time and transmitted forward to us. Put another way, Peter Williams writes that orchestra music “always now implies music for performance in public, in designated spaces, to listeners buying tickets or records of performances” (Peter Williams, “Band Practice.” Musical Times 145.1889, [2004]: 85–89). The symphonic genres, and the orchestras themselves, flourished throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and continue to be a strong cultural presence, particularly in major metropolitan areas. Primary sources for the study of orchestral music are its scores and individual parts and, since roughly 1925, useful recordings of how it sounded in performance at a given point in its transmission. Secondary resources include historical and biographical books and articles on composers, genres, and individual works, and greatly useful compendiums and guides written for the committed concertgoer.

General Overviews

The kinds of overviews in this section represent differing approaches to the problem of describing a vast repertoire: the multiauthored essay collection (Holoman 1997, Lawson 2003, and Peyser 1986), where specialists contribute chapters in their area of expertise; the volume of individual case studies (Kelly 2000); the grand project (Brown 2002–2008); and the foundational study (Zaslaw and Spitzer 2004). See also the works cited in Criticism and Appreciation, especially Steinberg 1998, Steinberg 1995, and Steinberg 2005.

  • Brown, A. Peter. The Symphonic Repertoire. 5 vols. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002–2008.

    NNNMagnum opus following the models of William S. Newman, A History of the Sonata Idea (3 vols., Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1963–1969) and Howard Smither, A History of the Oratorio (4 vols., Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977–2000). The volumes left unfinished by A. Peter Brown (b. 1943–d. 2003) were completed by colleagues. Synthesis of knowledge and critique concerning the orchestral repertoire, organized by language and culture. The volumes are arranged chronologically—Volume 1, The Eighteenth-Century Symphony (edited by Mary Sue Morrow and Bathia Churgin); Volume 2, The First Golden Age of the Viennese Symphony: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert; Volume 3, Part A, The European Symphony from ca. 1800 to ca. 1930: Great Britain, Russia, and France (with Brian Hart); Volume 3, Part B, The European Symphony from ca. 1890 to ca. 1930: Germany and the Nordic Countries; Volume 4, The Second Golden Age of the Viennese Symphony: Brahms, Bruckner, Dvořák, Mahler, and Selected Contemporaries.

  • Holoman, D. Kern, ed. The Nineteenth-Century Symphony. New York: Schirmer, 1997.

    NNNMultiauthored overview of the symphony after Beethoven’s Ninth through Mahler’s Fourth, with chapters on the major symphonists, as well as Spohr and Weber, the French after Berlioz (Gounod, Bizet, Saint-Saëns, Franck), Elgar, and the symphonic poems of Richard Strauss. Numerous musical examples; selected bibliography in each chapter.

  • Kelly, Thomas Forrest. First Nights: Five Musical Premieres. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000.

    NNNImaginative treatment of five turning points in orchestral music: Monteverdi’s Orfeo (an opera), Handel’s Messiah (oratorio), Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, and Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps (ballet). Traces how the nascent band accompanying Orfeo became the monster ensemble of The Rite of Spring.

  • Lawson, Colin, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Orchestra. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    NNNMultiauthored overview of the kinds of topics covered in this article: orchestras and their history, questions of performance practice, the daily life of musicians, recordings. Lists of orchestras by date of founding, and the makeup of orchestras through the mid-19th century.

  • Peyser, Joan, ed. The Orchestra: Origins and Transformations. New York: Scribner’s, 1986.

    NNNA stellar array of scholars assess the orchestra as an institution in essays arranged in chronological order attempting, not always successfully, to find a “middle ground between pedestrian listings and lofty philosophizing.” Includes a brilliant treatment by Peter Burkholder of the critical problem of “the orchestra as museum” in the 20th century.

  • Spitzer, John, and Neal Zaslaw. The Birth of the Orchestra: History of an Institution, 1650–1815. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    NNNA tale of growth and expansion, as Monteverdi’s “band” of theater musicians, undoubled, mutates into the early classical symphony orchestra. The starting point, chronologically and methodologically, for studies of the orchestra and its music. A rich, detailed narrative of six hundred pages with images, tables and graphs, and full documentation.

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