The Birth of the Orchestra: History of an Institution, 1650-1815

The Birth of the Orchestra: History of an Institution, 1650-1815

The Birth of the Orchestra: History of an Institution, 1650-1815

The Birth of the Orchestra: History of an Institution, 1650-1815


This is the story of the orchestra: from 16th-century string bands to the 'classical' orchestra of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Spitzer and Zaslaw document orchestral organisation, instrument-ation, social roles, repertories, and performance practices in Europe and the American colonies, concluding around 1800 with the widespread awareness of the orchestra as a central institution in European life.


Two heads may be better than one, but they are certainly no faster. We outlined this book together fifteen years ago, and we've been chipping away at it ever since. Neal Zaslaw wrote the first drafts of Chapters 3 and 6; the remaining chapters were drafted by John Spitzer. The two of us edited, rewrote, and reedited the entire book together. Our two heads bear collective responsibility for any insights and all errors that readers may find.

As we finished the book we realized, not entirely to our surprise, that we had written a narrative history—not a chronological account by any means, but a narrative in the sense that we tell a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Once upon a time there were no orchestras. In the second half of the seventeenth century, at the courts of kings, princes, and cardinals, instrumentalists began to organize into ensembles that combined strings, winds, and continuo instruments and that put several players on each of the string parts. Over the course of the eighteenth century these ensembles developed distinctive repertories, distinctive performance practices, distinct personnel, and their own administrative structures, until by the 1790s and early 1800s the orchestra had become recognizable as the institution that, with changes, still exists in concert halls and opera houses in many parts of the world.

Narrative histories seem to have gone somewhat out of fashion these days. “Grand narratives,” says Lyotard, “have lost their credibility”—by which he seems to mean that people since the middle of the twentieth century have become increasingly skeptical of Christian, Marxist, and/or scientific accounts of history as the story of human progress. Postmodern literary critics and historians have extended Lyotard's dictum to encompass all narratives great or small, proclaiming somewhat gleefully that narrative in general is dead.

We reject this notion. To say that historical narratives are impossible is to say that we can no longer tell a story about what happened in the past, or that we must tell as many stories as there are readers. And this means in turn that the past no longer has any meaning for the present, or that it has an infinite number of meanings, which amounts to the same thing.

We propose to tell a single, if multilayered, story of the orchestra—who created orchestras, what the details of this process were, and when, where, and why orchestras came into being. Our story by itself is at most a middle-sized narrative, but it is linked to a grander narrative: the creation of modern institutions. Armies, navies, banks, bureaucracies, factories, corporations, secondary schools, scientific societies, and more all came into being during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in . . .

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