Chamber & Symphony Orchestras

Chamber orchestras differ from the usual symphony orchestra. Here's how.

Chamber orchestras are more common than one might think. String quartets could almost be called chamber orchestras, as they are small groups of only string players. This is the major difference between chamber and symphony orchestras: symphony orchestras have string players plus woodwinds, brass and percussion, while chamber orchestras have only string players. Naturally they are much smaller and less well-known.

In such an orchestra, there are two violin sections, one viola section, one cello section, and one bass player. There is no bass in a quartet. The number of players in each section is significant. In each violin section, there will be about six violinists. In viola and cello sections, there will usually be about four players each. The ratio between total violins and either cellos or violas is three to one. Because there are many more violins, they're heard more than the other instruments.

Other reasons why the violin carries so well include the fact that the pitches are higher (by a fifth, or an octave and a fifth; plus their parts are written much higher) and more easily heard (in what the human ear is able to pick up). Also, they have two (or more) different parts that often harmonize, which is pleasing to the ear. Also, violinists are usually the soloists, or have solo-like parts (the melody), which is easier to pick up.

These orchestras often play baroque music, also called chamber music. It was written for small orchestras originally, and often does not contain more than the string parts. Common composers are Vivaldi, Telemann, and Handel. Sometimes the music features a soloist or a group of "soloists," of course usually violinists. In more recent times, violas and cellos have had more solos, especially violas. Cellos have also had some solos because their instruments do sound quite a bit different. Chamber music usually doesn't feature violas, though. However, it often features cellos with a violin soloist or as a soloist in its own right.

This music is almost always classical. Chamber orchestras don't have the woodwinds or brass to do different effects, and so they must rely on classical training and sound. They also rarely work with percussion. To create effects on their own, they will do different bow strokes (such as col legno, which is bouncing the stick on the strings). They are generally more experimental in creating sound, depending on the piece.

Chamber orchestras require very strong players, because even one person making a mistake is much more likely to be heard. When only about twenty people are playing, with four to six on each part, each person must be able to hold his or her own in the music. People must be able to "know" each other much better than in a larger orchestra. In chamber orchestras, unlike in quartets, there is a conductor. Quartets require EXTREMELY strong players, because they have nothing but each others' cues. Quartets are relatively common, especially for weddings and other formal engagements.

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