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The Orchestra In All Its Many Forms

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In this excerpt, each section of the string family plays a particular role: the high notes and the melody are played by the first violins, the support for the melody by the second violins, the depth and effects by the violas, the bass chords by the cellos and the pulse by the double basses.

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In the second movement of Hector Berlioz’s symphonic poem, a young man caught up in an impossible love affair dreams that he is reunited with the woman he loves at a ball. The harps introduce the image of an enchanted and marvellous setting that the character hallucinates. Can you imagine this ball scene?

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Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto is an essential work in the repertoire for piano and orchestra. From the very first notes of the piece, the pianist demonstrates the complexity of the score with intensity and virtuosity. Listen here to the first appearance of the theme played on the piano.

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It’s well known that the flute is a highly virtuosic wind instrument. Its wide range allows it to change the colour of its timbre: it can have a warm, human-like sound in the low and middle registers, but also sound like a bird in the high register. In this excerpt from Smetana’s Moldau, the warm timbre and virtuosity of the instrument are highlighted.

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Brass instruments often represent a symbol of power in music. In the second movement of Symphony No. 10, this is exactly what the Russian composer is trying to describe. Shostakovich was thinking of the Russian dictator Joseph Stalin and his regime of fear when he wrote this work. Listen to the strength and intensity of the brass section in this passage!

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Fascinated by the sonic power of an orchestra, Richard Strauss is famous for his work Ainsi parlait Zarathoustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra), which requires a 95-strong orchestra, including an organist. Percussion is also in the spotlight: a stretched-skin instrument plays a very important role in this extract. Which one is it?

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The orchestra tunes in gender and number

When brought together, the four families of instruments offer a whole panoply of sounds and timbres (the specific sound of each musical instrument) that enable the orchestra to play a wide variety of music.

The formation of the orchestra has changed over the course of history: the first orchestras were much smaller than today, consisting only of the string family and a few wind instruments, such as oboes and horns. Over time, composers have constantly added new instruments to this core and explored more and more sound combinations. Some works now require more than a hundred musicians on stage!

For further information

There are still many interesting things to discover about the symphony orchestra, whether it’s the instruments that make it up, the fascinating professions that contribute to it or its vast repertoire. In the three videos that follow, Patrice Bélanger and Adam Johnson explain to us what the timbre of instruments is and how it can be modified, former OSM assistant conductor Dina Gilbert talks to us about the conductor’s gestures, and Eric Chappell introduces us to a rare and impressive instrument unique to the OSM: the octobasse.

Game 1

Match the following terms with their definition.

Hint: All the information has already been given in the guide!

1. Symphony A) Features a solo instrument in dialogue with the orchestra
2. Concerto B) Technique pour pincer la corde plutôt que la jouer avec l’archet
3. Orchestra pit C) A particularly dramatic movement in the requiem
4.  Dies irae D)The “grandfather” of film music
5. Pizzicato E)The work par excellence of the orchestral repertoire, comprises 4 movements
6. Erich Korngold F)Space under the stage where the orchestra plays for opera and ballet

Game 2

In the director’s shoes

1) Choose a scene from an existing film or video game.

2) Choose a work (or a passage from a work) from the symphonic repertoire as your soundtrack. Play both at the same time to superimpose images and sound.

3) Explain the links you feel between the images and the musical passage, referring, if possible, to concepts covered in the teaching guide (instrument families, timbres, musical genre).


Suggestions for musical works :

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Game 3

Keep your ears wide open!
What instrument(s) are we talking about?

Multiple-choice questionnaire, one or more answers possible.

Game 4

Keep your ears wide open!
What instrument(s) are we talking about?

Multiple-choice questionnaire, one or more answers possible.


Extrait 1 : Tchaïkovski

a) oboe
b) flute
c) violin

Extrait 2 : Ibert

Extrait 3 : Britten

Extrait 4 – BONUS!

The answers

1.E) ; 2.A) ; 3.F) ; 4.C) ; 5.B) ; 6.D)

All answers are accepted!

Extract 1 : a) This is an oboe solo from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

Extract 2: b) This is an extract from Jacques Ibert’s Flute Concerto.

Extract 3: a) This is an extract from Britten’s Simple Symphony, written for string instruments (but not for bass!). Here, the musicians play only in pizzicato.

Extract 4: b) and c) We haven’t talked about it, but the organ is also a wind instrument with almost infinite possibilities. This was the introduction to Jazz Variations On A Theme Of Paganini performed by Jean-Willy Kunz, the OSM’s organist in residence.