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1. a large group of musicians, esp one whose members play a variety of different instruments
2. a group of musicians, each playing the same type of instrument
3. the space reserved for musicians in a theatre, immediately in front of or under the stage
4. Chiefly US and Canadian the stalls in a theatre
5. (in the ancient Greek theatre) the semicircular space in front of the stage
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005


A circular area in a Greek theater, where the chorus sang and danced.
Illustrated Dictionary of Architecture Copyright © 2012, 2002, 1998 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. All rights reserved
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a large group of musicians who play various instruments and collectively perform works written for them as a group. The distinction between an orchestra and an instrumental ensemble is not entirely clear. However, in an ensemble each part is performed by one musician; in an orchestra at least some parts are performed by two or more of the same instrument playing in unison. The highest form of orchestra is the symphony orchestra, which includes stringed instruments, woodwinds, and brass instruments, as well as a percussion section. The string orchestra and wind band, which are made up of instruments of the same family, are common. Another variety of orchestra is the chamber orchestra, which differs from the symphony orchestra in several ways: for example, there are fewer performers, and in many instances, each part is assigned to a single performer. With the emergence of special designations for performing groups, it has become acceptable to refer to the military band (a brass band, sometimes of expanded and mixed composition) and the variety stage orchestra. There are many types of folk-instrument orchestras. A special phenomenon is the horn band, to which the term “orchestra” is not entirely applicable.

The symphony orchestra, which came into being at the turn of the 17th century, has gone through a long period of development. The first orchestras were dominated by stringed instruments, both bowed (the violin family, the viol) and plucked (lutes, harps). The harpsichord or organ was the principal member of the continuo group, which usually consisted of a keyboard instrument, the cello, the double bass, and sometimes the bassoon. The wind instruments were used sporadically.

The classical orchestra (also known as the small symphony orchestra) did not take shape until the late 18th century. Usually, it included eight to ten first violins, four to six second violins, two to four violas, three to four cellos, and two double basses. In addition, it included two French horns and the woodwinds—two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, and two bassoons (paired organization). Later, two trumpets were added, as well as kettledrums. The later symphonies of Haydn and Mozart, most of Beethoven’s symphonies, and some of Glinka’s symphonies were written for small symphony orchestras.

During the 19th century a greater variety of instruments and more musicians were added to the symphony orchestra. Unlike the small symphony orchestra, the full symphony orchestra, which developed during the 19th century, included two to three trombones and a tuba. Berlioz, Wagner, R. Strauss, and Mahler, as well as Tchaikovsky, N. A. Rimsky-Korsakov, and I. F. Stravinsky, made important contributions to the development of the orchestra. To enrich the orchestra’s range of color, instruments with special timbres were added, including piccolos, alto and bass flutes, the English horn, the oboe d’amore, the heckelphone, the E-flat clarinet, the basset horn, the bass clarinet, the saxophone, the contrabassoon, the harp, the glockenspiel, the piano, and the organ. Various percussion and folk instruments were also added. In Der Ring des Nibelungen, Wagner introduced a quartet of horn tubas (Wagner tubas) and bass trumpets.

The performance of many early 20th-century orchestral scores (for example, some of R. Strauss’ operas) called for an orchestra of more than MX) musicians. Mahler’s symphonies demanded an even larger orchestra. His Eighth Symphony, which requires a full symphony orchestra, soloists, and three choirs, has been called the “Symphony of a Thousand.” In the 20th century there has also been a tendency to use smaller orchestral units. But in many cases, the differentiation of parts for the same instruments has made the scores of such works as complex as those written for large groups of performers.

In the modern symphony orchestra the performers are arranged so as to achieve a united sound. Since the 1950’s, the “American seating arrangement” has become popular. The first and second violins are seated to the left of the conductor, and the violas and cellos, to the right. The woodwinds, brass instruments, and double basses are at the rear, with the percussion section on the left.


Carse, A. Istoriia orkestrovki. Moscow, 1932. (Translated from English.)
Rogal’-Levitskii, Dm. Sovremennyi orkestr, vols. 1–4. Moscow, 1953–56.
Bekker, P. The Orchestra, 2nd ed. New York, 1963.




the principal and oldest part of a theater in ancient Greece; in the fifth century B.C., a circular area, with a diameter of 20 m or greater, that was surrounded by an amphitheater and that was used as a stage by the chorus and actors. There was a small elevated area in the center of the orchestra for a sacrificial altar to the god Dionysus (thymele), which emphasized the sacred basis of theatrical art. In the Roman theater, since there was no chorus, the orchestra was smaller and was semicircular in form. During the Roman Empire, the orchestra was used for various spectacles, such as gladiator games and mock sea battles.

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. In the early Greek theater, the place occupied by the dancers and chorus about the altar of Dionysos; later, the circular space reserved for the dancers and chorus, between the proscenium and auditorium.
2. In the early Roman theater, a semicircular level space between the stage and the first semicircular rows of seats, reserved for senators and other distinguished spectators.
3. In an auditorium, the seating area on the main floor, or a forward section of seats on the main floor.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Architecture and Construction. Copyright © 2003 by McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
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