altOne of the first orchestras similar to those of today was formed in the early 1600s by Italian composer of the late Renaissance and early Baroque periods, Claudio Monteverdi. This article traces the beginnings of Baroque orchestra in Italy and France.


During the Baroque Period (1600-1750), instrumental music continued to be the privilege of the royal and aristocratic households who had the means to employ full-time orchestras and composers. The only way a composer could earn a living was to be employed by some wealthy patron, either a member of the aristocracy or a leading church dignitary.

A main feature of Baroque music was the basso continuo (figured bass) and music was written primarily for strings and a harpsichord. The harpsichord shared the bass line with the cello, and chords were added to thicken the harmonic texture. 

Italian Connection

Employed by the Duke of Mantua at one of the richest courts in Italy, Claudio Monteverdi was able to use a forty strong band of strings, flutes, cornetts (or cornetto, an early brass instrument) and trombones for his opera Orfeo. The fusion of brass and strings as opposed to the earlier orchestration of strings and woodwind only – had been adopted by many bands in northern Italy, particularly in Venice, much influenced by Monteverdi.

It was during this period that opera flourished in Naples with the master composer Alessandro Scarlatti. However, alongside and independently of the opera, instrumental music began to be played, and the concerto came into being. Two of the foremost Italian composers of this form were Arcangelo Corelli and Antonio Vivaldi. Vivaldi, famous for Le Quattro stagioni (The Four Seasons) was a student of Corelli. Both wrote concerti grossi, characterized by the interplay between a large and a small group of instruments.  

French Connection

The Vingt-quatre Violons du Roi (24 violins of the King), was set up to provide music at the court of Louis XIII, Louis XIV, and Louis XV that began in 1601. It served as a training ground for the most brilliant players in France, as well as establishing a stylized method of playing dance music. The band, which had the reputation of decorating everything it played, did so from memory and as a result some of its performances were almost disastrous.

When Jean-Baptiste Lully, a significant contributor of French opera beginnings, became Louis XIV's Compositeur de la Musique Instrumentale he set up his own band, the Petits Violons (La Grand Band).This band, made famous by Lully, was the first to wear a uniform and to use their bows in the same direction. Greatly admired, this band became a model for the rest of Europe.     


The Oxford Companion to Music, edited by Alison Latham, OUP, 2002

The Encyclopedia of Music, by Max Wade-Matthews & Wendy Thompson, Hermes House, London, 2002  


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