The Evolution of the Scores

The first work that identifies a specific group of instruments by name in the way we associate with a modern orchestral score was the musical drama Orfeo by Monteverdi. A staged dramatic production would be extremely difficult without some kind of musical leadership. We have no evidence of how Orfeo was coordinated but it is likely that it was directed in the broadest sense by a ‘corago’ – a role somewhere between a producer, director and conductor in modern terms.

Toccata from L’Orfeo. Favola in musica. Reprint of the First Edition of the Score, Venice 1609. Licence: public domain.

The first recognisable orchestra in the sense of a professional, permanent and stable ensemble of musicians was established at the French court in the seventeenth century.  It comprised a group of 24 string players known as the Vingt-quatre violons formerly established by Louis XIII in 1618 but reaching its heyday under Louis XIV following his approval of the Académie d’Opéra (1669) which evolved into the Académie Royale de Musique (1672). Works for this ensemble were scored in five parts with basso continuo. Even when it was joined by the Grand écurie – the wind and brass players who also had other duties in the royal household – the five-part score simply indicated where various different instruments were to play the same line of music.

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