Forms of Orchestral Music

Here follows a list of some orchestral or instrumental forms with descriptions. Where appropriate, I have given a well-known or popular example.

A work for choir and orchestra. Cantatas are often dramatic, but are not staged. William Walton's Belshazzar's Feast is an oft-performed example.

The term was originally used to describe a work for voices with a simple accompaniment. Since the mid-17th century, it has been applied to any work where a solo instrument (or a small group of instruments) are contrasted with a much larger group. The technical abilities of the soloists, and the particular qualities of the instrument are therefore clearly highlighted. There are usually three movements in fast-slow-fast order.

A song or instrumental piece concerning loss and death. One such is Elgar's Elegy for Strings, written on the death of his friend August "Nimrod" Jaeger.

A work in a free and unrestrained style, usually in one movement. A form used most notably by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

An extended work with a choir and soloists, often on a sacred theme. Similar in many ways to opera, but with no staging or costumes. The story is often advanced through solo recitatives, but the chorus usually dominates. The best known oratorio is Handel's Messiah.

There is very little to be said further to these writeups.

A structure for a solo work, either accompanied or not. In the classical era, it was a 3 or 4 movement form, beginning and ending with fast movements, surrounding slower, graceful ones. In the Romantic era, the formalities were weakened a little, with movements being merged or a cyclic structure appearing. Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata is a popular example for solo piano, in three movements.

An overture can be a medley of the various themes from a staged work such as a ballet or opera. These are written as an introduction to the work, but are often performed in their own right. The best known is Rossini's William Tell Overture from his opera. The term is also used for some self-contained peices, such as Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture.

A series of orchestral works related by a common subject, and intended to be heard in sequence. In the baroque and classical eras, dance suites were common, and consisted of stylized dance movements in varying rhythms. Today the best known suite is perhaps Gustav Holst's mighty Planets Suite.

A work written as though improvised, usually with an emotional charge or heroic air. Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin is of course the best-known.

A work in which a simple theme is elaborated on at length, becoming more complex and further removed from the orginal tune. Often, a composer will wirte a set of variations on a theme by an earlier composer as a sort of tribute to or meditation on their work. Johannes Brahms wrote such a set of variations on themes by Joseph Haydn.

Info from Bloomsbury Dictionary of Music, various CD liner notes, and assistance from tdent.

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