My First Orchestra Playlist

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Illustration by James MayhewHearing a whole orchestra play is a bit like looking at an enormous colourful painting, full of amazing patterns. The instruments of the orchestra all make different sounds, and when they play together they can make you think and feel and imagine hundreds of different things!

There are four main groups of orchestral instruments. At the front there are the string instruments: the deep-voiced double basses (taller than the people who play them!), the cellos, the violas and the violins, which sound the highest notes. They each have four strings which are played with a horse-hair bow.

Behind them sit the wind players, who blow into their instruments – gently for quiet notes and harder for loud notes. The biggest instrument, with the lowest sound, is the bassoon, followed by the clarinet, oboe, flute and the tiny piccolo, which can make such a high bright sound it can be heard over the whole orchestra.

The brass section can get very loud, so that’s why it is positioned further back. Brass players blow into their instruments too: if you can blow raspberries you would probably be an excellent trumpeter! The tuba is the largest, then come the trombones, horns and trumpets, all made of beautiful shiny metal.

Right at the back are the percussionists, playing drums, timpani, cymbals, triangles and xylophones – in fact anything that can be struck!

The conductor stands at the front, facing the orchestra and making sure that everyone plays the right thing at the right time.

Leonard Bernstein (1918−1990)

1. Candide: Overture

Keyword: Colourful

Here is a piece of music full of colour – crammed with all the different sounds the instruments of the orchestra can make. Candide is an opera, a kind of musical play where the actors sing to each other. The overture comes right at the beginning and gives the audience a taste of what the opera will be like. Do you think this one will be funny, or sad? (Answer: it’s very funny!)

Performers: Florida Philharmonic Orchestra; James Judd

Taken from Naxos 8.559200


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756−1791)

2. The Marriage of Figaro: Overture

Keyword: Busy

This overture is wonderfully playful and full of patterns, with different groups of instruments taking it in turns to play different tunes. You can tell from the music that this opera is going to be full of people coming and going and rushing around.

Performers: Capella Istropolitana; Barry Wordsworth

Taken from Naxos 8.553261


Johannes Brahms (1833−1897)

3. Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90: III. Poco allegretto

Keyword: Gentle

This piece has a very different feeling: gentle and a bit sad. One of Brahms’s friends told him it made her think of ‘woods and forests… I can hear the stream flowing and insects buzzing,’ she said.

Performers: London Philharmonic Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.557430


Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov (1844−1908)

4. Scheherazade, Op. 35: I. The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship

Keyword: Story

Here is a story told in music. Scheherazade is married to the powerful Sultan of Persia, and each night she has to tell him a story. If it is not good enough she will be executed the following morning! Luckily Scheherazade is a wonderful story-teller, and the Sultan always wants to hear the next bit of the story to find out what happens. You can hear the scary Sultan striding into the room in the trombone music at the beginning. The solo violin is Scheherazade calmly telling him stories about Sinbad the Sailor. Can you imagine Sinbad’s ship being tossed about by the mountainous ocean waves? You can hear the clear bright notes of the French horns and the cellos singing out over the orchestra and being answered by the wind instruments.

Performers: Maria Larionoff, violin; Seattle Symphony Orchestra; Gerard Schwarz

Taken from Naxos 8.572693


Joseph Haydn (1732−1809)

5. Symphony No. 6 in D major, Hob.I:6 ‘Le matin’: III. Menuet

Keyword: Minuet

Joseph Haydn worked for a prince who loved music so much that he had his very own orchestra! A minuet is a type of dance, so the music has a steady rhythm for people to dance to. Can you hear the bird-like flute near the beginning and again at the end? The low voices of the bassoons and double basses take over in the middle, and the viola, which is a little larger and lower than a violin, plays a gentle tune while the bassoon plays short, choppy notes at the same time.

Performers: Northern Chamber Orchestra; Nicholas Ward

Taken from Naxos 8.550722


Georges Bizet (1838−1875)

6. L’Arlésienne Suite No. 1: II. Minuet

Keyword: Tiptoes

This is a Minuet too, but it was written later and uses a bigger orchestra with more instruments. It’s in several short sections with different moods, so you can do a new little dance for each new section!

Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Anthony Bramall

Taken from Naxos 8.550061


Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872−1958)

7. Fantasia on ‘Greensleeves’

Keyword: Countryside

This beautiful piece is based on a very old English folksong and might make you think of a summer’s day in the countryside. Listen to the flute and harp at the beginning. The composer gives the main tune to the warm-sounding string instruments.

Performers: New Zealand Philharmonic Orchestra; James Judd

Taken from Naxos 8.555867


Claude Debussy (1862−1918)

8. Children’s Corner (arr. A. Caplet): IV. The Snow is Dancing

Keyword: Snowflakes

Here is a musical painting of snow falling. You can imagine the composer’s little daughter, Claude-Emma, watching the snowflakes drifting and fluttering down past her window, while everything outside becomes a strange and magical new world. The string instruments play short delicate notes like falling snow. The oboe and other wind instruments play longer notes that conjure up pictures of a snowy garden, icicles or a frozen pond.

Performers: Orchestre National de Lyon; Jun Märkl

Taken from Naxos 8.509002


Modest Mussorgsky (1839−1881)

9. Khovanshchina: Dance of the Persian Slaves

Keyword: Exotic

This dance begins slowly with a mysterious tune, and you can almost smell and taste the foreign spices from Persia! The instrument you can hear at the beginning is the cor anglais, a kind of large oboe with deeper, sadder notes. As the music gets faster you can hear the clarinet and later the trumpet, with percussion instruments joining in.

Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Kenneth Jean

Taken from Naxos 8.550924


Dmitry Shostakovich (1906−1975)

10. Festive Overture

Keyword: Cheerful

Shostakovich wrote this in just three days, and you can tell he enjoyed writing it. It begins with a trumpet fanfare, and then the clarinet and piccolo come in with very fast notes running up and down.

Performers: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra; Christopher Lyndon-Gee

Taken from Naxos 8.556684


Sergey Prokofiev (1891−1953)

11. Lieutenant Kijé: III. Kijé’s Wedding

Keyword: Friendly

This music is from an old black-and-white comedy film. After a serious beginning, the trumpets have the tune, and later you can hear the deep notes of a saxophone, a cross between a wind and a brass instrument.

Performers: Orchestre National de Lille; Jean-Claude Casadesus

Taken from Naxos 8.557725


Ludwig van Beethoven (1770−1827)

12. Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 55 ‘Eroica’: III. Scherzo: Allegro vivace

Keyword: Playful

This is a playful movement beginning with a short spiky tune on the oboes. Listen for the warm rich sound of the three horns.

Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Michael Halász

Taken from Naxos 8.553223


Jacques Offenbach (1819−1880)

13. Orpheus in the Underworld: Act II: Can-Can

Keyword: Party

Here are the ancient Greek gods having a wild party in the Underworld! The trombones have the main tune. They come in, with the timpani and cymbal, after a rather grand introduction. The notes on a trombone are made by moving a long metal tube called the slide in and out. Here the trombonists are having to move the slide pretty quickly!

Performers: Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra; Johannes Wildner

Taken from Naxos 8.550924


Bedřich Smetana (1824−1884)

14. The Bartered Bride: Act I: Polka

Keyword: Dance

In this folk dance, the polka, the dancers are villagers in colourful costumes. The timpani and cymbals help them keep time. Timpani are large drums, sometimes called kettledrums as they look like giant copper kettles or cooking pots. Can you hear how some timpani sound higher, or lower, than others?

Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Barry Wordsworth

Taken from Naxos 8.550924


Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840−1893)

15. The Nutcracker: Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy

Keyword: Christmas

This magical piece comes from a very famous Russian ballet that is performed all over the world at Christmas time. The story begins on Christmas Eve when a little girl, Clara, is given a nutcracker, a wooden soldier doll. She comes down to see it under the Christmas tree in the middle of the night. As the clock strikes twelve the Christmas tree begins to grow and grow, and an army of giant mice fights a battle with an army of gingerbread soldiers led by the Nutcracker. With Clara’s help the Nutcracker defeats the Mouse King. He turns into a handsome prince and he and Clara travel through a snowy forest to the magical Land of Sweets, ruled over by the Sugar Plum Fairy. The Nutcracker Prince and the Sugar Plum Fairy dance together accompanied by the harp and the celeste, a keyboard instrument that makes a tinkling bell-like sound.

Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Michael Halász

Taken from Naxos 8.551166


Richard Wagner (1813−1883)

16. The Valkyrie: Ride of the Valkyries

Keyword: Exciting

This is a really exciting one to end on. It is from an opera about ancient heroes and warriors. The Valkyries are warrior women who ride through the air on horseback. It is the trombones you can hear playing the main tune, together with the lower-sounding tubas.

Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Uwe Mund

Taken from Naxos 8.556657


Note writer: Catherine Henderson

Music selection: Jules Hammond

‘My First’ series editor: Genevieve Helsby