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A string orchestra is an orchestra consisting solely of a string section. The instruments of such an orchestra are most often the following: the violin, which is divided into first and second violin players, the viola, the cello, and the double bass. String orchestras can be of chamber orchestra size ranging from between 12 (184.108.40.206.1 = 12) and 21 musicians (220.127.116.11.2 = 21) sometimes performing without a conductor, or consist of the entire string section of a large symphony orchestra which could have 60 musicians (18.104.22.168.8 = 60; Gurre-Lieder calls for 84: 22.214.171.124.12).
Film scores generally have quite varied string set-ups: for example, James Newton Howard's score for The Last Airbender featured 33 violins, 21 violas, 14 celli and 15 double basses, making it a total of 83 strings.
A twentieth-century development has been the reappearance of the concerto grosso pitting of soloists against the full ensemble. During the past eras of pop music, it also employed up to 65-piece string orchestras (Two Tribes).
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The repertoire includes several works by Mozart (including Eine kleine Nachtmusik) and Haydn which dispense with the baroque basso continuo. Some of these works are problematic when it comes to deciding whether they are for orchestra or string quartet. Particularly in Haydn's early works it is argued that the inversions of harmony from the occasional crossings of the bass and viola line imply a double bass; the question is not settled, however.
Important 20th century works have been written for string orchestra by Bartók (Divertimento for String Orchestra), Stravinsky (Apollo), Witold Lutosławski (Musique funèbre), Benjamin Britten (Simple Symphony and Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge), Charles Wuorinen (Grand Bamboula), and Malcolm Williamson (Symphony No. 7). Sir Michael Tippett wrote a Concerto for Double String Orchestra and Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote a Partita for Double String Orchestra. Composers who have written a Serenade for string orchestra include Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, Suk and Elgar. Mendelssohn also wrote a number of symphonies for string orchestra.
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Sometimes works originally written for string quartet, quintet, sextet etc. are arranged for string orchestra. Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, Alban Berg's 3 Pieces from his Lyric Suite, Arnold Schoenberg's Second String Quartet and the sextet Verklärte Nacht, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's sextet Souvenir de Florence, John Corigliano's Second String Quartet and Jean Sibelius's Andante Festivo are examples. An optional timpani part is also added in the Sibelius piece. The work Shaker Loops written in 1978 for septet then arranged in 1983 for string orchestra by the American composer John Adams has become a popular addition to the repertoire in recent times. Graham Waterhouse composed several works for string orchestra (Sinfonietta), also in combination with contrasting sounds as Great Highland Bagpipe (Chieftain's Salute).
Other works for string orchestra
- Giovanni Albini – Una teoria della prossimità (2006)
- Louis Andriessen – Symphony for open strings
- Granville Bantock - Celtic Symphony, for string orchestra and six harps
- Samuel Barber – Adagio for Strings
- Béla Bartók – Divertimento for String Orchestra (Bartók)
- Mason Bates – Icarian Rhapsody (1999)
- Luciano Berio – Notturno (1995)
- Leonard Bernstein – Serenade for Solo Violin, Strings, Harp and Percussion after Plato's "Symposium"
- Judith Bingham – The Hythe (2012)
- Ernest Bloch – Concerto Grosso No. 2
- Benjamin Britten - Simple Symphony
- Stephen Brown – The Carol Suite (1993), Sunrise Serenade (2001), On the Idle Hill of Summer (2002)
- John Cage – Twenty-Three (for violins, violas, and cellos)
- Carlos Chávez – Symphony No. 5
- Natalia Cherniy – The Brilliant Strings
- Nigel Clarke – The Miraculous Violin
- Anna Clyne – Within Her Arms (2009), Prince of Clouds (2012)
- Tansy Davies – Residuum
- Andrew Douglass -Piece For Strings "Flight To Tasman"
- Antonín Dvořák – Serenade for String Orchestra in E major, Op.22
- Edward Elgar – Introduction and Allegro for Strings
- Edward Elgar - Serenade for strings
- Alberto Ginastera – Concerto per corde, Op. 33 (originally written for string quartet then arranged for string orchestra)
- Heitor Villa-Lobos – Bachianas Brasileiras no.9
- Philip Glass – "The Hours" (film score) (large string orchestra plus piano soloist)
- Edvard Grieg – Holberg Suite (originally written for piano then arranged for string orchestra)
- Karl Amadeus Hartmann – Symphony No. 4
- Alfred Hill – String Symphonies
- Gustav Holst – St Paul's Suite
- Arthur Honegger – Symphony No. 2
- Charles Ives – The Call of the Mountains (arranged by Jonathan Dore from the String Quartet No. 2)
- Karl Jenkins – Palladio (1996)
- David Johnstone – more than 20 published works for string orchestra
- Vasily Kalinnikov – Serenade for Strings in G minor
- Nigel Keay – Serenade for Strings
- Marian Lejava – Chant d'Amour (version for strings)
- Paul Lewis – Rosa Mundi (2003)
- Gustav Mahler – Adagietto, from Symphony No. 5.
- Nicholas Maw – Life Studies
- Felix Mendelssohn – String Symphonies
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Adagio and Fugue for strings K.546
- Lior Navok – Between Two Coasts
- Ștefan Niculescu – Formants (1967), for 17 solo strings
- Ottorino Respighi – Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite No. 3 (1932)
- Vincent Persichetti – Symphony No. 5
- Carl Ruggles – Portals
- Aulis Sallinen – Aspects of the Funeral March of Hintriki Peltoniemi (originally written for string quartet then arranged for string orchestra)
- Esa-Pekka Salonen – Stockholm Diary (2004)
- Arnold Schoenberg – Verklärte Nacht or Transfigured Night (originally written for string sextet then arranged for string orchestra)
- William Schuman – Symphony No. 5
- Jean Sibelius – Andante Festivo for strings and timpani
- Richard Strauss – Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings
- Igor Stravinsky – Concerto in D
- Igor Stravinsky – Apollon Musagète, ballet for string orchestra
- William Susman – Zydeco Madness, Angels of Light
- Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky – Serenade for Strings in C major, Op. 48
- Dimitri Tchesnokov – Réminiscence d'après la symphonie pour cordes
- Michael Tippett – Concerto for Double String Orchestra
- Michael Tippett – Corelli Fantasia
- Michael Tippett – Little Music for Strings
- Robin Toan – dans la nuit (2006)
- Robert Ward – Concertino for String Orchestra (originally written for string quartet then arranged for string orchestra)
- Ralph Vaughan Williams – Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus, Concerto Grosso
- Claude Vivier – Zipangu (1980)
- William Walton – Sonata for Strings
- Graham Waterhouse – Celtic Voices and Hale Bopp (1995, 1997), Sinfonietta (2002)
- Anthony Watson – Prelude and Allegro for Strings (1960)
- Malcolm Williamson – Epitaphs for Edith Sitwell (1966/72), Ode for Queen Elizabeth (1980), Lento for Strings (1985)
- Dag Wirén – Serenade for Strings
- John Woolrich – Blue Drowning (2005)
- John Woolrich – It is midnight Dr.Schweitzer
- John Woolrich – To the Silver Bow, double concerto for viola, double bass and strings (2014)
- John Woolrich – Ulysses Awakes
- Charles Wuorinen - Grand Bamboula
- Iannis Xenakis – Pithoprakta for 46 strings, 2 trombones, wood block and xylophone.
- Takashi Yoshimatsu – Threnody to Toki for Piano and String Orchestra (1980)
- Đuro Živković – Serenade (2002) and PSALM XIII (2014)
- Erić Zoran – Cartoon for Strings
- Josep Gustems Carnicer; Edmon Elgström Misol (2008). Guía práctica para la dirección de grupos vocales e instrumentales (in Spanish). Grao. pp. 32–34. ISBN 978-84-7827-643-1.