Introduction to Orchestral Keyboards
Of course everyone is familiar with the sound of the piano and the organ. Most are also aware of how the piano sounds as a solo instrument with an orchestra backing. From Rhapsody in Blue to Tom and Jerry playing one of Liszt´s Hungarian Rhapsodies in unforgettable style, many of the greatest musical moments are for piano with orchestra. However the use of keyboard instruments in the orchestra is very varied and although the keyboards are no longer considered permanent members of the orchestra as cellos or flutes would be, there are numerous pieces of music where they form part of the orchestra playing on an equal footing with the other instruments. When in this role they are often situated towards the back near the percussion section.
In the 18th century keyboard instruments such as the harpsichord were a standard feature of orchestras. Then, as keyboard technology improved, they became increasingly used just as solo instruments. The emergence of the piano with its powerful tone and very wide range made it a more self-contained instrument and less easy to include as a member of the orchestra. Nevertheless, there are examples of orchestral use of keyboards throughout the 19th century, and in the 20th and 21st centuries they are very commonly used as part of the orchestra.
Another regularly used keyboard is the celesta which is like a large glockenspiel played with a keyboard rather then percussion beaters. It can have a magical effect and perhaps its most famous moment is in Tchaikovsky´s Nutcracker Suite. (Interestingly the first great electric piano was basically an amplified celesta. This was the Fender Rhodes, which was developed in the 1940s - see www.fenderrhodes.com to find out more.)