Introduction: why this book?
Several fine books on orchestration already exist: Rimsky-Korsakov’s Principles of Orchestrationremains as valuable today as when it was published. The excellent texts by Piston and Adler combine thorough information about instruments with useful advice about their combination.
Koechlin’s monumental Traité de l’Orchestration is in a class apart: In its four huge volumes, the author generously shares a lifetime’s experience as a master orchestrator, and explores many subjects nowhere else to be found. Our work here is much indebted to Koechlin.
The main subject none of these books covers systematically is how orchestration expresses and enhances musical form. This, combined with our focus, throughout this series of online books, on explaining musical techniques in terms of how people hear, will lead us to some useful principles.
Rimsky-Korsakov tells us that “to orchestrate is to create, and this is something which cannot be taught”. Experience proves him right. Once the basic information about instruments is assimilated, it is difficult to teach the finer points of the art, outside of actual composition. Transcription of piano or chamber music, often used as a teaching method, presents useful challenges, but these challenges are mainly problems of translation, not of composition. We will not deal with transcription here, as the subject is well covered in other books, for example, Joseph Wagner’s Orchestration.
What is orchestration? For our purposes, orchestration follows instrumentation, where the student learns how instruments work, and what is idiomatic for each one. The common conception of orchestration as assigning timbres to lines is very inadequate. Timbre is a potent aspect of musical character. Using it effectively requires much knowledge about texture – the ways in which musical strands can be combined – and how changes of timbre affect our perception of musical form. There is in fact no area of music that is not dependant on timbre: It impinges even on the most elementary harmony exercise. The tension of an appogiatura will change drastically, depending on whether it is for voices, strings, or piano. Our definition of orchestration here will therefore be: Composing with timbres. Most of our discussion here will focus on how orchestration can be used to enhance various musical situations.
Orchestration is hard to teach. First, it is difficult to provide feedback for students’ work: A real orchestra does not sit around waiting to try out elementary exercises. Second, if the parts are reasonably playable, and provided the coming and going of entries does not actively contradict the work’s main structural articulations, it is almost as hard to write glaringly badly for the orchestra as it is to write glowingly well. This is because the orchestra’s historical development has largely favored euphony of sound and flexibility of technique. The inadequacy of poor, but playable, orchestration only shows itself over fairly long spans or in repeated listening. Grayness or heaviness of texture fatigues the ear, and the structure and character of the work are unvaried and undifferentiated.
Computer simulation of the orchestra is of course a useful tool, and its quality is constantly increasing. But to do a really convincing simulation requires that one already know, in some detail, how the passage must sound; most non-professional simulations are poorly balanced and woefully lacking in refinement.
As in our previous books, we will concentrate here on general principles instead of rules of thumb. Given that orchestration is so hard to try out experimentally, this is especially important. As an example, a common rule of thumb tells the student to avoid big gaps in orchestral textures. The principles involved here are two:
- Musical elements that are in separate registers are not perceived as being on the same plane of tone.
- For fullness of sound, the ear requires fairly complete registral saturation, especially in the middle range.
These principles explain why large gaps may be effective in one situation, for example a quiet, playful passage, but not in another, where fullness and richness are required.
Another advantage of discussing general principles is that many of our remarks will apply equally well to electroacoustic and mixed music, instead of being limited to traditional instrumental combinations. That said, we will provide many examples from the standard repertoire, for ease of reference.
Note: This work is not meant as a substitute for the texts referred to above, but as a complement to them.
- Remarks on instruments
- What is poor orchestration?
- Orchestration and form
- Rate of orchestral change
- Degree of continuity/contrast
- Interpreting the phrasing
- Orchestration and dynamics
- Sustained vs. dry sound
- Fat vs. thin sound; unison doubling
- Balance: simultaneous and successive
- Musical lines vs. instrumental parts
- Planes of tone
- Contrapuntal orchestration
- The tutti
- Examples from a character glossary
- Outline sketches as a teaching tool
- Learning orchestration from the repertoire
- Scales of contrast