January 2022 post “Orchestration”
December 2021 post “Music Manipulations”
November 2021 post “The Instruments of an Orchestra”
October 2021 post “Orchestra Types”
September 2021 post “Soloists”
July 2021 post “Programming”
June 2021 post “Good Performance/Bad Performance”
May 2021 post “Good Music/Bad Music”
April 2021 post “Meaning of Music”
March 2021 post “Hearing 3”
February 2021 post “Hearing 2”
January 2021 post “Hearing 1”
December 2020 post “What to listen for in music”
November 2020 post “Early History of Conducting”
Orchestration is one of my favorite topics in music and I hope (from last month’s article) you were able to hear some of the varying links posted. As mentioned, this large topic cannot be served well in these brief articles, but I do hope to share the highlights with you.
Last month’s article introduced the idea of “varied” techniques of playing an instrument (like “arco” and “pizzicato” for strings). There are many more techniques players use at the instruction of the orchestrator. Here are a few:
- Glissando (a slide from one note up or down to another): the classic example of this is the very opening of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, a jazz concerto for piano. The first note of the piece is given to the clarinet: a trill (a quick alternation between two notes), followed by a long and steady slide from that note up to a high note of the main theme (see the link below!).
- Extreme registers: orchestrators have historically respected “comfortable” registers of the instrument when assigning notes to be played. 20th c. composers often seek to explore the extreme high or low areas of the instrument, causing the sound to seem “other-worldly”, certainly, not “of this instrument”. The classic example is Igor Stravinsky’s first note of the ballet Rite of Spring. Here, the bassoon plays a note, thought to be not playable in the absolute highest register of the instrument. This is NOT a bassoon part – but the bassoon is asked to play it – specifically for the orchestration effect of “extreme register”. (see the link below).
- Multiphonics (the production of more than one note on a monophonic (single-note) instrument): How could it be that an instrument which produces one note, might produce two or even three note (to make a chord)??? It HAS been done! This is an usual request of an orchestrator upon the performer. Often, to produce this effect, the performed must play a single note on their instrument while humming (vocalizing) another note – specifically chosen – which, in combination, magically creates a third note (a “combination tone”). This is a freak of the physics of sound. Not all instruments can do this, but this technique was actually known as far back as 1833, when Carl Maria von Weber ( ) wrote the concertino in e minor for French Horn and instructed the performer to play one note and hum another (see the link below).
I could go on with other techniques like “overblowing” and “sul ponticello” and “fluttertongue”, but there is more to tell…
Orchestrators use not only the instruments at their disposal, but the very rooms in which the instruments play! It can happen that, for special effect, the orchestrator instructs the performer to position themself someplace unusual in the hall – typically, backstage, or in the balcony. The sonoral effect to the audience anticipates what we now call “surround sound”, where sound may come from many different directions upon the listener’s ear. I will offer two links (below) as examples. The first is the traditional placement of a trumpet somewhere other than on the main stage. The second, in fact, DOES use “surround sound”, as orchestrated by Leonard Bernstein in the opening scenes of Mass. Check out these links and my explanations below.
The performing of some pieces, regarding their orchestration, becomes quite daunting when the composer does not write down in the score which instruments are playing which parts! Bach was famous for doing this. And why did he NEED to write down whether a violin or an oboe or a flute was playing a particular part in the score??? HE KNEW!!! He wrote the music the week before for this Sunday’s church service and he knew who was coming to play the part! AND, he never (ever!) thought that anyone other than himself would be conducting this music. He did not write it for posterity; he wrote it for himself and his church and his musicians.
There have been great orchestrators! I mentioned Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937) as one of the greatest! Listen to ANY orchestral work by him and your ears will be in for a treat! Richard Strauss (not the waltz king) (1864-1949) is another master. He composed Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Also sprach Zarathustra (you would recognize the very opening of this piece – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Szdziw4tI9o ), and Don Quixote, to name a few. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908), a very famous Russian composer is one of the all-time best orchestrators – listen to his Scheherazade! I will add only one more (as this list could go on and on): Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) – listen to his Symphonie Fantastique! These last two were so great that they each wrote an “Orchestration” textbook (which are used, still today, in classrooms around the world!
Composers who struggled with orchestration
And then… there are those composers who struggled with orchestration. Actually, George Gershwin was not very good. He enlisted Ferde Grofe to orchestrate Rhapsody in Blue (see the blog – https://blog.classicalarchives.com/2015/03/18/did-george-gershwin-orchestrate-his-own-compositions-and-should-we-care/ ). (It is wise to know our strengths and our limitations!)
I must, here, call out our beloved Beethoven. I am a BIG fan! But, he was no orchestrator. His works are routinely re-orchestrated (corrected) by conductors to such a degree that books have been written, documenting the many ways to “fix” his bad orchestrations (I own some). If you ever see his 9th symphony (the “Choral” symphony) performed, you will note that conductors routinely hire an entire second set of woodwinds – that is, not what is called for in the score, namely 2 flutes, 2 oboes, etc. but FOUR flutes, and FOUR oboes, etc. This is to compensate for the poor writing for woodwinds by Beethoven. They are sorely outnumbered in sound and need the reinforcements to have their parts heard!
And an interesting story of a “master orchestrator” (a story that actually caught me by complete surprise!) is of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). When asked “Who is the greatest orchestrator in your opinion?” (note, that Brahms, himself, is a master orchestrator!), he replied “Johann Strauss” (YES – the waltz king)! Brahms said “Unlike all other composers, whose notes are often unable to be heard due to poor orchestration, Johann Strauss’ notes sound clearly from every single instrument!” That is SOME compliment.
I will conclude (even though I wish to continue) with a very “new” way of orchestrating – digitally! When the timbral palette of the symphony orchestra seems not colorful enough for a creative orchestrator, why not simply make up the sounds and colors you want – DIGITALLY!
And a Japanese composer did just that!!! His name is Isao Tomita, known simply as “Tomita” (1932-2016). Before most people knew about electronic oscillators, he was creating sound from scratch – with electricity. He designed sounds that acoustic instruments could not make. In some cases, he mimicked acoustic sound (of strings, of voices…) but often took our ears to unknown places.
This is in a time “PRE-SYNTHESIZER”. Synthesizers were not yet even made. He was making the sounds soon to be found in commercially-available synthesizers and using them to re-orchestrate existing music. You may still find recordings of his music (he did not compose it, but he DID creatively orchestrate it)! And more than creating new colors, he used new recording techniques – like bouncing sound in our head (when listening through headphones) left to right and back again, or from the back to the front, and so on. PLEASE, listen to the links below and ENJOY the sound of Tomita!!!
With that, I will conclude these introductory comments on orchestration. I hope you have enjoyed exploring the world of timbre – of color!
- Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue – opening clarinet (glissando)
- Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring – opening bassoon (extreme register). Lest you be deceived into thinking this first note is easy to play, it is not. And as if that first note is not high enough for Stravinsky, a moment later, the bassoon reaches even one note higher!
- Weber’s Concertino in e minor for French Horn (multiphonics). I have three links for you. The first is this concerto in full. The actual moment when the soloist performs multiphonics is located between the time track of 11:40 and 12:18. As a side note, this particular link is extremely special in that the performer plays the concerto on a “natural” horn – that is, with no valves for his fingers. This requires the player to “locate” every note simply with super-sensitivity of his lips (embrochure)!!! This is extremely difficult to do!
This second link is an explanation and demonstration of the process of multiphonics
And the third link is yet another example, this time in a fun musical piece!
- Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. (offstage sound) This is the link of how the offstage brass fanfares might sound. See the opening at 1:38-1:48 and at 2:33 and at 3:07 (you will not see the backstage brass, but here them).
This link shows the actual brass fanfares for the Mahler Symphony being conducted and played backstage (from a different performance).
Bernstein’s Mass. (offstage sound) This link begins with a narrator’s explanation of the work. The piece begins at 3:20 with the pre-recorded “surround sound” section. Four soloists enter (via tape recorder through speakers placed at four corners of the hall), each in turn, and layering on top of one another in a confusing and painful experience for the audience. They sing “Kyrie Eleison” (Greek for “Lord, have mercy”), painting a confusing sonoral image of our sinfulness coming, from all four corners of the world. This is suddenly interrupted by the “Priest” with a single simple chord on the guitar, leading into the most beautiful song “Simple Song” (a stark contrast from the complexity of the previous opening coming from all corners of the concert hall).
starts at 3:20 – 5:25
- The Music of Tomita! (you should really purchase this and hear it with headphones!)
Debussy – Arabesque No. 1 (you may recognize this VERY recording as the theme song used on PBS “Star Gazer / Star Hustler” show at 11:50p with astronomer Jack Horkheimer).
Debussy – Clair de Lune
Moussorgsky – Pictures at an Exhibition. And to come full circle, let’s end with this piece mentioned at length last month and here presented through the timbral imagination of Tomita!
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