Orchestration: Introduction

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Orchestraheader.png A YC Tutorial
Justin P. Tokke
This page is a part of the Orchestration Masterclass. For other related articles, see Category:Orchestration masterclass


In Western classical music large ensemble writing has been an essential element to the repertoire. Some of the most significant, and famous, classical music works are orchestral or orchestra-related: just take Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 or Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik or Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture as examples. Not surprisingly, the orchestra has become a very popular ensemble to compose for because it offers so many possibilities for the composer to express himself or herself. However, it is a monumental task for the composers because of its complexity and hundreds of variables that don’t exist in, say, a string quartet. It can sometimes be difficult to write for such large ensembles but it is ultimately rewarding upon hearing the final product because the orchestra provides a sound unachievable in any other medium. Alongside the orchestra, of course, is the band which has enjoyed its own historical (albeit shorter) significance.

When discussing these large ensembles, one not only has to write the notes and dynamics and articulations or what have you that must be written, but the composer must also decide who will play said notes and what instruments will play them. This may seem a little trivial in a solo piano work or small chamber work, but when you have almost 100 instruments at your disposal, it becomes a daunting task to assign everyone something to play. Luckily, composers have learned from past successes (and mistakes) and have generally come to a consensus of what “good orchestration” is. When not talking objectively, it is this consensus we will be discussing.

What is the Orchestra?

During the Renaissance of the 14th and 15th centuries, church instrumentalists began to play in secular contexts outside the church for the common folk. These instruments also migrated into the rich courts of the nobles who wished for entertainment. Instruments were developed and small groups began to play new music in the streets and castles. Over the course of several hundred years, the orchestra developed into a solid group of instrumentalists consisting of the strings we have today (more or less), an occasional oboe or horn, and a “basso continuo” part usually containing a harpsichord or organ playing chords with a bass instrument such as a bass viol or violone. This evolution continued up through to what became the Baroque Period (1600s –1750s) orchestra made famous by Vivaldi, Telemann, Handel, and Bach.

Soon after, the Classical Period (1750s – 1820s) took hold of Europe and further changed the orchestra. The five groups of the string section as we know them today were standardized and several woodwind instruments (such as the clarinet) were perfected. By the end of Haydn and Mozart’s life and the beginning of Beethoven's endeavors as an orchestral composer, the orchestra was standardized to have a pair of each flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, and trumpet, and timpani, along with the five-group string section. The brass instruments were, at this point, "natural brass" without valves and were restricted to notes within the harmonic series. This led to composers working around their limitations and the encouragement of developing more complex instruments. Composers such as Berlioz would use several pairs of horns in several keys, for example, to allow more notes for him to use in the horns.

Beethoven ushered in the Romantic Period (1820s – 1900s) also introducing trombones, extra woodwinds such as piccolo and contrabassoon, percussion, and vocal soloists and chorus in his famous Symphony No. 5 and Symphony No. 9. This expansion of the orchestra allowed a greater palette of colors and sounds for composers to use. Berlioz would take full advantage of these new colors writing revolutionary new orchestration techniques in his Symphonie Fantastique and calling for orchestras in excess of 300 players for works such as his Grande Messe de Morts and Funeral and Triumph Symphony (one of the very first large-scale pieces for a true wind band); truly a romantic blazing the trails and far ahead of his time. It is a shame he didn't live only a few years longer to take advantage of the fully chromatic brass which were often a limitation in his orchestration.

The Romantic Period solidified the orchestra as a primary means of artistic expression of a lot of composers while chamber music and solo piano works were another. Indeed, the majority of the output of Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Wagner,Mahler, and Strauss were orchestral works even though they tended to write in both camps of large and small ensemble works. Brahms, and later Tchaikovsky, developed the symphony form into a complex orchestral endeavor. Dvorak arranged Brahms’s Hungarian Dances for orchestra, a significant example of arranging or literally orchestrating something that came before. Russians such as Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov were also active in the orchestral repertoire giving such works as Night on Bald Mountain and Scherazade, both with their own unique contributions to the repertoire. Meanwhile great opera composers took advantage of the power of the orchestra in the opera house with masterworks such as Carmen (Bizet) and Othello and Aida (Verdi).

During this time, the brasses were also improved to be fully chromatic. This revolutionized the way that the brass were used and allowed the orchestra to explode in size. The biggest thrust of this expansion was with Wagner who called for over 100 players in his orchestras for his operas. He even invented instruments for his works (such as the Wagner Tuba) and used colors unheard of in music thus far. Strauss, Mahler, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg continued this expansion of the orchestra calling for massive groups in excess of 150 players: Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 was nicknamed “Symphony of a Thousand” while Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring requires quintuple woodwinds, eight horns, five trumpets, four trombones, two tubas, ten timpani, and much percussion. Schoenberg's massive Gurre-Lieder calls for one of the largest orchestras ever consisting of 50 wind players, another 70-80 strings, three choirs, vocal soloists, and a myriad of percussion. Even still, this was outdone by Haveigal Brian's Gothic Symphony which calls for an orchestra in excess of almost 200 players on stage along with four brass bands and four choirs placed at opposite ends of the stage, somewhat of an inspired leap from Berlioz's Grande Messe.

One should note, however, that this expansion was not restricted to musical aesthetics. By the time Schoenberg had written his Five Pieces for Orchestra (1909) common practice tonality was clearly on a track to becoming a thing of the past. Meanwhile Strauss still wrote very tonal works at the same time, so one should not link size with aesthetics. Stravinsky too left tonality (albeit later) while Brian and Mahler (generally) kept within the confines of tonality (though those confines are hard to define because of the rapid change of the era).

As an antithesis to these large orchestras were also smaller orchestras being called on by French composers such as Debussy who preferred a smaller and more transparent sound in his Prelude on the Afternoon of a Faun and Nocturnes: the use of instruments in ways never seen before like brasses playing as if they were a woodwind choir or new percussion instruments being invented for new sounds. Ravel attempted to bridge the gap with his masterpieces Daphnis et Chloe and Bolero which call for large orchestras but use them sparingly and judiciously to create sounds never heard before to audiences. New sounds such as the saxophone and extended techniques were also being brought into the concert hall. Jazz music, new and popular by the 1920s, influenced composers such as Gershwin (Rhapsody in Blue) and Bernstein (West Side Story, On the Town) and brought further new sounds including the saxophone, the trap set, and new mutes for the brasses (wa-wa and cup etc.).

The expansion of the orchestra in size couldn't happen forever and indeed it slowed down in the 1910s to 1930s until the size of orchestras began to decline. Composers in the 1920s through 40s were changing aesthetic styles to "modernism" and were rebelling against the large establishment of the orchestra. Historical events such as the two Word Wars and the Third Reich's conquest of Europe put great strain on Europe's artists and fundamentally altered their perception of the world and everything in it. It was during this time that the orchestra as an ensemble began to decline. There are many theories as to why this happened and we'll mention just a few briefly:

By 1914, World War I had broken out in Europe and warfare was on a scale never before seen in human history. The Great War put tremendous strain on Germany and France, the main musical centers of the world at the time, and caused much political unrest that forced musicians to flee Europe. World War II only worsened this impact and famous orchestras like the Vienna Philharmonic and Berlin Philharmonic lost many musicians to the war. Many fled to Britain and America as refugees to escape the bullets and cannons tearing down Europe's cities one by one. Political stresses such as the Iron Curtain of the Soviet Union also hindered composers such as Prokofiev and Shostakovich until they fled to Western Europe and America. The wars also contributed to a bad economic climate that orchestras could not survive in. With cash in short supply and few players to play the musicianship suffered leading to downsizing of the massive several-hundred-player orchestras of decades prior.

A second theory on the orchestra’s decline was the beginning of the modernism period itself, or rather, the end of the larger common practice period. The impetus behind the end of romantic music was the progression of tonality beyond its own bounds. This progression, which spanned at least a hundred years, had seen a steady development into more and more chromatic music until the key itself was unstable and hard to define (such as in Wagner’s Tristan and Isodole (1859) but seen as far back as Liszt's works in the 1830s). This progression continued with the late romantics culminating in the full "emancipation of the dissonance" where composers such as Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, Varèse, and Ligeti composed in an atonal style while still using large orchestras.

The problem with the loss of tonality was that music became less accessible to the average listener and people could not understand this new sound; indeed, Schoenberg and his contemporaries, Webern and Berg, were years ahead of their time, or at least the ears of the audience. Atonality, while perfectly possible to execute in a large orchestral context (see Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra or Varèse's Amériques), was difficult to understand by the mass audience which lead to declining ticket sales.

A third theory which is related to the second is that with the rejection of romanticism by composers in the 1920s also carried with it the rejection of the massive orchestras of the romantic period. This is perfectly logical since chamber music began to flourish in the modern period. While chamber music had always been a driving force (indeed, the antithesis to the orchestra as an intimate ensemble), it gained much momentum from composers such as Bartók (all his String Quartets), Schoenberg (Pierrot Lunaire), Berg (Lyric Suite), Messiean (Quartet for the End of Time), and Shostakovich (String Quartets among others).

Orchestration was also changed by this push for chamber music to a much "thinner" and more "chamber-like" sound. Mahler, Debussy, Ravel, among others, all used the orchestra but sparingly. Eventually the excess players were removed for economical reasons, because of the wars, or for artistic reasons, because of modernism. The old German romantic orchestra essentially died out with the wars and brought about new life to a smaller but more focused orchestra.

Cecil Forsyth in his text Orchestration also gives an interesting theory for the lack of expansion of the orchestra: the unions. Ever since the unionization of the orchestras, "excess" players have been discarded for economics and players will often be paid very specifically for hourly wages. The unions also set very specific instrumentations for orchestras prohibiting the further expansion of the orchestra (this includes the introduction of new instruments such as saxophones and electronic instruments). Whether this is a true effector just a correlation is unknown and likely subject to debate depending on if one benefits from the unions or not.

Meanwhile, in America, the orchestra was flourishing as the center of the social life of the upper class. By as early (or some would argue as late) as the 1880s, the orchestra had taken America by storm and they began popping up all over the country in every major city. Since the World Wars didn't reach America's shores directly, the fallout of economics never really hit American orchestras like it did in Europe. However, the modernism did, to an extent. While atonality was certainly present in new American music, it was a different sort of sound than European orchestral music.

Major works by Americans such as Copland's Symphony No. 3, or Appalachian Spring, or Bernstein's West Side Story or Symphony No. 2 "The Age of Anxiety", or Ives's The Unanswered Question, were all produced for orchestras but for slightly smaller ones than their romantic counterparts. This smaller orchestra became the standard we have today with generally triple woodwinds, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, timpani, three percussionists (though percussion tends to widely vary because it is still expanding today), harp, piano/celesta, and strings. This tallies up to about 80 to 90 players.

Today, in the 21st Century, the orchestra is still a popular medium for a majority of composers who are further morphing it and changing it with new introductions of styles and new instruments such as tape and synthesizers. Major orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic, London Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony, Boston Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, among others, are attempting to gain new audiences through education and new music. Orchestras are also recording music allowing classical music to reach the populace more efficiently that it ever has. The orchestra, through my own observation, is very much alive and growing today.

What is the Concert Band?

The concert band is the alternative large ensemble. It is derived from the military bands of the old empires in Germany and Turkey and consists (generally) of only wind and percussion instruments. These bands played military calls outdoors and occasionally provided music for festivals when the soldiers would come home victorious. Strings were not included simply because they were not powerful enough to produce the necessary sound for outdoor use. As the band instruments developed beyond their old counterparts (such as natural brass developed into valved brass), it moved beyond strictly military use to entertainment. The "band" became very popular in Britain and America where it entertained the masses outdoors in huge summer concerts. Famous bandmasters such as W.C. Handy, Karl King, Patrick Gilmore, Kenneth Alford, and John Philip Sousa put on massive concerts for presidents and monarchs along with huge crowds of people. However, this purpose soon fell out of favor to various reasons that are out of the scope of this introduction.

The band didn't end there though as it conveniently moved indoors. Schools picked up the concept of the "marching band" and moved it indoors, much like Sousa had started to do but could only start the process. Colleges and high schools began to adopt the concert band, literally a band for the concert hall. Much of the early band music wasn't actually composed for band but were orchestral transcriptions for band. It took several decades for the ensemble to gain wide usage by composers however certain individuals recognized the band's potential early on such as Holst (Suites for Band), and Stravinsky (Symphony for Winds). The band thus settled almost as a pedagogical tool to teach students wind instruments and ensemble playing easily. The concert band was, and still is most prevalent in America and Britain though concert bands do exist all around the world with less frequency.

The key difference in the concert band and the orchestra, aside from the lack of strings, is that instruments are doubled in the band. In the orchestra, there is one wind player per part while in the band several players may play apart. To complicate matters, bands vary in size and doubling practices, so there is no sure formula to how many of each instrument may be on a part. The wind ensemble, a derivative of the concert band, is an attempt to bridge this gap by allowing a set number of each instrument, but has done little to change this doubling peculiarity on the whole. Thus, orchestration for band has far more guesswork and inference than the orchestra. However, sounds that are unique to the band (such as the large clarinet, brass, and especially large percussion sections) are great advantages to the composer for writing for the ensemble. Also, since bands have become such a pedagogical staple, especially in American high schools and colleges there are plenty of bands of all skill levels available to play new music. Over the past decade or so a flood of new music has been written for this extraordinary ensemble with many great composers such as John Corigliano, Frank Tichelli, Ron Nelson, Philip Sparke, and Michael Daugherty writing for the concert band.

Why is Orchestration Important?

Writing for orchestra is not that much unlike writing for other ensembles. The composer must decide which notes that the musicians should play, which sounds to produce, at what time, in what register, in what articulation etc. What orchestral music adds to the mix is orchestration. Simply put, orchestration is the technique of writing for orchestra or band.

To be more specific (and less arbitrary), let’s say you have “some music” that you want to write for orchestra or band. Orchestration allows you to take that raw music, sometimes a fragment or even an entire piece, and effectively score it for the orchestra or band using its massive array of colors and sounds in the best way possible. So it is an essential technique to learn when writing for any group larger than, say, a string quartet. Whenever multiple instruments are in a single ensemble orchestration will come into play, even if it is not an actual orchestra. Perhaps it’s a percussion ensemble or clarinet choir; orchestration techniques still apply.

Orchestration’s subtopic of knowledge is instrumentation which is knowing and understanding the capabilities and limitations of each instrument. Naturally this would help in any musical setting. Even if your intentionis to not write orchestra or band music you can still gain a great deal from orchestration. This knowledge is essential to anyone writing for any instrument.

When writing for larger ensembles, orchestration will come in handy when dealing with complex issues such as “will this horn line be audible under this percussion and tuba accompaniment?” Or “If I double this melody in seven octaves will this piccolo part be heard around it?” While these examples may seem a tad bit obscure and ambiguous right now, orchestration will help us "decode", if you will, the strange world of the orchestra and band.

What this Course Will Discuss

This course will discuss orchestration, from the most basic to the finer details. We will focus on three very broad categories: Instrumentation, or the study of instruments and how to use them individually; Orchestration, or the study of how to use those instruments together; and Notation, the art of transferring the composer's intentions to the paper. Thus, a very simplified outline for the course:

  • Instrumentation
    • Explanation of each individual instrument
    • Specific examples of what each instrument is capable of and in context of the orchestra and the band
    • Advanced techniques and unusual uses of the instrument etc.
  • Orchestration
    • Planes of sound
    • Doublings
    • Orchestrating Dynamics
    • Orchestrating around a soloist
    • Orchestrating with voices
    • Orchestral reductions/explosions
    • Special Cases
  • Notation
    • Clear, Clean, Correct
    • Score and Parts Preparation

Exercises for each major topic will be assigned and you may to them at will. They will be assessed by me (Tokkemon) and the other teachers if appropriate. While the knowledge alone is essential, doing the exercises will internalize the knowledge and make using instruments in the correct way second nature. You should get to the point where you don’t have to think about whether a certain passage will be audible or what a certain doubled melody will sound like. Just like Music Theory, orchestration must be solid without being guesswork. By the end of this course, you should have a solid foundation in orchestration and be able to expand your knowledge further with score study and actually doing! Actually composing and orchestrating isthe best way to further your orchestration skills beyond basic study.

I wish you good luck as we continue on this course together and maybe we’ll all learn something together!

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