The Art of Orchestration
February 3, 2014 by Christine Gengaro, Ph.D.
We’ve been talking about the symphony for the last couple of weeks, and one of the aspects we saw change over time was the size of the orchestra. In general, the orchestra grew steadily from a small group of string instruments in the nascent Classical period to a monstrous behemoth in the late Romantic period, consisting of members of all four musical instrument families. Woodwinds added color, brass added power, and percussion—with its diverse collection of instruments—brought a little bit of everything.
Composers weren’t required to use all of the instruments all the time, of course. They simply had more choices, and they could pick and choose what tone colors they wanted to include in their symphonies. Some chose smaller groups; chamber orchestras became quite common in the twentieth century, while some composers came from the “more is better” school, throwing everything in their compositions but the kitchen sink.
Using all of these instruments properly, and in ways that are both appropriate and expressive, requires skill. It was only in the nineteenth century that people began to appreciate the orchestration or instrumentation of a piece. By then, a composer had different tone color choices—which allowed for new and interesting combinations. Think of it as a painter mixing together two or more commonly used colors to get a new shade of pink or orange or green. The nineteenth century composer had a great range of notes available to him or her, with the piccolo and flute at the top and the tubas and contrabassoons at the bottom.
Along with great composers, there began to emerge great orchestrators, and with them, books about how best to use all of these instruments. One of the earliest books about orchestration was written in 1844 by French composer, Hector Berlioz. Berlioz is, of course, best known for his Symphonie Fantastique, a five-movement programmatic symphony that drew upon Beethoven’s Pastoral as a model. Berlioz devised the narrative for the symphony, named each movement, and gave out the description to the audiences at concerts. Symphonie Fantastique, which was composed in 1830, is also a great study of orchestration or instrumentation.
When I was a graduate student, I made extra money tutoring other graduate students as they prepared for their comprehensive exams and their qualifying exams. One of the skills we all had to develop was the ability to look at a musical score—which had had all of its identifying information removed—and correctly determine the general time period in which it had been composed and the genre of the piece; we were also required to present evidence for our assumptions. I played this little game with my fellow students a couple of times a week for years, and I developed some tricky favorites. One of them was Symphonie Fantastique. It was composed around 1830, just three years after the death of Beethoven, just two years after Schubert, yet students would see the complex orchestration, the extended techniques on the instruments (using traditional instruments in non-traditional ways), and the sheer size of the orchestra and guess fifty to a hundred years later than the actual composition date.
Berlioz wrote his Grand traité d’instrumentation et orchestration modernes in 1844. In the introduction he wrote:
“In no period of music history has Instrumentation been discussed so much as at present. This was probably due to the swift development of this branch of art in recent times.…Nowadays a great deal of attention is paid to the art of instrumentation, which was still unknown at the beginning of the 18th century.”
He goes on to explain that the new science of instrumentation developed in parallel with other musical ideas like dissonance and modulation, and asserts that instrumentation, expression, and rhythm are in their infancy compared to other aspects of music.
The book is structured in a very useful and straightforward way. For each individual instrument, Berlioz presents a general description of the instrument including its range, its tuning (if appropriate), and other technical details. Berlioz also lists some of the instrument’s strengths and weaknesses and then includes musical examples of that instrument in context. It is an incredibly thorough text and includes a compendium of the information available at the time.
But time marches on, of course, and in just fifty years, Berlioz’s text was in need of some updating. The task fell to another master orchestrator, Richard Strauss. At the turn of the twentieth century, Strauss, an acolyte of Richard Wagner, was showing off his impressive skills in tone poems like Don Juan, Also Sprach Zarathustra, and Don Quixote. He was also hard at work on the controversial opera, Salome, which would become Strauss’ succès de scandale in 1905.
Strauss’ revision of Berlioz’s treatise leaves the words of the original author intact. Strauss merely adds commentary, which is set off by a wavy line in the margin. Strauss’ commentary serves several purposes. In some cases, Strauss simply agrees with Berlioz’s original text; sometimes he disagrees. Occasionally Strauss reports on how compositional or instrumental conventions have changed. There are a few new sections dedicated to introducing recently-invented instruments and some including innovations made to existing instruments (the third pedal on the Modern Steinway Grand, for example). Technical advances in the French horn rendered Berlioz’s writing obsolete, but it remains part of the book for, as Strauss describes it, “historical value.”
Although technical advances and performance practices had changed, and made the revision a necessary update, Strauss also reveals another reason. In his introduction, Strauss explains that there are two strands of development in music: symphonic and dramatic. The symphonic strand began with the string quartets and symphonies of Mozart and Haydn. The dramatic strand originated in the operas of Gluck and Handel. To Strauss, only one composer succeeded in weaving these two strands together: Richard Wagner. Berlioz may have wanted to be the first to synthesize these two aspects of music, but Strauss—displaying what musicologist Edward Lockspeiser described as a “playful malice”—explains that Berlioz fell short. “One might say in short that he was not dramatic enough for the stage, and not symphonic enough for the concert hall." Strauss makes it clear that although he respects Berlioz, he found something missing in the treatise, namely the work of Wagner (and, some might argue, his own compositions as well). Among his additions, Strauss included eleven musical examples from Wagner’s Die Walküre, thirteen from Die Meistersinger, and seventeen alone from Tristan und Isolde!
But the style of orchestration favored by Wagner and Strauss couldn’t last forever, and this text too lost some of its pertinence. It still has useful tips for those writing for an orchestra, although some of the technical details might be different. The twentieth century had its own master orchestrators and new texts emerged. Notable among them are Rimsky-Korsakov’s Principles of Orchestration (1912), Kent Kennan’s The Technique of Orchestration (1952), and Samuel Adler’s The Study of Orchestration (1982, revised 1989 and 2002). These are still the standard, as people continue to learn the art of orchestration, an art that was taken for granted for decades before Berlioz—forward-looking and innovative—put pen to paper.
Some of the sections in Berlioz’s book may not be of practical use anymore, but he does say something in his introduction that is still quite true, and it’s something that has stuck with me ever since I first encountered this text more than twenty years ago:
“Much time is needed to find the oceans of music; still more, to learn how to navigate in them.”