53. Kitchen Sink Orchestration, Part 2


This post’s examples include works by Bizet and Mahler.

My previous post, the first part of a series of posts entitled “Kitchen Sink Orchestration,” began with a focus on orchestral examples in which the composer uses more than one section of the orchestra in the passage to noteworthy effect. Clearly, this is a less than completely successful attempt at humor: Most passages do use more than one section of the orchestra — and they almost never actually use a kitchen sink! My intention in these Kitchen Sink posts is to examine places where a fair amount of resources are employed or where a unique sound is achieved by combining several sources.

Getting an orchestra to make a big sound is not hard to do. As with most projects, the devil is in the details. Naturally, one detail is to write one or more melodies or rhythms that have interest and work into the conceptual essence of the piece. If you’re a composer who orchestrates as he or she writes, you are probably one step ahead of the game. However, if you hear generic lines without specific instrumentation, after you’ve created the appropriate music, it’s a good time review your orchestral palette. Are there lines that cry out to be scored for one instrument or one section? How would they be played? Is the range going to work well for the intended  instrument(s) and voicing?

As I stated, scoring for a lot of instruments is not difficult to do. What is difficult, though, is to get the sound you’re hearing in your head, the lines you’ve scribbled onto music paper or the chord changes you’ve laid down in Sibelius, Finale or GarageBand to match that which the orchestra makes when performing your composition.

In my previous post, I ended with a terse introduction to a short passage in the fourth movement of Mahler’s first symphony and we will examine it in more depth in this post. Before moving to the Mahler, though, we’ll listen to and deconstruct a more Gallic style of orchestration, specifically, that of Georges Bizet.

The Girl from Arles and the Saxophone

The musician and instrument designer Adolph Sax invented the saxophone in the 1840s. The inventor’s design for this new family of instruments initially consisted of two series: one, for orchestra, pitched in C and F and the other, for military band, pitched in E-flat and B-flat. Although the “orchestral” family never quite caught on, the military family did get some traction in orchestra music. However, it did not become a standard orchestral instrument in the way of its cousins — the flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon.

Constructed of brass but with a single reed and a mouthpiece similar in function to that of a clarinet, the sax has a woodwind sound, but with a metallic bite. As such, it has tended to be used by orchestra composers for “effect” when not featured as the solo instrument in a passage or even as the solo instrument in a concerto. The French have probably employed it in the orchestra more than any other compositional group. Nevertheless, among the orchestral composers who have written for the instrument are: Jacques Ibert, Darius Milhaud, Paul Hindemith, Claude Debussy, Alexander Glazunov, Vincent D’Indy, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Sergei Prokofiev, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Dmitri Shostakovich, Benjamin Britten and George Gershwin.

Georges Bizet included the saxophone in his incidental music to L’Arlésienne, a play by Alphonse Daudet from 1872. Although the play was not a huge success, Bizet fashioned some of the themes into a suite first performed later that year. A few years later – but unfortunately after the composer’s death – more of the music was published in a second suite.

Example 53.1 is a melody from the first movement of the second suite, entitled “Pastorale.” Bizet presents a melody in the flutes, oboes and strings. Before the melody begins at measure 113, the composer provides a light and quite beautiful few measures as an introduction. (Note that the original score is for two horns in A and two horns in E, but this score has been transcribed to the more standard horns in F.)

Example 53.1 Georges Bizet: L’Arlésienne, Suite No. 2, 1. “Pastorale” (107 – 123)
Thomas Beecham, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, EMI

The introductory passage begins with divided upper strings playing a soft, high (one-line through three-line) F-sharp major chord. The open and transparent pianissimo sound is enhanced by the pizzicato from the lower strings, giving way to a chord shift in the third measure when the sustained chord is played by a flute and two oboes, which accompany an ascending arpeggio in the harp. When the strings reenter in measure 111, the pizzicato in the low strings punctuates their entrance.

Note that the only actual “build-up” to the entrance of the whole orchestra in measure 113 is a solo horn marked quite simply with a crescendo. Some may view this as simple – and possibly simplistic – but in the piece’s straightforward approach to orchestration it works effectively.

For those unfamiliar with the timbre of the horn, this recording particularly provides an idea of how brassy the instrument can sound when played loudly or during a crescendo.

Though the range of the melody falls comfortably in just over an octave, it’s played in two octaves by the oboes, violins, violas and cellos. The two flutes are added to the melody – by themselves – an octave above the rest. The sound of the strings is rich, yet the reedy but metallic timbre of the flutes adds a bit of tartness to the melody’s rising and falling lines – especially when the flutes move up to their highest register.

The sound of the saxophone is somewhat apparent with its octave leaps on beats two and three in measures 113 – 115 and 117 – 119. Clearly, you can hear the horns on this figure too, but it is the sax that makes the tonal difference in the passage. And, quite simply: It’s just a one-octave leap on the same note (concert A) each time it’s played. While it may be a small bit of orchestrational handiwork, it is part of what makes the work’s sound unique.

When we get to the latter part of the example, the circle of fifths is used under the eighth-and-two-sixteenths pattern in the oboe and upper strings. Note how carefully the parts are notated to leave space between each of the accompaniment chords. This provides the wind instrument equivalent to downbow indications for strings.

Holding this passage up as an example of a paradigm of orchestration might be a challenge. Yet, there are useful tidbits from which to learn. First, the flute singing the melody at the octave above the oboe and strings adds a relatively rare touch to the tune. More frequently, a composer will double the first violins with the flute. This example provides an option to that more common usage. Second, the sound of the saxophone playing the same octaves on beats two and three of these measures also adds to the infrequently heard sound of this instrument in the orchestra. Lastly, the melody includes some dissonances to the tonic A major chord, so the composer wisely chooses the keep the sound open in the accompaniment chords in the bassoons, basses and brass.

Generally, this kind of homorhythmic chordal pattern would be exploited with a few strong instruments on the third of the chord. Yet, here Bizet keeps the half note chords as simple, open fifths. Hence, it’s the lack of this essential note in the chords that enhances its relatively rare and refreshing sound.

Variations by Mahler

The melody first examined last time begins on the final eighth note of measure 296 in Example 53.2 and extends for roughly eight bars. The first thing you notice about the sound is the sustained Gs throughout, leading to the Cs in measure 302. Also, you hear the C and G combination in the melody and in the harmony, in the secondary voices and in the string figures. To add to the C – G mix, the timpani has a couple bars of the two notes in triplets.

Example 53.2 Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 1, (“Titan”) Movement 4 (294 – 311)
James Judd, Florida Philharmonic Orchestra, Harmonia Mundi

The economy of instrumentation is what makes the passage a surprise. And, although it’s something Mahler does frequently, it is not something for which the composer is often remembered.

Another feature of the passage is the bit of melody that begins with the open trumpet and trombone with its short two measure phrases of descending half notes. After the earlier melody and the quick upper string passages (all reasonably focused on the C and the G), the composer presents the open sounds of high tremolo violins and the low, pedal tones in the timpani and low strings. In a very simple way this is the kind of purity of sound that makes art out of run-of-the-mill orchestration.

But, after some interesting development just a minute or so later, Mahler gives us the same line in the trumpets and trombones. This time, though, there’s a new set of additions in the orchestration and it’s moved from piano to fortissimo. Listen to Example 53.3 and hear the new orchestration to the first brass melody.

Example 53.3 Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 1, (“Titan”) Movement 4 (369 – 386)
Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic Orchestra, CBS

Unlike Example 53.2, the build-up to the melody is big with trills in the upper voices and marcato Gs in most of the remainder of the orchestra. Just as in the earlier statement, Mahler leaves scoring room for the trumpets and trombones to introduce the tune. This time, though, the woodwinds and strings play rapid, descending sixteenth notes scales, each alternately beginning on a G and a C. The composer makes sure that these are played by all those concerned, with some hand-offs in the oboes and clarinets as the range shifts in the out-of-comfort-zone (or impossible to play) areas.

Remember how the C chord, sustained for two plus measures, has the light violin figures in Example 53.2. Now, in Example 53.3, hear the rich sound of seven horns playing the triplet fanfare over it. In fact, although there is a great deal of activity in this part of this example, there is not that much happening: There are the trumpet and trombone whole notes, the descending scales, a horn section fanfare and some percussion rolls. Mahler manages to make this energetic passage from just a few morsels of thematic material. It’s quite brilliant writing to make just a few ideas sound this active.

What comes next lifts the piece onto a new plateau. When the trumpets return in measure 373 they are joined by oboes. The trumpets’ partners, the trombones, also are joined by the clarinets, bassoons, horns, tuba and lower strings. And filling out this last measure before a tonal shift are the tremolos by the upper strings.

I can still remember the first time I heard this piece and especially this passage, the tonal shift at measure 375 was a complete surprise. I was not expecting the deceptive change to D major (even though the piece ends in that key). To emphasize the key change, the root of the chord is hit and sustained by the bassoons, a trombone, a tuba and low strings. And the third of the chord is hit and sustained by a clarinet, three horns and a trumpet. There is no way Mahler is going to let you miss this shift in the tonal center.

As a side note: the score I used to typeset this example is marked with a Luftpause at the double bar. Maestro Bernstein was known, among his many extraordinary talents, for bringing Mahler’s music back to core orchestra repertoire. His dramatic use of this pause here is a stunning example of his genius. Its duration simply “feels right.”

The composer throws in some other devices that enhance the effect. In the percussion there’s a cymbal crash on one, and bass drum roll beginning on two and a triangle roll (tremolo) beginning on four. All the woodwinds except bassoons have the triplet figure presented earlier, up quite high and marked triple forte. Nevertheless, it’s all those horns – accented with timpani – that you hear almost more than the upper string lines in measures 376 and 377.

One of the parts of this work’s orchestration that seems to have been co-opted by many film composers, especially for epic films, is the next, transitional passage. Hear the dramatic effect in the way the upper winds hit their Ds in measure 378 at a fortissimo and immediately move to a piano. The violins do the same with their As. Then, to accompany the one trumpet and one trombone, the timpani and lower strings have the eighth note preceded by two sixteenth notes, providing a martial feel to the simple line.

It may seem oddly familiar, perhaps reminiscent of a march from a familiar science fiction film, but this should not be too surprising. So much of the orchestration techniques of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries provide a wealth of learning material. And this stirring passage could be viewed as simply the original or the authority upon which many of those that came after reworked for their needs.

Saving the Slightly Better for Last

By the time the work arrives at the large climax in Example 53.3, if the audience were in a concert hall, it would have been listening to this symphony for well over 45 minutes. The composer has taken the audience on a journey and most of them know it’s coming to an end. The cadence to the D major chord in Example 53.3 represents a slight detour from the previous tonal center. It is a great and surprising deception.

Regardless, the composer still needs to get the listener to the ending. In order to do so, he must make the climax and its orchestration “more final” than the previous one in Example 53.3. And the ears of the audience want to hear the shifting tonal centers move finally to secure ground. Now is not the time to toss in anything new. A new sound or timbre this late in the work could be jarring and play with audience’s sense of placement in time.

What to do?

First, let’s take a brief look at the two different tonal centers. In Example 53.3 the tonal center just prior to the shift, when the trumpets and trombones have their, if you’ll pardon the term, “riff” is C major, over a pedal G (in some circles known as C 6/4). In Example 53.4, it’s moved up a whole step to D major (the symphony’s ending key) over A. It’s a reasonable way to have the theme return to D major this final time. And the composer brings out the sweeping woodwinds and strings over the polyrhythmic brass and timpani.

Example 53.4 Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 1, (“Titan”) Movement 4 (630 – 649)
James Judd, Florida Philharmonic Orchestra, Harmonia Mundi

Focusing here on the orchestration, the two passages are similar in many key areas. The woodwinds and strings have two measures of descending sixteenth note runs, but it’s interesting to note how Mahler includes the previously tacet violas in the ensuing arpeggio measure. Naturally, the violas add a bit of richness to the busy string work. Another notable difference is the timbre the composer selects for the half note-quarter note triplet in measures 374 and later 635. In Example 53.3 the two trumpets are joined by four oboes. In Example 53.4, Mahler uses all four trumpets (divided in two octaves) without any other players. It’s a subtle difference: The sound of four trumpets playing could drown out most other sounds from the woodwinds, but the difference can be noticed. Probably the most obvious difference is the introduction of the ascending scales in the woodwinds joining the strings, but this time they’re all playing sixteenth notes. The effect is dramatic and the audience knows that they’re coming to the ending: No deceptive cadence this time. Now it’s the drive to the big finish.

Compositionally, hear the addition of the echoed half note-quarter note triplet in the woodwinds and horns beginning in measure 643 adding to the even richer texture of the writing in the final extended cadence. One last surprising difference is the inclusion of the harmony beginning in measure 642 in the brass. This fuller and richer sound is commensurate with the weight the composer understandably gives these final minutes of the work.


We began this post examining the way Bizet put flutes alone an octave above the strings and included the saxophone to add some bite and interest to the tune’s background rhythmic harmony. Then we listened to the same basic passage that Mahler used in his first symphony’s last movement. The first example displayed a certain lightness in the melodic and harmonic ideas. The latter two examples provided gravity and majesty to the same idea, but with two slightly difference approaches.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these examples. In the next post we’ll examine the works of several different composers, from Beethoven to Sibelius, that use many of the resources of the orchestra. Please let me know if you have any questions or want to comment on the material.

Matthew Yasner


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