Orchestrations by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Sibelius and Strauss are discussed.
In the world of business, overwhelming strength is one tried and true formula for success. Outspending your competition on marketing and advertising your product in every possible location and you’ll frequently obtain the desired result. This approach is employed in warfare: overwhelming your enemy with large numbers of troops can also produce successful results.
Therefore, it should not be a surprise in the world of music composition and orchestration that a big sound can be obtained by scoring for most, if not all, of the orchestra. Put your tune in a few octaves with the flutes, oboes, trumpets and violins. Have your harmonies played by clarinets, trombones and violas. Place the bassoons, tuba and low strings on the bass line. Toss in a counter melody in the horns, maybe doubled with the cellos. And, voilà, you have an orchestration with a big sound.
Of course, it may lack subtlety and originality. And there’s a good chance your audience and even your orchestra will be bored — even though you’ve got your forces fully deployed.
A big sound may still successfully follow these traditional routes, but sometimes using less of the orchestra can get you some surprisingly big results. A lot can be accomplished with an economy of activities or forces, but they must be focused and worthy of their functions.
For this post I have three pieces that fall into this category, plus one “oldie but goodie” that displays a quite successful use of basic and comparatively limited resources.
A German Romantic’s Italian Symphony
In many “Introduction to Music” courses, when the focus gets around to the Romantic Era, students will listen to Felix Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture (AKA Fingal’s Cave) and with it, they learn that it was inspired by a trip the 21-year-old composer made to the area. At the time (i.e., the Romantic Era), composers and creative artists, in general, were overthrowing the Classical ideals and rigid structures of the eighteenth century for a look at nature in all its imperfections, national ideals, fantasy, emotion and subjectivity. And many of these characteristics can be seen in the masters of the nineteenth century in Western music. The Hebrides Overture examines nature, experiencing its power, beauty and ferocity. It travels from the composer’s home to a new – and for some, exotic – location.
A few years later, a trip to Italy consequently inspired Mendelssohn to write his fourth symphony, known as the “Italian” Symphony. The new national landscape provided the gaiety and brio that the symphonist saw and heard and absorbed on this trip.
Let’s examine the beginning of the first movement of this symphony. Example 54.1 presents the opening measures of the work, exhibiting the bouncy exuberance of this sunny land. Before reading one word more, listen to the example.
Example 54.1 Felix Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 4 “Italian,” Movement 1, (1 – 16)
Claudio Abbado, London Symphony Orchestra, Deutsche Grammophon
With virtually no fanfare, the composer begins the 6/8 work simply with a quadruple stopped chord in the violins and As in the other strings, all playing pizzicato and forte.
The flutes, clarinets, bassoons and horns play repeated A major chords on each eighth note. Once this simple pattern is established, all the violins enter with the melody, arco and in octaves, with the pick-up to measure three. As the melody dictates some small harmonic shifts, so too do the harmonies in the winds. Yet, the basic rhythmic pattern is fully established and with no other modifications for the first nine measures.
At measure ten after its complete statement, the melody begins to be deconstructed. With this dismantling of the melody into smaller pieces, the instrumentation shifts too. In fact, note that the winds rest after they hit the first chord of measure eleven, but it’s in the preceding measure that the low strings begin a descending line from A, adding the interest that a countermelody provides.
And thus for the next few measures the winds and strings play alternating rhythmic and harmonic roles. Above all of this, the violins return with the two measure pattern based on the opening few notes of the movement. In a standard and somewhat required manner, the descending lines in the lower strings begin to add a new dimension to the static eighth notes in the winds. (“Look,” the lower strings say, “we have an on-the-beat melody down here!”)
Although I tend to stay away from harmony and its analysis in these posts — due to their potential for controversy — this new line appears to be Mendelssohn’s way of shifting from the subdominant to the dominant (seventh): The bass run moves down a fifth from the A in measure 10 to the D in measure 12. And when the line recommences in measure 13, it too descends from the F-sharp to the B in measure 16 — only this time the fifth contains a major third. Plus, the downbeat of measure 16 is the first time we’ve heard an accidental in the melody. It’s one of those pretty neat tricks heard in the Mendelssohn canon.
If you think about the more traditional approach that a composer might have taken with this joyous toe-tapper (perhaps, the approach casually discussed at the opening of this post), you can see how wanting it would be. With just flutes, clarinets, bassoons and horns behind a two octave melody in the violins, it’s easy to hear how enchanting this work is — and how it must have been received to audiences of its day. The specific lack of oboes provides the space for the clarinets and flutes to make a reedy sound, the clarinets almost draping the flute sound with the richness of wood.
Sometimes less is more. This is a perfect example.
In fact, some fifty years later we can hear a similar stylistic approach in the tone poem Don Juan by Richard Strauss. For those unfamiliar with the work, Example 54.2 comes after an expansive (several minute) segment that suggests the protagonist’s romantic involvement with one of his conquests. The passage features extended oboe and, to a lesser degree, clarinet solos supported by sustained horns and strings. Although the work is one seamless piece, this section nears its end at the beginning of Example 54.2.
Before examining the interesting bits of the example, I suggest listening to the portion that is similar stylistically to the Mendelssohn above. In Example 54.1, the winds have rapid and repeating eighth notes behind the violins. In Example 54.2, beginning at measure 313, we first hear the violas an octave above the second violins playing rapid and repeating sixteenth notes. In the next measure the violas cede to the first violins and, though subtle, there is a marked shift in timbre. This shift is only briefly noticeable as the four horns in unison begin the Don Juan (the “hero”) theme on the second half of the measure.
It’s an entrance that is impossible to ignore or even to forget. Strauss had a love for the horn and this passage shows it perfectly. The horns are not challenged by the tessitura here, but the sound is rich, warm and round, beginning with the opening octave leap.
The combination of the string tremolos and the soli horns is stunning. In its own way, it registers as an almost symbolic icon in the ear, similar in this to the opening of the Mendelssohn above.
Example 54.2 Richard Strauss: Don Juan (302 – 325)
Lorin Maazel, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, RCA
There are some other items of interest in this passage worth noting. For starters, the example begins with a group of woodwinds supported slightly by the timpani and violins, simply shifting chords via voice leading. Perhaps it’s a reflection of our time versus that of Europe one hundred fifty years ago, but today it might seem a risk to simply sustain harmonies until you arrive at your tonal destination. These few measure (302 through 306) sound a bit like an organist holding down keys on the great and swell manuals with the pedal sustained throughout (here portrayed by the timpani and low bassoons). Strauss makes it work, however, leading respectfully from the preceding section.
The composer also is rigorous in the way he has these woodwinds drop out as the energy moves to the strings. Although the winds have marked decrescendos and extreme piano markings, Strauss still has the upper winds terminating their sustained tones in a detailed fashion.
A brief note about harpists: Unless stated, most harpists will play a chord arpeggiated. In the example, listen to the harp playing the G chord in measure 306. It is not marked to be arpeggiated, it’s just played that way. If you write for a harp, it’s important to keep this in mind. If you don’t want the chord to sound as an arpeggio, make that clear.
In one of my first posts from 2013, entitled “The Hand-off” (Example 7), I detailed this passage as an example of how one section can “hand-off” to another, specifically in the strings from measures 307 through 313. This example, though, continues through the delightful horn entrance. But let’s look at the “extra stuff” Strauss adds to the mix beginning in measure 318.
The horns play, beginning on the second quarter note of measure 318 the notes (concert pitch) E, D and A, ending on the G whole note in measure 319. Strauss repeats this same figure in the next measure, but with many additional resources. But first, note the addition of the violas to the tremolos in measure 318, and the tonal shift from simple Gs to the major second G and F, implying a G7 chord and the movement to C major. However, Strauss wants the repeat to be a statement and he adds most of the rest of the orchestra to make it. The woodwinds sustain a G7 chord for one measure, arriving at a C chord (over a G) in the next bar.
In the brass he employs one trumpet to double the horn line and he does the same with the cellos. The trombones join the woodwinds in the sustained chords along with the second violins. (Ah! Now we understand the previous entrance of the violas in the tremolo.) And we can’t forget the timpani entrance, punctuated by the pizzicato double basses.
In all, the composer makes a statement with the reinforcement of the melody fragment here. What is perhaps most remarkable is way the horn line remains the central focus throughout this passage — even with all the other sounds reinforcing these two measures. My assumption is that this was Strauss’s intention and in this he succeeds brilliantly.
A Sibelius Transition
Probably the best-known Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius lived a long life and—for much of it—a productive life. Just as Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, cited above, is often played in introductory music classes, so too is Sibelius’s Finlandia from 1899. It is also held up as a prime example of Romantic Era’s affinity for nationalism in music.
His second symphony, written and premiered just a few years after Finlandia, was composed at a turbulent time for Finland and its relationship with Russia. Many heard additional overtones of protest in the symphony, especially in the grandiose final movement. Sibelius himself did not weigh in definitively on the issue.
To return to the art of orchestration, however, listen to Example 54.3. There is a segue directly from the end of the third movement into the fourth and final movement. I’ve included these sections of both movements to show how the composer managed to create thematic material upon which to build entire works.
Example 54.3 Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 2, Movements 3 (306) – 4 (16)
John Barbirolli, The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Chesky
In the first movement, the opening of the symphony has the strings playing slow and repeated F-sharps, Gs and As over sustained Ds, a reasonable opening for a symphony in D major. But this brief figure is featured throughout the work. Note the ascending thirds in the strings in the final few measures of the third movement (bars 306 through 309). It should then come as no surprise that we have the opening “theme” of the fourth movement consisting of two groups of three ascending scalar notes.
What, you may ask, does this have to do with Kitchen Sink style orchestration? A reasonable question. A cursory glance at these first few measures in the score may appear to show a rather static and bland orchestration. In truth, however, this is a deceptively complex passage, perfectly building to the climactic opening of the fourth movement.
Let’s examine the varieties of activity here, beginning with the strings. At first glance the lines may seem arbitrary, but closer inspection shows that these ascending triplet groups are designed with the momentum of the entire movement to arrive at this point. Each brief line begins on the G-sharp. We have the bassoons and violins beginning on the G-sharp at the beginning of measure 306. They continue through most of the bar, but after holding the D as a dotted quarter note on the eleventh quarter note beat, they leave a brief space and move to the E with the preceding pickup. Looking at the violas and cellos, we see the same pattern, but starting on the second half of the measure.
The two alternating groups repeat the pattern another time or two, almost as if each of the lines were in 9/4, not 12/4, until they all build to the climax in measure 309, the final measure of the movement. It should also be noted that each of these lines arrives at and emphasizes the supertonic. Add in the pedal As in the contrabasses as off beats and the listener has a basis for wanting to hear the sound of D major. And we’ve only explored the strings.
Sibelius adds a sustained chord in a grouping of trumpets and trombones. The group is playing an A7 chord on the downbeat of measures 306, 307 and 309. In each of these measures the chord is sustained through the tenth quarter note beat of the measure, just in time for the horns to take over the chord. Yet, the horns don’t just enter on the tenth quarter note beat. Instead, they have a three eighth note pickup to their half note chord in both measures 306 and 307. The three eighth note pickup provides a preaudition of the trombone chords that follow the opening of the fourth movement. The horn chords hit their target half note and then repeat the chords on the twelfth quarter note beat. This is coincident with the sonic space left by the articulation of the violins.
One last bit of sophisticated writing is in the G-sharp, A, B grouping doubled in octaves in the horns in the penultimate measure. Having this line begin on the first and second halves of each of the preceding measures, the composer doesn’t have another orchestral section available to begin this line here. He has shifted his inner strings to move, in a natural and linear manner, the harmony in the final measure. Yet, he wants to have the line added to this second half of the measure. The horns do the job in a way that contributes markedly to this final crescendo.
As I stated, the scoring here is deceptive in its apparent simplicity. But, the composer is aware of the sound and the silence he is scoring. We know this because of the way he’s arranged both in these few measures.
As long as we are still investigating the variety of rhythms that overlook the bar lines in this passage, we need to be aware of the ten-note pattern played by the upper woodwinds. The actual chords that are sounding on each eighth note go by too rapidly to make a true tonal statement, but their accumulated dissonant sound and irregular rhythmic grouping contribute to the tension that Sibelius builds through these four measures.
In the final measure, the horns join the basses in the off beat pattern (playing notably As and Gs), while the trumpets and trombones take up the three eighth note–sustained note pattern, naturally playing an A7 chord.
When we arrive at the final movement there’s a newness to the orchestration. The busy movement in the upper winds is gone. The quarter note pattern is gone. The newness is the sudden simplicity in the orchestration: a) sustained low winds, b) low brass and timpani accents and c) unison strings (save in the contrabasses) playing the three ascending scalar note melody.
Just as in the previous passage, the scoring can seem deceptively simple. It’s worth taking some time to review it. Given the scalar activity in the strings, it does well to open the fourth movement with the two groups of ascending scalar notes. We’ve heard these from the beginning of the work. Sibelius scores the line for all the upper strings in just two octaves. But the composer leaves the strings to sit out the next several measures as he introduces a new figure in the trumpets. The fifth through seventh measures of the movement showcase three trumpets in a pattern, part of which we’ve heard just previously: the dotted quarter followed by a rest, a sixteenth note and a sustained note. This is reminiscent of the top of the G-sharp lines in the previous movement.
Orchestrationally, it is interesting to see how the composer adds the A to the oboes, doubling the line of the first trumpet, but simply sustaining the note rather than articulating it as the trumpets do. Note, too, how the low winds get a chance to take a breath in measure 5. When they reenter on the second beat of the measure, it enhances the last note of the trumpet “fanfare.”
Before continuing, we should look at the two striking features of the opening bars. First, we have the four-note trombone pattern that was set up previously. Sibelius uses these chords to produce almost all of the rhythmic harmony throughout the section, leaving a great deal of sonic space wide open. The timpani adds to the articulation of the trombones, too.
Sibelius also sets up the rhythmic pattern that has a brief pick-up at the end of each measure played by the tuba and double basses with their low C-sharps. The way this pattern is continued throughout the passage gives the sense that the composer is working on a particularly broad canvas, the sound provides the open, natural space. The timpani entering with a brief roll on the final eighth note of each measure adds to this low appoggiatura for each measure.
Following the trumpet fanfare passage just a few measures later, we again have the four horns in octaves just when there is a temporary tonal shift (B-flat major over D). This chord is played by the trombones in their now familiar pattern as the sustained woodwinds change to the new chord also. The line, though, in the horns, moving up by thirds, hits the dissonant A and then drops down to a G-sharp, giving an augmented sixth chord so that the voices of the G-sharps and B-flats can resolve (outward) to the As (the fifth of the tonic) in measure 13.
The composer still leaves out much of the orchestra here, choosing to remain focused on the patterns previously heard. Ultimately, the string choir enters (on that selfsame G-sharp) to begin a scalar ascending line from A to D. But note how he chooses to delay the high C-sharp and D, instead, dropping nearly two octaves to return to the tonic in unison at one-line D.
Perhaps I’ve gone overboard in the deconstruction of this example. I’ve done it because there’s something quite unique about a composer using a lot of the orchestra’s resources, but then consciously deciding to pare back in their deployment. This score deserves study and contains a good amount of learning material for all orchestrators and composers.
An Overture from a Master
In 1788 Johann Goethe completed his play Egmont, an early Romantic work of the Sturm und Drang era. It was a political drama concerned with freedom, independence and liberty, a notable theme of the era. More than twenty years later — after writing his only opera Fidelio, a work with similar themes — Beethoven was asked to write incidental music for a production of the play. It was but a half dozen years earlier that Beethoven had become enraged at Napoleon’s decision to crown himself emperor, changing the title of his Third Symphony to “Sinfonica Eroica.”
Some of Egmont’s similar thematic ideas were probably the catalyst for the martial ideas. By the time we reach the passage in Example 54.4 we are almost at the conclusion of the overture as the composer builds quickly to its ending.
Beethoven had fewer resources with which to work as his orchestra consisted of double woodwinds, four horns, two trumpets, timpani and strings. As always, though, he manages to make each passage a gem. In this example he brings in three or four concurrent thematic materials.
Example 54.4 Ludwig van Beethoven: Egmont Overture, (287 – 321)
Rudolf Kempe, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, EMI
The first few measures are straightforward: a violin figure, a turn, moving up a third. When it commences, it runs for three beats followed by a rest, but after four measures the figure is compressed to last only two beats with two in each measure. Behind all of this, the winds are sustaining chords, the middle strings have sixteenth note tremolos, and the lower strings have eighth notes with a neighbor note on the offbeat of one.
As the passage progresses Beethoven adds a piccolo trill and then the winds enter, doubling the strings in their movements in thirds. It’s important to remember that the piccolo was a relatively new addition to the orchestra. In this regard, note the way the piccolo has sixteenth notes moving up to the A on the downbeat of 295, a slight variation to the way the flute moves up to its high F.
When the orchestra arrives at measure 295, most of it has the rather standard martial tones that a natural horn would play. This continues for four measures, again beginning with a figure in four beats and, after two measures, the figures are compressed to two beats.
For any listener familiar with late eighteenth century music — or much of the pop music from the fifties and sixties — Beethoven gives us a two bar phrase with four of those chords. (In this case, they are F major, D minor, B-flat and C.) This entire six-measure pattern then repeats with the only variation being the timpani rolls on the extended chords in measures 301 and 302.
We get to more classic Kitchen Sink scoring in the ensuing phrase. The bassoons, violas and cellos continue (with a small variation) on the two bar chord turn: F, Dm, Gm, C. Now however, the movement from the first to the second and from the third to the fourth notes are via their flatted upper neighbor. This two-bar melody is exploited in the winds and strings in just a few measures.
Beethoven gets us there soon but before he does, he brings in the first violins with a repeating pattern. After two measures of this, the piccolo and second violins are added. Two measures later, all of the woodwinds except the piccolo repeat the pattern set up by the piccolo, now freed to double the ascending and descending scalar pattern in the violins. In these two measures Beethoven brings in the double basses and drops the violas and cellos by one octave.
Before continuing, though, it’s important to hear the four horns playing on the downbeat of each measure, duplicating the entrances on the F in the first measure (307) and the second (308). This accent, and its marking to sustain the note for one and one-half beats, brings a sound to the orchestra that is relatively rare in early nineteenth century scoring. In fact, it even sounds fresh today, a two hundred year old forte-piano.
At the entrance of the next bar we have a reversal of sorts: The pattern established by the bassoons, violas and cellos beginning in measure 307, is now given to all of the woodwinds with the piccolo in its highest register, doubling the flute at the octave. In addition, the violins play the same pattern. Hence, what was a bass voice has now moved up to a treble position. At the same time, the scalar pattern previously in the piccolo and violins, is now in the lower strings. This passage lasts for only two measures before the composer adds a new idea.
Beginning the final phrases of the work, the woodwinds and lower strings have a half note ascending scalar pattern culminating in the trumpet fanfare beginning in measure 319 supported by a timpani roll. During this passage, except for the brass and timpani accents, the only other activity is the violins with their duplication of the upper woodwind line. Of course, to get a bit more excitement Beethoven has them play each quarter note as a triplet, getting as close to a tremolo as possible.
Taken as a whole, this example provides a view of the ways that Beethoven, the master, could do so much with such limited resources. In this overture he doesn’t have trombones, there are no valved horns or trumpets, no tuba, no contrabassoon, and no percussion other than a timpani with two pitches. As is typical of Beethoven, the material for this finale is organically derived from earlier ideas in the work.
In this passage of under a minute, the composer takes the orchestra from pianissimo to fortissimo with invention, style and excitement. It’s an earlier eighteenth century example of Kitchen Sink orchestration from one of the greatest composers of western music.
This post began with Mendelssohn and Strauss, both using a brash unison sound from an orchestra section with a simple, yet unique background. It continued with a unique transition between movements in a Sibelius symphony and concluded with the finale of an overture by Beethoven. These examples have shown how the masters of their craft can take simple ideas and make them into brilliant and moving substance.
As always, I hope you’ve enjoyed these examples. In the next post we’ll examine several examples by composers who probably come to mind immediately when one thinks of a big orchestral sound. Please let me know if you have any questions or want to comment on the material.
Please let me know if you have any questions or want to comment on the material.
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