55. Kitchen Sink Orchestration, Part 4


Passages in these works by Stravinsky, Strauss and Wagner are heard and discussed.

It’s hard to imagine the scope of the growth of and changes in the symphony orchestra in the 100 years from the early nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. Let’s take, as an example, 1813. That year saw the premiere of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 as well as the first of Schubert’s symphonies. Coincidentally, 1813 was the year that two of the giants of opera music, Richard Wagner and Giuseppi Verdi, were born.

Both of the mentioned symphonies are scored for double woodwinds, double horns and trumpets, timpani and strings, requiring not more than forty musicians.

One hundred years pass. Architecture and a potentially rising middle class enable — and possibly require — the orchestra to grow. To have a larger audience. To create a hall that can seat that audience. And to add enough instruments to make a big enough sound to fill that hall.

In 1913, Stravinsky premiered Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring). This score demands an orchestra more than double the size required for the Beethoven or Schubert symphonies. The score for The Rite calls for quintuple woodwinds (including many doubles), eight horns (some doubling Wagner tubas), five trumpets, four trombones and two tubas. The performer count at this point is already nearly the entire size of the antecedent orchestras of 1813. To this mix of wind players, Stravinsky adds five timpani shared between two players, roughly eight different percussion instruments and, of course, a string ensemble sizable enough to balance with all those winds. In fact, a reasonable estimate of the size of the required orchestra for a concert performance is roughly 100 performers — more than double that of the orchestra of a hundred years before.

One wonders how Schubert and Beethoven would react to The Rite in a performance during their lifetimes. It’s a reasonable, but ultimately futile speculation. Yet, the truth is that Stravinsky seemed to be simultaneously both an iconoclast and a member of his generation.

This post will examine two portions of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring as well as the known and notorious opening to Act III of Die Walküre and the opening of Richard Strauss’s well-known Also sprach Zarathustra.

Talk about the Kitchen Sink!

A Big Repetition

Although Stravinsky called for the extraordinarily large orchestra mentioned, portions of the work using these combined forces appear less frequently in the piece than you might imagine. We are going to examine two passages that occur not too far apart. While there are many items of interest in both, we will at least partially note the similarities and differences between the two examples.

Let’s begin with Example 55.1, a portion from a section entitled “Rondes printanières” from Part I of The Rite of Spring. The section is in the portion of the ballet where the young girls dance “Spring Rounds,” just before the dancers divide into two groups for “The Ritual of the Rival Tribes.” Depending on the conductor and whether it’s being used as a concert piece or to accompany the ballet, this passage is about eight or nine minutes into the work.

Example 55.1 Igor Stravinsky: Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring), “Rondes printanières” (“Spring Rounds”) (321 – 336)
Riccardo Muti, Philadelphia Orchestra, EMI

And speaking about throwing in the kitchen sink, the passage in this example is scored for piccolo, three flutes, alto flute, one oboe, E-flat clarinet, two B-flat clarinets, two bass clarinets, three bassoons, two contrabassoons, six horns, bass drum, and many divided strings, including four soli violas.

The first sound heard is the mezzoforte downbeat of the first measure. Although the composer uses most of the pitched instruments available (two bassoons, two contrabassoons, half the cellos and the double basses) to play this downbeat, the sound is quite genteel. It is immediately followed on the next three beats of the bar by downbowed dissonant chords in the second violins, half the violas and half the cellos. To give the phrase a bit of elan, Stravinsky has a pair of bass clarinets and the other half of the viola and cello sections play ascending fifths pizzicato on the offbeats. Actually, these ascending offbeats do more than simply enhance the passage with some flair. They push the downbows and downbeats forward, adding both impulse and impetus to the passage.

Here is a view of a reduction of the opening few measures, to help see the relative simplicity of the passage.

55.1 Stravinsky - Rite of Spring 321-326 (reduction)

This scoring is reasonably economical with its combination of pulsing low woodwinds and strings interrupted by upper woodwind figures with sustained violin chords. Yet by dividing the strings, the composer manages to get a more particular and interesting sound out of the orchestra than might meet the eye with just a quick scan of the score. In the next example we’ll see and hear how Stravinsky explodes this section when it’s repeated less than a minute later.

For now, though, there’s more to explore as this passage continues. After the one measure of 3/4, bar 328, the downbow pattern returns. This time Stravinsky modifies the scoring, most notably with the addition of four horns playing an inverted version of the downbeat chords previously played by the second violins, half the viola and cello sections. The sound is fresh. With the high range in the horns added to their dissonance and playing at a mezzopiano, the orchestration alone breathes a new sound into the passage; it’s not simply the part taken from the strings and tossed to the horns.

After just two measures, the flute section (Yes, we have a flute section here consisting of three soprano flutes and an alto flute.) and a quartet of soli violas play these new parallel, block chords. The rarely heard viola quartet playing in treble clef and enhanced with the low reedy sound of the flutes suitably complements the fresh sound of the four horns. As soon as the flute and viola group is done, the four horns repeat the passage with the flute quartet joining them in the second measure.

Anyone who knows brass players in general and horn players in particular will understand how difficult it is to play this passage at all, let alone softly and as a unit. Given that written high C is the top playable note on the horn, it’s a testament to these world class players to be able to play this score with technique, control, intonation and nuance.

Not more than thirty seconds later, the dance suddenly erupts. It does not increase in tempo, but the composer brings in all the woodwinds, all of the horns, two tubas, a few percussion and all of the strings. He has the upper woodwinds play the pattern introduced in measure 329. I’d recommend listening to the passage in Example 55.2 a few times, focusing on the variety of sounds the orchestra produces.

Example 55.2 Igor Stravinsky: Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring), “Rondes printanières” (Spring Rounds) (346 – 356)
Lorin Maazel, Cleveland Orchestra, Telarc

The two piccolos venture up into the lower end of their highest octave, but in this they are alone. Notably, the violins begin the passage at two-line B-flat, not an octave higher, where the piccolos are playing. Another addition here is the cue notes, the appogiaturas, for the timpani. Entering just before the downbeat, these usher in the big sound that happens on the beat with the tam-tam and the bass drum — and most of the rest of the orchestra.

Also, try to listen for the instruments playing the offbeats. They now include the bass clarinets, bassoons, contrabassoons, two horns, cellos and basses. With the strong downbeats, it seems logical to continue this offbeat pattern, but to beef it up and Stravinsky takes sections of the woodwinds, brass and strings to do it.

It shows the restraint of the composer to omit the sounds of the trumpet and trombone for this “big sound” introduction. Yet, listen for their entrance at the end of bar 349. If the five trumpet dissonance weren’t enough for those last two eighth notes in the measure, you cannot help hearing the glissando in the three trombones. Even today this sound is so large and these dissonances so strong, the passage borders on scary. It would be impossible to imagine what it must have sounded like to an audience in 1913, more than one hundred years ago.

As this abundance of sound continues past measure 349, the dynamics increase, beginning in 351 with sforzandos on all the downbeats. The trumpets join the forces in these measures with a crescendo beginning at forte and a pyramid of pitches too boot. In the ensuing measure, all of the downbeats are marked triple forte except the trumpets. And the trombones with their glissandos return again at the end of measure 353.

Stravinsky repeats the pattern in the next two measures until the last bar of the pattern, measure 356, with every section now marked triple forte. This final measure still has some new ideas to offer. For one, the sound is concentrated in the center of the normal tessitura. Just the piccolos end on their high E-flats.

Of course, the top horns are still playing their high B-flat, but unlike the rising voices in the flutes, clarinets, bassoons, top two horns, tubas and the upper strings, the oboes and most of the rest of the brass have downward moving dissonant block chords in those last few beats of the section.

As I’ve mentioned before, getting a big sound from an orchestra is not difficult. With Stravinsky, however, it’s not just about being loud. In addition to the genius of the composition, in this passage it is truly educational to see how the composer manipulates the orchestra to produce new and exciting sounds to accompany his melodies and harmonies in the passage.

Wagner and the Valkyries

There are some pieces of music that come with baggage. The next two are just such pieces. The first example from the opening of the third act of Richard Wagner’s opera Die Walkürie is frequently associated with a robust woman wearing headpiece with horns and a breastplate. And, if you’re either a film buff or were around when Apocalypse Now won the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Director as well as some twenty others in the early 1980s, you would probably have a mental image of an attack on a coastal city in Vietnam to the sound of a reel-to-reel tape deck in one of the helicopters playing this music.

The opera is the second in the four operas that comprise Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) and premiered in Germany in 1870. Wagner was not known for doing things on a small scale. The opening of Act III begins with the arrival of Brünnhilde’s eight sisters, known as “Die Walkürie” (“The Valkyries”), on a rocky outcropping in the mountains. The well-known score begins and once Wagner sets up the rhythmic pulse, the Valkyries begin to fly in on their magical steeds.

Example 55.3 begins at the opening of the act and only lasts through the second iteration of the motif when the tonal center shifts. The set for most literal productions often involves a harsh, barren, tenebrific landscape.

Wagner sets up the swirling winds with measured trills in the flute, oboe and clarinet sections. I call them sections because the score calls for four flute players (two on piccolo and two on soprano flute), three oboes and one English horn, three clarinets and one bass clarinet. For the opening few bars Wagner writes actual pyramids of the music in both sound and notation. He begins with the one oboe, the English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet. Measure two moves the sound up an octave or so, with three oboes, English horn and two clarinets. The third measure moves to two piccolos, two flutes, two oboes and one clarinet. At this point he relocates the pattern back down, as is evident in the score.

To enhance each of these trills, the composer uses portions of the strings to provide four-note ascending, scalar, pick-up runs for the downbeat of each measure. And, just as we hear with the pyramid in the winds, the strings do the same. They begin with the pick-up to the first measure in the cellos and second violins. Next come the first violins and violas up an octave, followed by the first and second violins up another octave, moving down an octave for the pick-up to measure four back with the first violins and violas.

Example 55.3 Richard Wagner: Die Walküre, Act III, Prelude “The Ride of the Valkyries” (1 – 26)
Eric Leinsdorf, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Sheffield Lab

At measure five the composer begins the galloping rhythmic pattern in the bassoons, horns and cellos. It’s a good time to point out the way Wagner shifts the trills and the appogiaturas among the selected instrument groups. Although subtle, these moves act as a kind of stereo sound for the emulation of wind and storm while also assisting the stage director with an enhancement to the horsewomen arriving on the tor from a variety of directions. And Wagner continues this with the horns. While the bassoons and cellos play the dotted-eighth-sixteenth-eighth note pattern on beats two and three, the horns play the pattern antiphonally throughout the example. Again, it may be subtle, but when a good piece of music and orchestration can enhance the stage action all the elements of a production benefit. In fact because opera is theater, all of the parts should blend to enhance what’s on the stage, whether it’s lighting, sound effects, voice quality, acting, stage design or the score itself.

Once the rhythmic pattern is set up, Wagner brings in almost all of the woodwinds on the trills, leaving some breathing opportunities for each. Also, now that he has the established the pattern and the focus shifts to the imminent arrival of the melody, he gives the appogiaturas to the winds and at measure 9, the upper strings all have a mixture of upward scalar runs and downward arpeggios. This serves to transform the highlighting of each measure to that of each beat, adding to the increasing tension.

And it’s just in time for the brass to enter with the well-known melody at the pick-up to measure 13. From here through the end of this example, the orchestration remains fairly consistent. The composer enhances the figures in the winds, sometimes adding octaves, but there is not that much that’s new. Why should there be? As I pointed out above, the music is designed to enhance the stage drama and needs to have the right music and the right amount of it.

In fact, one thing to note about this example is the fact that there are no trombones, no tuba, no percussion and no double basses. It would have been easy for the composer to employ these other forces (timpani, bass drum, cymbal crash, etc.), but he chooses to use just what he needs for the sound he wants to make.

To sum up this exhilarating passage, there are the trills and their appogiaturas, the lower instruments with the dotted rhythms on two and three, and the melody. Wagner moves things around to enhance the “5.1” stereo sound, but at a basic level that’s what there is. Of course it’s brilliant, yet at its core it’s a far cry from the Stravinsky we heard earlier, composed less than fifty years later.

Also sprach Zarathustra AKA the “Theme to 2001

This last example, as I’ve warned, is another piece of music that everyone knows. At least they do if they’ve ever seen Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The music, though perfectly chosen for its effect in the film, comes from the tone poem by Richard Strauss, premiered in 1896. This opening, with its pedal C, is supposed to be the dawn motif of the ascent of man from ape to Übermensch, man in his enhanced form.

To start us on this journey, the composer has scored this opening for sixteen first and sixteen second violins, twelve violas, twelve cellos and eight double basses. There are quadruple woodwinds, six horns, four trumpets, three trombones and two tubas. Finally, there are timpani, several percussion instruments, organ, and two harps.

Although it might be difficult to accept this music for what it is and not for its associations with the film, I recommend you try. This opening is a large orchestral fanfare, in function (although not compositionally nor orchestrationally), not unlike Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man.

Example 55.4 Richard Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra (1 – 22)
Lorin Maazel, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, RCA

The way Strauss builds this fanfare is illustrative of both direct and also subtle ways of scoring. Before examining the detail, it’s useful to look at the choice of key. It’s not an argument about the choice from a creative point, but from the point of an orchestrator. Choosing C gives the option of having the string basses play their lowest note, an open C string. Most string players will tell you that they would prefer to play a stopped note so they can provide vibrato and sensitivity that the left (fingerboard) hand provides. Obviously, the only real way to affect the sound on an open string is with the bow itself. However, in Strauss’s opening, the basses are not sustaining the Cs, instead they are playing the note as a tremolo. In fact, the only instruments actually sustaining the C are the contrabassoon and the organ.

Beginning with the pedal C, Strauss chooses the contrabassoon, the organ and string basses in octave tremolos, all sensible choices. To this big orchestral foundation, Strauss chooses to omit a timpani roll, opting instead for a roll by the bass drum. It might seem counterintuitive to choose this path, but when heard in the concert hall there’s no doubt the effect is the right one. It also provides Strauss with an open sonic range as well as a free timpanist to make a more dramatic statement a few moments later.

Once the stage has been set and this foundation laid, four trumpets in unison enter on middle C. In half notes they move up to the fifth and finally the octave, all fundamentals on the tonic C. But, it’s the sixteenth note pickup to measure seven where Strauss throws the first curve ball. He moves from a C major chord on the sixteenth note to a C minor chord on the ensuing measure’s downbeat.

From an orchestrator’s viewpoint, it’s interesting to focus on the voicing of the major to minor chord thirds. Strauss spreads this telling note throughout the winds: Oboe 1, Clarinet 1, Bassoon 1, Horn 3, Trumpet 1 and Trombone 1. Every mini-section of the winds has the complete triad. In addition, it’s noteworthy that the range of this opening sequence is only two octaves and a third, from small C to two line E. The composer keeps this opening chord change from major to minor very tight. The mystery for the audience is just beginning.

Before moving on, listen for the third and fourth trumpet parts. Except for the pedal C, these two players sustain the unison C in the first and second trumpets through measures six and seven. If you’ve never noticed this, listen again and you will. It glues together measures six and seven.

I mentioned above how the composer provides us with an open sonic landscape and that is exploited to great effect when the timpani finally enters on the second half of measure seven. It’s notated to enter at a piano. While the rest of the orchestra entered at forte and for two beats diminuendo to piano, the timpanist uses this open field to sneak in before introducing the well-known triplets in bar eight.

When the major to minor pattern reverses in measures ten and eleven, the composer begins to expand the range. The first violins move up to three line C to be joined by the first introduction of the three flutes. But here, the triads are no longer maintained in every section of the winds: The oboes no longer have the third. Also, there are some difficult to hear crossings in the winds. For example, the first clarinet leaps up an octave on the fifth of the chord, while the second moves from the major to the minor third. There is a similar pattern in the horns. Lastly, the third and fourth trumpets sustain the C for two bars, just as they did previously.

As we move into the third orchestral entrance just before measure fifteen, Strauss – after seventy or eighty seconds of C – finally moves to the subdominant, adding the heretofore unheard tuba into the mix. The F chord is voiced richly, but for the first time in the work, the third of the chord, the A, is now on top. This is played by the first oboe, the E-flat clarinet, the first horn, the first violins and, of course, the first trumpet. In other words, the composer makes sure that we don’t miss it. With ineluctable force this line is going to return to the tonic C, not once but twice before the fanfare is done.

We haven’t arrived there just yet, though. It’s here in measure 15 that we have an entrance on the second half of the measure by the fifth and sixth horns, the composer’s way of adding to the sound by sneaking in a voice or two on the bottom of the dynamic range, along with the timpani.

There are two more features of the score that deserve mention here. The first is the strong downward eighth note arpeggios played by the trombones and bassoons. In fact, almost the entire orchestra is focused on playing and sustaining the C major chord in measure 17. Yet even with all of that sound, the three trombones and three bassoons still can clearly sing through. This is as much a tribute to the strength of these brass and woodwind sections as it is to the perfect placement by Strauss for this arpeggio in the ranges of these two instruments.

Except for concertos, it’s a general truth that keyboard instruments lost favor for orchestra composers sometime at the end of the Baroque and beginning of the Classical Eras, in the mid eighteenth century. But somewhere in the late Romantic Era, as composers were searching for new sonic voices, keyboards seemed to be allowed into the mix, even if in a minor way.

We’ve heard the opening pedal in the contrabassoon, double basses and organ, but when we ultimately arrive at the tonic in measure 19, we get the entire orchestra joining in the sound. Given the broad range from subcontra C to five line C, the chord is about as rich as one could score it. Strauss adds the sprarkle of the triangle, too. But it’s the sound of the great organ with eight notes playing the C chord – as well as the brief pause before the reintroduction of the bass drum roll – that stirs the audience with excitement.

The composer, though, has only opened up the work. The last thing he wants to do now is to make a clean break, to extinguish the audience’s interest. He’s only just started, the sun is now up and it is fully daytime.

To maintain this audience’s involvement, the bass drum and the organ sustain their notes after the downbeat of measure 21, along with the double basses on their tremolo. The effect can almost sound unnerving, as though some of the orchestra members have made a mistake. This is just the effect that can keep the audience’s attention – especially after such a dynamic climax. Even after the organist has stopped playing, the bass drum and the string basses sustain the pedal. Strauss has certainly piqued our interest. Now he sets out to maintain and to build on it.


Works like the Wagner and the Strauss are deservedly well known, regardless of their associations with successful films. The substance is there, however, and the examples are worthy of their notoriety — and their study. Of course, Stravinsky’s Rite is almost a musician’s text book, filled with examples of “out of the box thinking” orchestration.

Next time, for a change of pace, we’ll take a break from the kitchen and its sink. The focus will be on much lighter fare.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these examples. Please let me know if you have any questions, want to comment on or discuss the material.

Matthew Yasner


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