68. Unisons


Orchestration is about making choices, picking the instruments of the orchestra to support the score, to produce the desired sound. The utilitarian choice: put the melody in the higher voices with harmony below such that the harmony does not overpower the melody. This is the standard for most pop piano music.

Unless the point is to hide the melody (And why would one do that?), a poor choice might be to give a melody  to an alto flute near the bottom of its range and for the rest of the orchestra to play sustained fortissimo chords. No one, not even the other flutists, would hear the melody.

For a piece of “absolute” music like a classical symphony, the orchestration should perform the job of making the melodies, rhythms and harmonies balance properly according to the composer’s wishes. In a programmatic composition, especially in an endeavor like film scoring, creating unique sounds may be desirable. Given the three or more centuries of composers writing for the orchestra a composer could not be faulted for wanting to come up with a “new” sound.

What may get lost in the focus on this new sound is the fact that a composer is writing for the orchestra. He or she is not writing for a percussion ensemble, a dozen oboes or a brass ensemble. It’s rare to find a traditional composer who has not worked with the accepted ensemble, at least as a core group: four families of woodwinds, three families of brass, and a quintet of strings.

Before complaining that percussion, saxophones, tubas, guitars, and the like, are missing from this list, remember that the list is the core of a traditional orchestra. Most composers used the technologies of their time. Nevertheless, the orchestra as listed above remains the crux.

So, before providing examples of less frequently heard sounds, I’d like to first provide some basics.

Probably the most fundamental sound is that of the orchestra playing in unison, although octaves must be included because of the limitations of individual instrument ranges.

When writing for the piano, a composer has only a few ways to make a melody preeminent. Naturally, one way is to eliminate everything but the melody. This will produce a stand-out melodic line, but for any length of time it will bore an audience – if not the player herself.

Another option available to the composer is to play the melody in one, two or even three additional octaves. There are many examples of this in the wealth of available piano works, but except for the most talented of performers there is little in the way of accompaniment a pianist can provide when playing a melody in four octaves.

Octaves will normally produce a louder sound, but it’s still a piano sound. Getting nuance in two hands pounding out four lines of the same melody is not a terribly subtle offering. The orchestra offers so much more in the way of color, timbre, range and volume.

Here are some of these examples of the orchestra and sections of it playing together. But in a composer’s or an orchestrator’s efforts to create new and unusual “creative” sounds, sometimes the simple sounds are overlooked. So, for the first example, I’ve selected a relatively simple sound by Antonín Dvořák.

Dvořák: Symphony No. 8

If a composer were known for just one work, he or she could do a lot worse than the New World Symphony, more accurately entitled Symphony No. 9, “From the New World.” Yet there are so many other works by this late nineteenth century master that limiting oneself to his most famous work would be unfortunate. In addition to all of his other gifts, the guy could write a tune. Luckily for devotees of symphonic music, he wrote quite a few.

When I review scores by Antonín Dvořák, though, it seems that his orchestrations often are simply blocks of instruments. He’ll use the brass as a group and then perhaps he’ll move to the group of woodwinds. The subtleties in orchestration of many of his contemporaries appear to have only supported his reluctance to embrace newer, more nuanced orchestrations.

Nevertheless, for one very straightforward example of the simplest of a unison sectional line, I’d like to refer to the opening theme (after the trumpet fanfare) of the last movement of Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony, premiered in 1890. The orchestration is minimal, using just a small percentage of the full orchestra. The theme is played by the cellos in a typically arioso range for the instrument. To this melody Dvořák adds a viola line just under the cellos. The orchestration is completed with pizzicato basses doubled at the octave by a sole bassoon.

68.1 Antonín Dvořák: Symphony No. 8, Movement 4 (26 – 41)
Colin Davis, Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, Philips

Its lovely theme is perfectly exposed in this initial presentation. I offer this scoring as a point of departure for its simplicity of the cello section singing out with beauty and joy.

Prokofiev: “The Last Farewell” of Romeo and Juliet

Composed in the mid-1930s, nearly a half century after the premiere of Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony, Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet had its premiere during the period of growing unrest just prior to World War II.

On an incidental note Prokofiev includes tenor saxophone, cornet, mandolin and viola d’amore to the traditional orchestra. These all provide a variety of additional timbres to the standard orchestra. I would like to offer a brief passage in section 39 in Act 3 of the ballet. The music is soft and touching, but also tentative. The snippets of melodies move mostly between the clarinet and strings with a few other instruments adding color in supporting roles.

Historically by its very nature ballet music is composed to help the dancers to tell a story. In this section of the Shakespearean Romeo and Juliet tale, the couple has just awoken to find that it is morning and Romeo is must leave Juliet’s bedchamber before he is discovered there. The music enhances this uncomfortable fight between resting in the arms of one’s love and the sense of caution necessitated by the danger of being caught in those arms.

This excerpt contains some seemingly obvious techniques, but they deserve attention. The first thing to notice is the relative disregard for the violins in favor of the lower strings. (On a side note, as I recall, one of those involved with the original Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum… wanted the orchestrators, Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal, to create a “different” sound. Somehow the “different” kind of sound suggested a score that would eliminate violins altogether. Hence, at least one of the initial versions of the score had a string section consisting of no violins and a larger than standard contingent of violas, cellos and basses. Apparently, after hearing the sound it was decided that a traditional orchestra was more appropriate. From a practical viewpoint the national tour might have had difficulty finding enough quality violists in cities around the country.)

Be that as it may, Prokofiev frequently uses the lower strings to provide harmony with a diminished concentration on the violins.

In Example 68.2, the clarinets have this repeating eighth note motif of an ascending scalar third followed by the descent of a sixth. Adding to what is essentially a minimalist orchestration, lower strings are called upon to add a bit of both rhythm and harmony. It’s mostly in the background, but still it’s an effective way to flesh out this lovely bit of music.

One of the techniques to note is the short section with the violas and cellos playing the clarinet motif in unison (bars 17 – 19). Given the transparency of the music in this section, it could have been scored for just cellos. The addition of the violas adds to the musical tension, possibly helping to dispel the sleepiness of the star-crossed lovers. It balances their touching parting with their deep passion and tragic hopefulness of soon being together. The richness and warmth of the sound recalls the violins of a few bars earlier.

68.2 Sergei Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet, Act 3, “The Last Farewell” (12 – 21)
Andre Previn, London Symphony Orchestra, EMI

I’d suggest a close listen to this passage. It’s almost as though the work is scored for a chamber ensemble. The clarity of each instrument is noticeable. You can hear the few brief notes played by the flute, the tenor sax, the bass clarinet, the contrabassoon and the horn.

Notice also the string ensemble writing from bars 21 through 24. The scoring here calls for just one player on each part, two violins, two violas, one cello and one contrabass. (As written the score calls for two first and two second violins, but each pair plays sequentially.) In fact, it starts as a string sextet, but then becomes a quartet for the second part of the phrase.

It’s a tribute to Prokofiev’s skill as a composer/orchestrator, how these few instruments spread around the orchestra can provide such color and interest to what is a seemingly simple passage.

Mahler: Symphony No. 1

The exquisite beauty of Mahler’s long melodic lines are almost always doubled at the octave. In this example from the first half of the final movement of his First Symphony, the lines have been played by the strings with some harmonic support from the bassoons and brass.

68.3 Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 1, Movement 4 (203 – 222)
Zubin Mehta, New York Philharmonic, RCA

As this passage continues though, the violins descend to the lower end of the instrument as the intensity ratchets up. What I find especially noteworthy is how in Example 68.3, during this descent, Mahler maintains the octave doubles until part way through measure 214, getting nearer to the fermata and climax just a few measures later. Mahler even marks that measure in the score indicating a big and warm tone.

When we think of climaxes in the strings the focus is so frequently on the move to their extended upper range. In this case though, the composer creates the tension by the repeating motif rising a few notes each time. Adding to the build-up, the violas contribute the slightly edgy timbre of their A strings to the mix. This is most obvious at that climactic fermata in measure 218.

In a large, modern orchestra the melody here among the violins and violas might be played by as many as forty players – all at the unison. It’s a dramatic sound. Used with nuance and discretion, this sound can be just as effective in the lower registers as it is more frequently heard in the higher ones.

Tchaikovsky: Nutcracker Ballet

The Nutcracker Ballet had its premiere at Christmastime just two years after the premiere of Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony heard earlier. Of course the two pieces were written for completely different purposes, but it’s always of interest to keep in mind who was writing what at the same time. Although this is in the same key as the Dvorak, there is little else similar between the two passages.

The example from the Nutcracker is a standard but useful example of the tutti lines with most of the orchestra involved in the tune. Here, the tune is spread through most of the notes available above middle C, from 1 line G (G4) to 4 line G (G7).

68.4 Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Nutcracker Ballet, Act II, Tableau 3: No. 14 Pas de deux
Ernest Ansermet, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, London

At the very top, at 4 line G, Tchaikovsky has the sole piccolo. Then the flutes and first violins are up at 3 line G, with the oboes, one clarinet and second violins starting at 2 line G. The violas and cellos are joined at 1 line C by the second clarinet and the bassoons. There are a lot of instruments playing the melody. In fact, most of the rest of the orchestra (bass clarinet, brass and string bass) is just playing the chords in half-notes.

Upon further inspection, although the score looks “busy,” it is quite simple in its orchestration. And the orchestration works because the melody is placed in the precise ranges to exploit the various sections of the orchestra. The only “busy“ work here are the two harps assiduously attacking their arpeggios.

It’s interesting to see how Tchaikovsky even includes all of those on the melody in the 32nd note upward runs each time the motive comes back in measures 48 and 50.

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (Orchestrated by Maurice Ravel), “Promenade” No. 2

In previous posts we examined small parts of Maurice Ravel’s orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky’s piano suite, Pictures at an Exhibition. Mussorgsky provides such evocative piano miniatures here that many musicians have attempted to make their own mark on the orchestration of the work, but Ravel’s is the best known by far.

I’d like to examine just the second half of the second “Promenade.” It’s noteworthy that Ravel sticks very close to the piano part, especially in the violin lines of the last two measures. In fact, in Ravel’s scoring the first and second violins are the only strings in the entire piece.

68.5 Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (Orchestrated by Maurice Ravel), “Promenade” No. 2 (7 – 12)
Eiji Oue, Minnesota Orchestra, Reference Recordings

As a pianist it would make sense for Mussorgsky to put those few notes in that high pedal in octaves. The top voice would die away too quickly and the bottom voice doesn’t give the few measures of just clarinets the magical effect nor the separation as that provided by the upper voices. This ephemeral effect works well enough using the octave doubling in the violins. One could wonder though if it was the orchestrator’s personal intention to double the line at the octave or if it was Ravel staying true to the original.

Debussy: La Plus Que Lente

Given the previous example of the Mussorgsky/Ravel it is a minor revelation to hear this brief example in Clause Debussy’s orchestral arrangement of his piano work, La Plus Que Lente. In Example 68.6, the rather high first violins are not doubled. They are alone for several measures as they move up to the high B and over the next few bars, play the same descending major third in each octave.

68.6 Claude Debussy: La Plus Que Lente (65 – 80)
Jean Martinon, Orchestre National de l’ORTF, EMI

The rather ethereal timbre is not often heard. The composer upon orchestrating the piano piece puts the sound to good use here, allowing the alternating cellos and woodwinds their antiphonal measures before soaring to this apex, then descending to turn the line over to the lower strings.

Rachmaninoff: Isle of the Dead

Just as an orchestrator may divide each section of strings, there are times where one may want to specify exactly the number of players desired. In the winds, as we heard in the Prokofiev above, the individual performers become brief soloists when called upon. But sometimes the composer will reduce the amount of players in a section of the string ensembles. In Example 68.7 the sound produced by just a few violins on one of these upper register lines adds a less frequently heard and therefore unexpected color.

68.7 Sergei Rachmaninoff: Isle of the Dead
Jascha Horenstein, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Chesky

Another item of interest here in Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead is the rapid pick-ups to the downbeat of each measure from 123. The composer begins with a short pick-up and gradually increases its length – and naturally its accelerated pacing – until it is perceived as glissando.

Bruckner: Symphony No. 7

In some of these previous examples the violin ascents rose above the orchestra. In this example from Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony the sound produced is reversed. Although there are some similarities between this example and the Debussy above, the differences are also apparent. In Example 68.8, the orchestra builds to a climax quickly and then, suddenly, most of the orchestra and – its commensurate volume – drops away. The violins alone are left to play this line with no lower doubles.

68.8 Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 7, Movement 2 (25 – 32)
Claudio Abbado, Vienna Philharmonic, Deutsche Grammophon

It’s a dramatic effect that may have become a bit too common in the ensuing years. Here though it works quite effectively. The addition of the clarinets that appear to echo the violins in the ensuing bars provides a useful transition to the next section of the work.

Ravel: Prélude à la nuit

For the final example in this post, I want to provide one of the many “go-to” works for fledging orchestrators. There are occasions where a composer wants to hear some specific combinations of instruments playing in unison or octaves. Unless the composer has an orchestra at his or her disposal, with current technology at least there is no convenient way to achieve this. A substitute is to find that combination of instruments in orchestral recordings.

Among the many of orchestrators whose works have particularly rich examples is, of course, Maurice Ravel. Bolero offers several great examples of one or two solo instruments playing the same line repeatedly. Another one of his works that offers the same variety is Prélude à la nuit, the first movement of Rapsodie Espagnole. The first section of the Prélude à la nuit movement has a descending four eighth note line (F-E-D-C#) repeated in almost each measure throughout the movement. Example 68.9 provides the opening measures of the work.

68.9 Maurice Ravel: Prélude à la nuit (1 – 22)
Charles Dutoit, Montreal Symphony Orchestra, London

In just these opening bars are heard the motif separated by two octaves in the first violins and the violas. A few measures later the composer adds an oboe in the empty octave in between. But a moment later the oboe is removed only to be replaced at the same pitches by the English horn for just a few bars.

The motif moves quickly down to lower sections of the strings to the cellos joined at the same pitch by the English horn.

A few measures later, the violas return with the motif and are joined at the unison by the second flute. But after just a few bars it returns to the first violins joined by a clarinet. Here again, the doubles are at the unison.

In addition to this repetitive four-note line, there are other interesting scoring ideas throughout the work, beginning with the first chord, in measure 4, played by the flutes, clarinets, pizzicato low strings and the harp. It is one of the great scores worth investigating for orchestration ideas.


These examples have varied widely, but a prime focus has been on unisons and doubles. Knowing how a combination of instruments will sound when played in these manners is of key importance to any composer of orchestra music.

I hope you enjoyed this post or found it useful. Feel free to send me a note (my address is on the About page) or leave a comment.

Matthew Yasner