Sonic variety is a primary focus in the art of orchestration. Any musician’s toolkit must include the ability to hear variety, but also to discern sounds that are similar. Unless a composer or a musician in general has a solid knowledge of what variations produce sonic homogeneity, the creation of a diversity of sounds may be elusive. This area of one’s music education is especially important for the orchestrator. He or she will benefit from listening for and to pairings in the symphony hall as well as scores to films, television, and popular music.
In the past two posts we’ve examined mixtures of instruments and sections of instruments. This post will conclude this specific focus. In my next post I plan to broaden the topic to examine the overall makeup of orchestral music and to break down the various parts that make up a work. For now, we’ll finish with more pairings and the sounds they create.
Bartok provides a good example of a sonically unified section in Example 1. It is almost an analog to the stereotypical homogeneity that the strings naturally exhibit. Depending on the recording, the beginning six or seven measures of the passage (once the trumpets and trombones enter in the fourth measure of this excerpt) provide fullness and sonic timbre created by the two trumpets, two trombones, and the tuba. It’s not until the tuba plays the low C and its ensuing notes that the listener becomes aware of a unique sound in the lower register. Having the tuba ascend during this short passage reminds a listener of an organist “hitting” the bass on its pedals.
Example 1. Béla Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra, 2. Presentando Le Coppie
Sir Georg Solti, “Béla Bartók,” Chicago Symphony Orchestra, London
The cleverness of putting the two open trumpets in their in-staff register along with nearly in-staff passages of the trombones is typical of Bartok and his way of utilizing the orchestra’s sections to their color advantage. He also turns to the snare drum with its snares off to provide a resonant rhythmic energy to this otherwise block chord section.
With the trombones playing in their comfortable register, putting two trumpets above them is a smart way to make the brass section (sans horns) cohesive. The trumpet’s brass sound is similar in the Small octave (roughly C3 – C4) enough that the trombones disappear into the mix. One would not get the same effect with other winds.
In this next example (Example 2) Stravinsky has a melody played by bassoon with two trombones just below it providing the harmony. When the passage repeats in bar three, Stravinsky adds an oboe and an English horn doubling the trombones at the octave. It’s obvious that the double reeds are a different breed than the trombones, even though they are playing the same notes up one octave from trombones.
Example 2. Igor Stravinsky. The Firebird, 2. Kashchei’s Magic Garden, Measures 231 through 235
Pierre Boulez. “Stravinsky: The Firebird, Four Studies,” Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Deutsche Grammophon
There are a few other items of interest in this passage. First, note how the first chair plays a C-sharp that changes to a C-natural from the first to the second measure. The oboe does the same in measures three and four. While this is happening, the second part jumps up a diminished fifth from A to E-flat. The small linear move from C-sharp to C-natural is offset by this jump from A to E-flat. It also goes against one of the tenets of part writing to cross parts. However, the movement from A to E-flat is not only here in the second movement. It is, in fact, a familiar interval from other parts of the work.
The crossing is reminiscent of other composers who will use a similar technique to add a subliminal excitement to a passage. For example, let’s say two flutes have an off-beat pattern of three eighth-notes in thirds following an eighth rest. In the early nineteenth century, they would probably be written as shown in Example 3. However, in the latter part of the nineteenth century a more experimental composer, Prokofiev for example, might write the part as seen in Example 4, where the first flute plays the top of the third on the first eighth-note, the bottom on the second, and the top on the third. The second flute does the opposite. This will result in a minor change to the listener, perhaps imperceptible. Nevertheless, the sound will have movement and add a little excitement.
In the 12/8 measure the tremolo strings enter with the same tritone (E-flat – A). Also of note is the entrance of the contrabassoon on the low E-flat, doubled by the double basses. It’s an example of how some wind instruments are difficult to play at softer or louder volumes in certain registers. To be more specific, a middle C for the flute is almost impossible to play loudly. The same note for an oboe is quite difficult to play softly, especially with a non-professional performer.
As I have pointed out in previous posts, the bassoons are quite good at being chameleons, changing to adopt the tone quality of others when desired. In the first four measures of this next example from the Mahler sixth symphony, the clarinet section and bassoon section have a short chorale passage, the clarinets, including the bass clarinet, in their lowest register. The bassoon lines are intermixed with the clarinets in close harmony.
Example 5. Gustav Mahler: Symphony 6, Movement 4, Measures 106 through 114
Jascha Horenstein, “Bruckner: Symphony 8; Mahler Symphonies 6 & 9,” Stockholm Philharmonic, Unicorn
The next four measures have the horns and tuba playing the chorale in similarly tight harmonies with the bassoon section. It’s a useful and edifying juxtaposition, how the bassoons exhibit the woody richness when mixed with the clarinets and bass clarinet. Then, as soon as the brass enter, the bassoons adopt the more brilliant tone of the brass and immediately act to enrich the horn harmonies.
For a final review of how two very different instruments can combine to produce a pleasant but uniquely isolated sound, listen to the closing measures (Example 6) of Debussy’s orchestration of the third of Erik Satie’s Gymnopedies. These pieces were written for solo piano. Claude Debussy orchestrated the first and third.
Example 6. Erik Satie (Orchestration by Claude Debussy): Gymnopedie 2, Measures 66 through 78
Leonard Slatkin. “Vaughan-Williams, Barber, Grainger, Satie, Fauré,” Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, Telarc
As you might imagine, if you’ve ever heard the work played on the piano, Debussy scores it for a small, light orchestra: two flutes, one oboe, four horns, cymbale, two harps, and strings. Given the slow, open, and tranquil beauty of the piece, the instrumentation is quite appropriate. It’s noteworthy to see that the melody is never played by the horn until this passage at the end. Prior to this the horns add texture, harmony, and some small amount of rhythm.
Here at the end, though, Debussy has the oboe (and ultimately, the flute) play the melody an octave higher than the horn. To most of those knowledgeable with the instruments of the orchestra, as soon as the horn enters the sounds of the oboe and horn are distinct. Each contributes to the piece, but in its own unique way. The horn is rich in this upper part of its range. The oboe is similarly rich in this middle portion of its range.
The harp arpeggio, although used previously in the piece, almost feels like an announcement here that the horn is about to enter and provide a new sound, one unknown heretofore in this piece. Debussy, a consummate orchestrator, even removes the oboe and replaces it with the flute in the final few measures. This change may be subtle, but with the transparency of this piece and of this orchestration it is a noticeable modification of the double-reed timbre used to repeat the melody of the previous measure.
And finally, as the melody leaps up a fourth to the C in the penultimate measure, the oboe reinserts itself into the mix as the flutes provide the harmony. Debussy also adds the string section on beats two and three of the measure prior to the final two chords. Then on the penultimate measure the strings open the richness of the harmonies by filling in the three octaves with that sustained chord.
Blind Dates and Other Pairings – Take-away
In relative terms, making the string section sound like a cohesive unit is simple. The brass section and the woodwinds are more challenging. This is a natural phenomenon of the instruments themselves. The winds are composed of metal and wood. Some create sound with a single reed. Others with two reeds. Some sound is created by wind moving down a straight tube whereas others have sound circling through many feet of tubing.
Putting these sounds together can be a challenge. Knowing the instruments well can only help the composer and the orchestrator to decide how to combine them to create the sound, the color, and the impact desired for the composition.
In these posts we’ve listened to the music of Bartok, Brahms, Debussy, Elgar, Holst, Mahler, Mendelssohn, Ravel, Satie, and Stravinsky. The examples have demonstrated how to create sounds that are similar and sounds that are different. They have also shown how different instruments can support one another in creating a homogenous sound. And, we’ve also heard how instruments can retain their unique identity even when playing the same notes as others.
These concepts and examples are worth remembering. Composers will do what they do and new music will be created. But if there is an effect successfully used by one of the past masters, why not use or build upon techniques that have a proven sonic track record?