52. Kitchen Sink Orchestration, Part 1


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

Have you ever been asked, when hearing orchestra music with non-musician associates, “How did that guy write all that?”

This is one of those typical vague questions to which there is no simple answer. The mind of a musician works on a different plane than that of a non-musician. If you are a musician, you’re probably hearing the quality of the performance and the major themes being played. Perhaps you’re focusing on the overall harmonic structure of the work or simply the chord changes. And, if you’re in the right environment and you are able to focus well, you hear some of the other, less prominent aspects of the music: the background parts, changes in tempo, countermelodies, et al. (You may also be thinking, “Do I need some new associates?”)

It’s not hard to understand how the ability to notate it all can be unimaginable for a non-composer. The thought of each of those instruments in the hands of a group of fifty or sixty players and how they sound together, their ranges, timbres, textures and capabilities can seem arcane and esoteric.

But for a composer, arranger, orchestrator or simply a music devotee, it’s what you live for. It’s your bread and butter.

With this post we are going to start investigating all the parts that go into using the full orchestra, often – but not always – making a large sound. Frequently this is known as the “kitchen sink” style of orchestration. It’s when the orchestrator pulls out all the stops (a reasonable and “organ-ic” metaphor!) and gets most of the orchestra playing.  Even with so many instrumentalists involved, the orchestrator may still toss in the kitchen sink for good measure.

We’ll examine some wonderful examples that will explore how the sound gets made. Because these passages involve so much of the orchestra, the scores have a lot of staves. I recommend using the “Full Screen” button on the examples to see and hear the scores. Also, remember that the thumbnails at the top of each post can be exploded and even displayed in an image or photo viewer to see the parts in a separate window.

This post has two very different works used as examples of full orchestral scoring, two works that might be viewed as an alpha and an omega in terms of the size and the use of an orchestra. The first is scored for double woodwinds, four horns, two trumpets, timpani and strings. This is pretty standard scoring for much of the nineteenth century. The second is scored for quadruple winds, all of which have an array of doubles (except the bassoon parts, which require only three players – but with one doubling on the contrabassoon), at least seven horns, four trumpets, three trombones and tuba, several percussion players, harp and strings. Notably the two works were written and had their world premieres only fifteen years apart.

Good Morning

We’ll start in a simple and straightforward manner with an old warhorse. Many might associate this well-worn work with Saturday morning kids’ cartoons. (I remember first hearing it as one myself.) In fact it’s from Edvard Grieg’s 1875 incidental music to Henrik Ibsen’s play entitled Peer Gynt.

The fourth act opens with the arrival of the dawn. The flute immediately introduces the 6/8 melody with clarinets and bassoons playing the sustained harmony. Even when the strings enter after the first four bars, now accompanying the melody in the oboe, their role is a completely subordinate one. As the melody is passed between these two solo winds in shorter and shorter segments, we finally arrive at the first big playing of the melody at measure 21. You can hear the last few preceding measures and the full orchestral sound in Example 52.1.

Example 52.1 Edvard Grieg: Peer Gynt, Act 4, “Morning Mood” (17 – 40)
Thomas Beecham, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, EMI

Although the orchestral entrance at measure 21 is the target, it’s interesting and edifying to see how Grieg gets there, simply and straightforwardly. First the flute, then the oboe play a one-measure portion of the melody. This is followed by the two, each playing half-measure descending arpeggios, which turn out to be quite similar to the melody itself. And, not coincidentally, the chord and arpeggios are B major triads, the dominant chord (V) of the key, E major.

Before focusing on the main melody at measure 21, I’ve included the four preceding measures to deconstruct how Grieg gets to the big sound melody. As you can hear and see, measure 17 has the flute melody in the three-line C area with the bassoon and second clarinet in octaves at small B and one-line B, and the first clarinet on the third above the second clarinet. They are playing the V chord, attacked on the downbeat with the flute on the fifth of the chord. When the oboe enters an octave lower in measure 18, all the strings except double basses have an almost closed V chord, the exception being the open fifth in the cellos. You can hear the richer sound supporting the oboe by the strings.

The composer then moves from the V chord in measure 19, with the antiphonal sound of the woodwinds under the flutes moving to the strings under the oboe, to the V7 chord in measure 20. The seven of the dominant chord, the A, is played by the first bassoon (moving to a bright and somewhat penetrating range) and the double-stopped second violins and cellos. Although the melody is playing a B arpeggio, the orchestra has moved to the slight dissonance of the V7 sound. Adding to the tension are the new instruments playing the V: the timpani roll beginning on one and the horns in octaves on two.

For many I may be pointing to the obvious, but the simplicity of this scoring still has the ability to force the listener to get to the next measure when the tonic returns, the timpani crescendo ends with the movement to an E downbeat and the double basses enter on their low Es. It’s a satisfying way to move from the lightness of one solo flute to the full orchestra reintroducing the melody in some ten seconds.

When the melody enters at measure 21 it’s played in three octaves by the all of the strings save the basses. The winds and basses have sustained notes on the downbeats of the first two measures, changing to each beat in the third measure (23), and then sustained again in measure 24. There is that little bit from the bassoons and basses on the second beat of the measure that helps maintain the previous bar’s move to F-sharp minor, but orchestrationally it is relatively trivial.

Grieg then repeats the same orchestration in the new but short-lived tonal center for the two measures, 25 and 26. It’s in the next few measures that the harmony and orchestration move the beautiful edginess along hand in hand. In measures 27, 28 and 29, Grieg seems to be urging the orchestra along to come to rest, at least temporarily, at the extraordinary G-sharp major chord on measure 30. But it’s interesting to see how he gets there. Unless you’re a “pop guy” or “jazz guy”: In that case, you might recognize a fairly routine set of turns, all based on standard voice leading.

Note the two lines playing thirds in all three measures: The bottom notes are F-sharp, G-sharp and A. The voices are perfectly scored in the flutes, oboes and ascending horns to sing out these chord progressions, even with the three octaves of melody in the strings. The chord “turns” are the perfect compliment to the increasingly tense melody for these few measures. And, when we finally arrive at the G-sharp chord on measure 30 we’ve arrived there by the parallel harmonies in the winds.

If you doubt the logic, I’ll simplify it for you in contemporary pop terms in Image 52.1.
52.1 Grieg - Peer Gynt - Morning 26 - 30 chords
Image 52.1 Edvard Grieg: Peer Gynt, Act 4, “Morning Mood” (26 – 30)

When we finally arrive at the climax in delectable G-sharp major Grieg uses, as he has throughout the passage, the closed style of chord writing, but this time mostly in the winds. The sustained G-sharp major chord in measure 30 is played in three octaves by the winds and the low strings. It’s a very standard way of writing, but it works here to greet the arrival of the morning sun, especially with the flutes and horns singing in a bright register. Shimmering behind them are the violins and violas playing the G-sharp major arpeggios in blocks of sixteenth notes, descending an octave in the progress of two measures. It’s also nice to see how the composer maintains the horn and low string chord to the second beat of measure 31 while the remainder of the chord ended on the first beat, constituting both an aural and visual decrescendo.

I’ve included the ensuing passage mainly to show how simple and effective the writing is. On the downbeat of measure 32 there are only two bassoons holding a triad with the high cello melody, which is immediately echoed in the second violin part. The open harmonies here in the upper strings are in direct contrast to the fully closed harmonies of the previous measures. Then, as soon as the passage is through, the G-sharp major chord returns for one beat complete with the previous upper string lines and closed harmonies. On the second beat of the bar the cello line sings brightly as the passage is repeated verbatim in the following bar.

Grieg’s not done with this scoring yet, though: In the next measure the G-sharp arpeggios return, but lower this time, rising for three beats. And those are three beats marked cresc. molto. But the crescendo is only part of the fun Grieg has for us. The other part being the V7-I progression from C7 to F on the second beat of measure 37 to measure 38.

I call it fun, but I should point out that in another context simply moving your harmony from G-sharp major to C7 might get your hand slapped by your music professor. Though, I suppose that by the latter part of the nineteenth century, it may not have been too big of a deal.

Note that the composer simply orchestrates the F major chord virtually identically to the preceding G-sharp major one from measure 30. It makes one wonder what he would have thought about using one of modern technology’s music notation programs to simply copy and paste measures 30 and 31 to measures 38 and 39 and then use the transpose option. Then again, the idea of hearing a reasonable representation of your score as you’re composing it would astound any nineteenth century composer.

Three different ways to say the same thing

In my next post we will examine a repeated idea in the final movement of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony Number 1. To whet your appetite, in Example 52.2 you have a soft playing of a theme that returns in two very big ways later in the movement.

Example 52.2 Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 1, (“Titan”) Movement 4 (294 – 311)
James Judd, Florida Philharmonic Orchestra, Harmonia Mundi

The focus is on the melody played by the trumpet beginning in measure 296 and continuing through measure 302.

For now, note the trumpet is supported by the homorhythmic chords in the other trumpets and the trombones, while the violins have C major arpeggio tremolos. It’s a passage that is marked to be played quite softly. In addition, due to the mutes, the brass have a slight bite to them. You’ll note a clear difference in timbre when the one trumpet and one trombone enter without mutes just a bar or two later.

Also, hear how the triplets in the first trumpet move harmonically from C in a 6/4 inversion to F to C, a fairly typical plagal cadence.

This is definitely not what happens the next time the phrase is played.


We’ll examine much more about this melody in the Mahler and another composer noted for his occasional “kitchen sink” approach to orchestration. I hope you enjoyed reading and listening to this post.

Please let me know if you have any questions or want to comment on the material.

Matthew Yasner