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Writing an orchestral score

Many, many years ago, long before the computer was invented, when only in their wildest flights of unattainable fancy might composers ever have dreamt of the possibility that such a thing as "Sibelius ‘7" or a similar device might someday be invented, my father bought me a set of books: "The New Musical Educator", a compendium of instruction in various aspects of the art and practice of music.

The chapter that influenced me probably more than anything else in the whole set of volumes, was written by a music academic and distinguished critic of the day, long since forgotten, but still deserving of more than a passing acknowledgement: William McNaught. The title of the chapter was simply - "ORCHESTRATION". For the absolute beginner it set out in the most basic terms what the word meant.

What follows then, is a paraphrase of that essay, where necessary brought up-to-date for the interested amateur musician of today, and the well-informed music student who might already claim to know all there is to be known about the orchestra and how to write for it.

Orchestration is the product of knowledge, skill and toil. The basic knowledge can be gained by reading technical books, but the skill in practising the art and craft can only be gained by long experience, and best of all by actually playing an instrument and sitting for many long hours of rehearsals and concerts within the ranks of an orchestra.

There is a gift of orchestral insight that appears to be granted at birth or not at all. A number of minor musicians have possessed it; but it was denied to several of the great composers. In this it is not unlike the gift that some conductors are naturally endowed with: no amount of sophisticated Conservatoire training, or lofty university degree can guarantee that the student will become a celebrated conductor, or have the creative genius that makes a great composer, or spark of insight that is the mark of a born orchestrator. Nevertheless, orchestration, like other aspects of musicianship can, at least to some extent, be taught.

As already remarked, some of the most gifted orchestrators have been only modest composers: practical men, often with a theatrical background; opera and ballet composers, whose often hurried tasks have been to orchestrate music (not necessarily of their own creation) with skill and speed, and more often than not with scant instrumental forces at their disposal. Such down-to-earth conditions required them to be imaginative, inventive and resourceful. Many ballet composers have been admired for their skill in creating sparkling, effective, yet eminently practical orchestral scores that enhance the music in the best possible way, and not least, are grateful and satisfying to play. On the other hand some of the great composers of serious symphonic music, while having been inspired to create masterpieces of music as such in itself, have been unimaginative and uninspired manipulators of orchestral technique. Schumann and Brahms, being undoubted giants of the classical-romantic period were, after all, rather dull when it came to clothing their lofty creations in the most effective orchestration.

So what does the process of orchestration amount to? Most early drafts of a passage of music are likely to be sketched out, if not invariably for the piano, at least on two staves so that the melody and its accompanying bass line and inner harmonies can be seen, and perhaps suitably played at a keyboard. This at least gives some idea of what the music is intended to sound like. Orchestration is the process of sharing out, or allotting to the available instruments of the orchestra, the various constituents of the original rough sketch. Quite apart from the artistic skill and imagination that the orchestrator needs to bring to the task, there is a more prosaic, but equally necessary labour to be undertaken: that of actually writing it all down by hand. (Remember, the computer is of very recent development, and is still not the complete answer to the problems involved in this basic task).

Whereas the initial sketch might be on just two conventional piano staves, a treble and a bass; the orchestral page might contain anything from say 12 to 36 separate staves, usually one for each instrument; although sometimes a pair of wind instruments might share a stave between them. The original sketch has then, to be suitably and appropriately expanded to fill in the other staves. This large page forms what is known as the ‘full score’.

The etymology of the word ‘score’ is not especially important; loosely speaking it means the page or pages on which any music is written, so that ‘full score’ means the large page or pages on which music for a whole orchestra, or indeed any other group of instruments or vocal lines are written.

The toil of writing out a full-score by hand, needs to be considered: by comparison literary labour is trivial indeed! Copy out a page of a sonnet by Shakespeare, or even a novel by Emily Brontë, and then take one page of a full score, say of Wagner’s ‘Tristan und Isolde’, Imagine this task multiplied a thousand times (roughly the number of pages in the full score of the whole opera). This is the magnitude of copying music compared with merely writing lines of words. Words can be copied fluently and speedily because written language is formed of a few conventional symbols - the letters of the alphabet formed into familiarly-recurring word patterns. Musical symbols are infinitely more complex and variable. It might take a minute or so to read what is printed on the page of a book, so compact is word-printing, but a page of music might take only a second or two to play through, yet its printed symbols are immensely complex, hence a piece of music takes up far more space on the printed page. Whereas perhaps forty or fifty lines of spoken language can be printed on a page; just one ‘line’ of music, when expanded into a full score, where each instrument has a ‘line’ to itself when all these individual lines are performed (or, as one might say ‘read’) at the same moment, takes a whole page! This indicates yet another way of regarding the enormity of the task of writing out a full score.

Once the play or novel has been printed, it can be reproduced any number of times for the actors to have an identical copy, or the individual reader to read for himself. But the full score has to be, as it were, broken down into separate parts for each individual player to ‘read’ from, since the ‘lines’ or (as musicians call them, the ‘parts’) are unique in themselves; each ‘part’ (or ‘line’) is different: what is appropriate for the 1st flute to contribute to the whole ensemble is quite different to what the 2nd flute, or 1st oboe, or 3rd trumpet or any other instrument in the orchestra is required to ‘read’ (and thus play). So that having finished the immensely arduous labour of copying the original full score from the rough draft, the composer’s or the orchestrator’s task is still not finished. From this neat and legible full score has to be copied all the separate lines or parts yet again, but this time on separate sheets of music paper, one for each player. A thirty-minute symphony might run to 200 pages of full score, but each individual instrumental part has then to be copied as well. The string instruments usually have the most notes to play, and perhaps the percussion the least; so that the 1st violin ‘part’ might in itself, when copied or extracted from the full score, run to 20 or 30 pages. Before easy computerised reproduction of pages of music, almost all new music had to be copied by hand; not just the first copy, but in the case of the many string players in an orchestra, several hand-written copies of the first laboriously made copy. If there are twelve violinists playing the 1st violin 'part' they will need at least one copy between two players (since two players sit to a desk and read from a ‘part’ between them). This means six copies have to be made by hand. The same goes for the remainder of the large number of string players. On the other hand the wind players have to be provided with just the exact specific ‘part’ copied for their particular instrument. So, for example an orchestra of, say eighty players, comprising perhaps sixty strings, (for which there will be thirty copies of their particular parts: violins, violas, ’cellos, and basses) for the wind players there will need to be another twenty separate ‘parts’ (unique copies) for the individual (i.e. not duplicated like the string ‘parts’).

Of course, music printing, had been a specialised form of printing from very early baroque times, but in the first instance before a piece of music was undertaken by a printer and carefully engraved (so that an infinite number of copies could be made from it) it had, first of all, to be copied by hand in order to try it out, to see if it really worked in actual performance, before embarking on the expensive process (and even more laborious than hand copying) of engraving it for commercial exploitation. All the world’s great music had first of all to be copied by hand, and much of it - especially from the early twentieth century - is still only available in hand-written copies (easily photocopied now, of course). Many publishers of serious orchestral music have never engraved, and printed for sale, a huge amount of music by distinguished and successful composers of the past century or so. The separate orchestral ‘parts’ (colloquially - ‘the band parts') remain in manuscript and are available only for hire, although many of the full scores of such works are printed and available for anyone to purchase and study.

It has been stressed what a labour the art, and even more so the prosaic craft, of orchestration is. It caused Haydn so often to add at the foot of the last page of many of his symphonies, the words: "Laus Deo" - (God be thanked) that the labour was finished!

Lest it be thought that orchestration is a grievous labour comparable with that of childbirth, it must be pointed out that the result of hearing one’s orchestration being played for the first time is as ecstatic to the orchestrator as the first sight of a new born child must be to the mother herself. Indeed, hearing one’s newly orchestrated music for the first time is not unlike an orgasm.

© Arthur Butterworth

October 2002


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