Aureole etc.

Golden Age singers

Nimbus on-line

Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett



There are many textbooks available on the art, craft, and styles of orchestration. This brief résumé can do no more than outline the most basic details, and suggest recourse to more in-depth information and historical study.

A previous article in this series set out to define what orchestration means, and what kind of process it is. Perhaps it is true to say that the very earliest of orchestral music — the baroque age of Bach and Handel — did not really exhibit very much in the way of imaginative craftsmanship. In an even earlier age music was often described as "apt for voices or viols". This meant that the texture and substance of the music was so designed as to be equally suitable for human voices to sing, or to be played on whatever instruments, not necessarily strings, might be to hand. Obviously vocal music needed to have words on which to hang the melodies, but such melodies could just as appropriately be played on instruments. Baroque music still tended to follow this pattern. Much of Bach or Handel’s vocal melodic patterns, along with their attendant harmonies: the bass lines and inner voices, were allotted to the accompanying instruments. Leaving out the voices still provided a satisfying texture of instrumental sound alone. Even the most cursory glance at the score of a Bach orchestral suite will reveal a fairly regular pattern, not unlike that of a patterned textile, a carpet or wall-paper. The upper parts do not - superficially - appear to be particularly different from the bass line or the middle parts. It was all counterpoint. What one instruments played could just as effectively be given to any other instrument. The 1st violin or oboe parts could be transferred to the ’cello or bassoon. Even the trumpets could join in a florid and decorative melodic texture. This rule of thumb method of allotting the strands of texture more or less equally to the available instruments hardly called for subtle artistry and cunning craftsmanship. This, of course, is not to deny the genius of such great composers in creating imaginative music as such; it merely points out that the highly subtle way of treating individual orchestral instruments each in its own very specialised way was only very basically appreciated.

It must now seem outrageously heretical to suggest that much of Bach’s scoring, for all that it can efficiently be realised in performances is in reality very often inept and rigid. Some of the long-winded obbligatos for solo instruments - oboe d’amore, flute, violin, trumpet or whatever else - are often given relentlessly long and unrelieved passages of sinuously winding counterpoint in which there is no contrast of texture, the motifs of which wind on and on like the convoluted threads of an oriental tapestry: hence the pattern-like style of orchestration.

With the decline of the baroque age and the arrival of the early classics of Haydn and Mozart came a new, more subtle and less stylised way of using the instruments of the orchestra. Instead of every instrument being called upon to take part in one particular kind of chosen contrapuntal texture, no matter how awkward at times, that might be for one instrument compared with another, the early classical method was far more lucid: clarity of each instrument’s different timbre and special characteristics were better exploited. The particular facilities of the violin were not expected to be echoed by the oboes, the horns or the trumpets. Instead these individual wind instruments were allotted the kind of musical textures that aptly suited their own individual nature. The ability of the horn to contribute long-held static chords in support of the prevailing harmony, for instance, or the rhythmic propensity of the trumpets to play fanfare-like phrases, the flute to develop a melody in a more decorative florid way, and so on. In this way there was the first real beginnings of style in orchestration. As yet this was still quite simple; but this simplicity brought about a luminous clarity to the sound of instruments in consort: the essence of orchestration in the very best sense. Hence the early classics of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven are the basic models for clear, audible and satisfying sound. However, the early classics, though on the face of it so simple. harmonically and melodically, are in fact still some of the most difficult challenges to present-day orchestral performance. This is because the texture is so lucid and clear: every solitary note can be heard, so they have to be performed to perfection, the least flaw can be detected; even the most inexpert listener can tell that ‘something sounds wrong’. This is not quite so with much of the earlier, florid and highly decorated baroque, where the textures, being relatively dense and the harmonic progress so contorted, the inexpert ear can be perplexed, finding the music difficult to listen to.

With the rise of romanticism, and still later the enormously expanded size of the nineteenth and twentieth century orchestra, the whole concept of orchestration took on a far more complex subtlety. In place of the rigidly-patterned ‘wall-paper’ of the baroque, or the lucid simplicity of the early classics, there arose a more picturesque way of treating the instruments of the orchestra: within in each group: strings, wood-wind, brass and percussion, it was appreciated that every individual instrument had its own unique character. Bach may well have been aware of, for example, the plaintive character of the oboe d’amore, or the heroic nature of the trumpet, but this was as nothing compared to the immensely inventive way later composers regarded the instruments available to them. Instead of ‘patterned wall-paper’ orchestrators began almost literally to paint highly-coloured pictures in sounds: huge ‘canvases’ of romantic, impressionist, and modern scores. Some of this however became so complex, the scoring so dense (ironically, not unlike some aspects of baroque scoring), that its objective could even be said to have been thwarted: the subtlety of its cunning instrumental colouring obscured by the very means intended to enhance it. An extreme example might be found in Richard Strauss, where the sheer numbers of instruments employed and the immense virtuosity demanded of each player is such that the ear cannot always take in what they eye — in reading the score - expects to be audible to the ear. ‘An Alpine Symphony’ (1915) is one of the densest scores imaginable. According to your taste it is certainly an impressive piece of music, and it can certainly be performed by capable orchestral players; but whether all the minutiae of inner detail is ever really heard is a most debatable point. Part of the philosophy behind this kind of orchestral thinking on the part of its composer might well have been hinted at by Strauss himself, who, so legend has it, on one of his last visits to Britain shortly before his death in 1949, was rehearsing ‘Don Quixote’, The distinguished principal viola of the orchestra being rehearsed, was asked by Strauss to play a certain passage a bit faster. The player demurred and remarked that it was hardly possible to play it faster and still retain clarity of execution: to which Strauss replied that "it’s not the notes that matter, it’s the effect". This seems clearly to demonstrate the composer’s intention and to justify his method of scoring: not that of seeking crystal clarity and luminous definition of every written note in the score (as is surely the purpose and intention of Mozart’s lucid scoring, where every note must be heard, and in good performance certainly is heard, hence the difficulty of performing the classics adequately). But rather in Strauss (and many others - Mahler, Elgar, Sibelius, Debussy, Ravel, to name just a few) the intention is to create an overall haze of scintillating sound. We do not hear every semiquaver, nor can we apprehend every note of a harp glissando, but instead, rather like viewing an impressionist or pointillist painting, we get an impression of dazzling sound. Of course it is often possible to reduce such virtuoso scoring to the basic essentials so that the ear can still apprehend the melodies and harmonies germane to the musical structure. This is often illustrated when a well-known virtuoso orchestral score is in some way slimmed down for a youth orchestra to tackle. A familiar example is Moussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’. The sophisticated orchestration of Ravel can be more or less discarded yet the essential outlines of the score can be re-created in easier terms of orchestral technique; this may not overall sound as opulent or as magical, but it often can sound clearer and more lucid, the essential structure revealed without the accretion of such virtuosic decoration.

There are of course, almost limitless numbers of styles in modern orchestration. Unlike the early classics where there seemed to be an almost conventional way of allotting the various parts of the melodic and harmonic structure to the basic orchestra (for example Rossini’s orchestration is much the same for every piece he wrote), later composers become identifiable almost as much by a mere glance at a page of their orchestration than from the basic texture of the music itself.

Arthur Butterworth © February 2003


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