Adventures In Orchestration: From Piano To Ensemble, Part 2

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Last time we established a general foundation with which to approach an orchestration of a piano piece for a small ensemble, in our case a woodwind quintet. Our laboratory will be a piano piece I was commissioned to adapt several years ago, Edward MacDowell’s “Fireside Tales.” A good piece to work with, as it has a fairly obvious programmatic intent, and it’s in the public domain (MacDowell died in 1908.)

Movement 1 provides a good starting point to get your feet wet. While space does not allow an exhaustive look at the whole piece, or sections of my completed score, we can still have a useful discussion. Let’s look at the source theme, and its answer, excerpted in complete detail here (see example 1):

Under the strategy we discussed last week, input and play back this section of the first movement without any of the published detail (tempo, etc.) Try out several tempi, sounds, even transposed keys to see what the raw notes say to you. Heed any impressions that come to you at this stage, and hang onto them, because they will be the building blocks of your, repeat your, version of what this piece will become. Then sequence back in all the detail that the composer and/or the publisher provided and play back some more. By now, you will know pretty well where you are going and the rest will be just crafting the vehicle which lets your listener go along for the ride.

What I heard and felt, given the title, word clues and my impressions from the bare notes was not so much a simple recalling of past romance, but rather a deep love mixed with a large dose of nostalgia and time. How to express? Which of the quintet most effectively speaks “nostalgia” and “emotion?” Oboe is hard to beat. We can’t start with the horn, because it will be used so effectively for the answering melodic line beginning in bar 8.

Given this basic color structure of oboe answered by horn, the rest of the movement essentially was a matter of fleshing out the voicings, working from the top down (when the featured melodic elements were on top, or from the bottom up (when the flavor emphasized a full bottom.) Eventually, it became clear that a change of key was necessary, as a subsequent horn solo required support voicings not within the clarinet range when working with the bassoon. Moving the key from F up to G was a trade-off (as such decisions invariably are) because, while accommodating an important flavor supporting the horn, it also took an otherwise warm and somber key and made it a touch brighter. (“sigh!”)

Such tough choices are everywhere in orchestration. Just as even a great ballplayer fails to hit successfully two-thirds of the time, you must learn to be satisfied with the “least worst” solution just about that often.

Notice how essentially the first 8 bars are a four-voice entity? How do fit a quartet peg into a quintet hole? Why even bother? One of the fundamental ingredients of good orchestration is variety. We could simply go looking for notes to flesh out the voicings without altering their basic flavor we’d be missing a opportunity. Variety is not just a wealth of momentary colors, but also changes in density and weight over time. Why make bars 1-8 as “heavy” as the bars that follow? I chose instead to keep it at the four-voice level, but split up the lead line, starting with oboe to set the nostalgic tone, but having the flute take over at the beginning of bar 4 (making sure to overlap both on beat one.) By bar 9, when we need all five voices (at least,) the greater thickness is another element of newness to stimulate the ear.

In bar 9, however, we face another “no-win” decision. We have the open 5ths at the bottom, supporting a theme with triads above it. The theme, by range and temperament, we already planned for the horn (with the ramp up in bar 8.) With 4 voices left, which gets shortchanged? The triads on top are more important than the pedal point on the bottom, since they move. I decided that the open fifth was not as important as those triads, so they were used verbatim and the bottom b a single note in the bassoon.

Upcoming: More decision-making, as well as clarifying our vision through editorial fine-tuning.


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  • Paul witt
    September 28, 2008 @ 1:42 pm

    An interesting look into the mind of an orchestrator. Useful techniques for an arranger working against the clock.

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