Adventures In Orchestration: From Piano To Ensemble, Part 5

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On other installments of this rudimentary discussion of adapting a piano piece for ensemble performance, we have looked at finding the true composer’s vision lying beneath even the compromise of his piano version, beginning note and color assignment, handling the conflict between following your vision versus perfect fidelity to the published piano piece, and translating pianistic elements to the world of monophonic orchestral instruments.

Perhaps a useful final discussion would be the putting of your personal stamp on your version through the meticulous editing of the notes after you have finalized their assignments. On the whole, solo piano pieces before the age of graphic scores and twentieth-century modernisms left a fair amount of room for interpretation. That was part of the charm of the solo performance; the composer shared a certain amount of the creative magic with the performer. Take a look at the ending of the final movement of our lab piano piece, Edward MacDowell’s “Fireside Tales: By Smouldering Embers,” and notice the paucity of expressive indicators he gave the pianist (example 1.)

When adapting a solo entity into an ensemble one, we don’t have that luxury. Multiple players have disparate points of view and need coordinating.

The essence of providing such coordination is a large part of the orchestrator’s art; he does it by carefully finalizing his concept in his head, and then expressing it on paper so clearly that the performers won’t have too much room to guess at it as individuals. Unfortunately, time and tradition have left us with not the largest set of tools with which to communicate (articulations, dynamics, tempi and, when those are exhausted, words,) so it behooves us to make maximum use of it.

It’s true that great string quartets live with a new piece for months, even years before they present their version to the public. At that point, not one snippet remains unexamined for content and unsettled in its interpretation and performance. It’s a collaboration of four master performers versus one lone composer, who could just as well have left all expressive content out completely as they would inevitably ferret it out for him. However, for the sake of the remaining 99% of ensembles which of necessity will fall short of that standard, you owe your players some guiding light down the path toward what you imagined fundamentally back in step one.

The hard part isn’t the drudge work of putting the symbology on the page; knowing the effects achieved by a finite set of musical symbols is the barest minimum requirement of any orchestrator. What’s difficult is the intensive fine-tuning in your own mind of the sound and the meaning of what your version is to convey. Otherwise, you abandon responsibility for these not-so-trivial elements to the composer who compromised on a piano version in the first place and your sure-to-be diverse (in opinion and temperament) ensemble in the second.

How to achieve this realization is rather difficult to describe, but you’ll know it when you’ve done it, and you’ll do it better with each attempt. It’s the difference between knowing what you want to say and knowing how to say what you want to say. One is art; the other is craft. In example 2, I have edited the score so that my vision becomes clear.

This last movement is extremely nostalgic and wistful, the best example of a musical sigh as I’ve found in some time. I’ve lengthened the phrasing of some melodies and slowed and stopped the forward momentum altogether at the point of maximum wistfulness. The whole point of a sigh is that it pauses normal breathing, thought, and discussion to reflect on something.

Hopefully, this series has given you a thumbnail sketch of the process which will afford you tools to begin your own pursuit of giving new life to old inspirations. Whatever your experience (or non-) with the composer’s art, you can experience some of its magic by this discovery-and-rebirth process, and the world will be the richer for your having done it.

Post Script: On another front, I have recently and single-handedly completed primary construction on my first website (,) partly as a promotional tool (aren’t they all?) and partly as a lab experience in learning the art (and possibly as seed material for a future column on accomplishing more with less.) A snippet of this MacDowell orchestration is there, as well as many others.

You have been very supportive in reading my columns for quite a while now, and I am grateful for your kind loyalty. It has occurred to me, though, that you have also been taking a lot of what I say on faith, as you have not had a chance to directly experience any of my work. I’m hoping you will find a bit of time to visit my site and finally do so. As the site will be constantly updated (a side-benefit of the do-it-yourself approach is that updates are easy,) feel free to return as interested to check for new content.

And for those with vaster experience in website philosophy, design, and construction, perhaps you can be the teacher and I the student…