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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 8, No. 3

Introduction to Music - Orchestration, the Colours of Music

by Sarah Choukah / November 2, 2002

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Man's fascination with the noise that comes from objects and the timbre of the first musical instruments is well illustrated by the myth of Orpheus. This love of timbre--this resonance, originally connected with wood, that we call tone colour--can be seen in many aspects of musical history. Over time, the development of instruments has continually stretched the envelope of acoustic physics. Orchestras, as we learned in Part 1 of this article, also evolved in terms of personnel and the advantages of arranging players to produce a desired sound. Composers' innovations were stimulated by ever growing musical possibilities, bringing corresponding advances in the study and practice of orchestration.

What is orchestration?

Orchestration is the art of composing for an orchestra, always keeping in mind each instrument's potential and limitations. It is also the art of associating different tone colours, combining the timbres of various families of orchestral instruments to satisfy a particular musical logic that the composer strives for. It's like a musical panel discussion. By mapping out the general plan of when various instruments will come in, the composer makes sure that the flow of discussion is arranged or spread around in a way that gives the work all the colour and energy it needs. Orchestration is just as important in composition as is counterpoint, the fugue, or the study of musical forms. Its greatest contribution to music is expression--an essential component. Without orchestration composers couldn't shape the sound of the instruments and their effect, something unthinkable in any kind of music.

Tone colour

"Colour" is a word used, among other things, as a means of comparison when discussing orchestration.

"I'd say it's even more than that," says composer Denis Beauchamp, who is also general manager of Archambault's century-old downtown Montreal music store. "Orchestration is a composer's tool, in a way. It's as important as other musical tools, because this is the stage where particular facets of the work are brought to the fore. Orchestration helps differentiate the levels and priorities of musical perception. It's one among several basic elements used to enable musical discourse to take place."

An example of this is the way an instrument can give an original touch to a composition simply by coming in at a certain point, thereby altering the musical flow and making the work progress. The perfect balance and clarity of Mozart's music captivate anyone who listens to it. Alan Belkin, who teaches composition at the University of Montreal, has written a treatise on orchestration. He points out that the freshness of Mozart's music is in part due to the very effective use of timbres in an unexpected way. "Even if an instrument, such as the oboe, has a familiar timbre, it can inject an element of surprise and novelty upon first being heard in a work. Mozart didn't have a great many instruments at his disposal, but he always found a way to make his instrumentation sound fresh."

However, timbre is not an end in itself. "Many other principles have to be taken into account when listening to a piece of music," says composer Gilbert Patenaude, who teaches choral singing at the Saint-Laurent CEGEP (junior college) and is artistic director of Les Petits Chanteurs du Mont-Royal as well as the women's choir, Les Voix d'elles. "Orchestration links and emphasizes these elements, but it doesn't mean that timbre is the basis of all musical perception. Harmonic arrangement, unusual note combinations, balance and alteration in the musical exchange among instruments, as well as rhythm, are all vital elements of music."

Learning by doing

There's no marking system for rating great composers' approaches to orchestration. Unlike other theoretical disciplines in composition (harmony, counterpoint, or fugue), it hasn't any hard and fast rules. Musicians learn orchestration mainly through experience, through spontaneous discoveries described in treatises, and through the teaching of great composers. It's very much a hands-on art that largely reflects the composer's musical personality, cultural background, and his or her place in Western history.

A musician's training and soundscape preferences give his or her orchestration a unique stamp. "There's a dichotomy between vocal and instrumental music," says Patenaude. "The demands are different, and the composer must be very aware of this. Singing requires a special quality of intonation and articulation in spoken language. We have great expectations of singers' expressive powers. Feelings can be conveyed very accurately in the words and must be transmitted faithfully to the audience, particularly in stage music."

Instrumental training also plays an important role in orchestrating techniques. Some people consider Brahms a really bad orchestrator. The plethora of flaws (as some see it) in his symphonies is in complete contrast to his unsurpassed ease in writing chamber music.

Historic developments in sound

All musicians have their particular influences and models, and musical appreciation is governed by personal preferences. The greatest composers distinguish themselves in different ways: Mozart for his precision and flow, Beethoven for his many additions to the orchestra and his innovations, Strauss for his richness of musical content (all themes being included in an orchestral tutti that is itself very full, with tone-colour combinations that are totally unexpected), Berlioz for his immense contribution to orchestration (his treatise is still a basic reference work for today's orchestrators, and he rounded out the possibilities of symphonic music in an extraordinary way), and Wagner for having pushed back the frontiers of virtuosity for orchestra musicians (inserting features that appeared unplayable, but are performed without difficulty today).

We shouldn't neglect the Russian contribution: Balakirev, Rimski-Korsakov, and Borodin stand out for their orchestral colour. Debussy and Ravel owe them a great deal (such as the latter's use of novel effects in The Spanish Hour). The Russians didn't have Wagner's ideal of colossal and exuberant sound, although they make considerable use of percussion and harmonics. Stravinsky wrote glissandos for all instruments and frequently used the harmonics of the double bass, techniques that Vincent D'Indy (not a fan of such devices) described as "horror effects worthy of the movies." Scriabin was already rethinking the use of equal temperament tuning in his orchestra.

Looking ahead . . .

The development of orchestration and research on the subject of timbre are moving a little faster in our day. Advances in computer technology have given us orchestral simulation, which is already being used by many students and composers (including Alan Belkin), and in some film music. It's possible to do analog simulation of an orchestra, producing instrumental timbres that are almost identical to the real thing--enough for many learning and experimental situations, in any case. To date, however, such software is far from attaining the precision of a real orchestra. Computer programming is therefore a helpful accessory, unlikely to replace the real thing in the foreseeable future, and probably never.

Modern communication technology has at last made it possible for composers, orchestrators, musicians, instrument makers, and conductors to push back the frontiers of musical expression. For the moment, electro-acoustics is the field with the most innovations and the one that is becoming most widely understood. Nevertheless, conventional instruments haven't yet ceased to yield up their secrets. Naturel, by Henri Pousseur, is a work for solo French horn that was the subject of a demonstration lecture on September 6 at the Conservatoire de musique de Montréal. Francis Orval, an internationally known soloist who teaches at the Trossingen Musikhochschule in Germany, explained many unusual methods of fingering, as well as exotic effects and microtonal intervals that his instrument can produce.

It's a mistake to think that musical creativity is at a standstill compared to the great works of the past. It is simply moving toward new horizons. "It's probably time for us, now, to take the longer road, to take time for a detour. If, in order to make true progress, the most direct road is impassable, then we'll have to take the longer one--and travel a little farther each day." [Translated by Jane Brierley]

  • Alessandro Baricco, Constellations, Paris: Gallimard, "Folio", 1998, p.15.

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