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9. orchestral writing: listening and score study

the paradox of learning to write for orchestra

Learning to write for orchestra presents an interesting challenge for young writers. On the one hand, there are extensive pedagogical materials and highly evolved courses of study on orchestration in academia. In addition, there is an extensive body of scores and recordings available for study. However, opportunities for writers to hear their orchestral work performed at a high level is extremely limited.

Orchestras, even at the college level, are reluctant to devote their valuable rehearsal time to reading works by inexperienced writers. To get a piece programmed by an orchestra, even a college, local, or regional ensemble, usually requires that the writer be able to demonstrate that they have already written successfully for orchestra. This presents a kind of Catch-22 for the young writer: you can’t get an orchestral work performed unless you’ve already had an orchestral work performed.

There are, of course, avenues for the motivated and entrepreneurial writer to get their work performed. One thing that has become almost mandatory is being able to provide a high quality mock up of your work. (It goes without saying that the score and part preparation must be at the highest professional level to even be considered.) Facility with notation and DAW software is an important skill for writers, and the ability to create a musical and realistic mock up of orchestral writing is no easy task: it takes a lot of time, energy, and technical study. Writers who choose not to develop this skill often have to hire someone to create the mock up, and this can be quite expensive.

suggestions on how to listen to and study scores

An enormous repertoire of orchestral and chamber works are worthy of study – for writers working in any style. This list is an attempt to reduce that repertoire to a workable set of orchestral works for which scores and recordings are available. Consider this list a starting point in your study of orchestral and chamber music.

Studying orchestral scores can be a somewhat daunting task, so here are some suggestions about how to go about it.

First, listen to the whole piece without looking at the score. Try to get a good sense of what the piece is about and what’s going on in it. Then, examine the score order and in particular look at the transposing instruments. Clarinet in A is fairly common. Older scores also have trumpets in other keys and horn parts that, while in F, sometimes don’t use key signatures. Published “study scores” are often “optimized” (to use the Finale term) so if an instrument doesn’t play in a particular system it doesn’t appear in the score. When going from system to system it can sometimes be confusing to follow a particular part if the instrument names don’t appear on the optimized system (fairly common).

Then, listen to a single movement while reading the score. Follow the principal ideas and try to get a sense of where the music flows from page to page. Listen a second time and make quick notes about things you want to go back and check. Listen a third time, pausing the music in those places. With the music on pause, study the score carefully. Look at the scoring – transposing notes as needed – and perhaps analyze the harmony and write in chord symbols so you can understand how the parts work on the overall harmonic picture.

It’s not uncommon to spend several hours over a period of a few days on a single movement trying to figure out what’s going on. Over the course of a few weeks, you will have listened deeply to a whole piece in this way. If you think it might be useful, you can create a reduced, transposed score of certain passages to better understand exactly how the music is put together.

Once you’ve gone through all the movements of the piece like this, put the score away and listen to the entire piece, just letting your attention go where it’s drawn, appreciating the music and your understanding of it. You may be surprised how your perception of the music has deepened and changed.

some essential works with brief notes

Adams, Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986). This is a great illustration of the use of minimalist techniques in a somewhat more standard context. It’s very short, extremely well-scored, and contains a number of useful scoring devices.

Barber, Adagio for Strings (1936). An essential contemporary work displaying balance, innovation, and extremely beautiful sonorities within the context of the string orchestra.

Bartok, Concerto for Orchestra (1943). This is a great piece, full of interesting and unusual scoring. Also valuable for its expanded harmonic vocabulary, it retains a high degree of melodic and structural coherence.

Beethoven, 5th (1804-08) and 6th Symphonies (1808). A study in contrast, these two works should be studied together. The 5th is a model of lean, no-frills writing, while the 6th is expansive and freeflowing. The orchestration of both is flawless.

Debussy, La Mer (1903-05). A wonderfully scored work displaying the composer’s work in a broad symphonic form. It’s a rich harmonic treatment in the mature Impressionist style.

Debussy, String Quartet in G Minor (1893). Along with Ravel’s quartet in F major, this is one of the seminal string quartet works from the turn of the century. There are numerous recordings of this work paired with Ravel’s.

Dvorak, 8th Symphony (1889). This may have the reputation of being a lesser work, but it is scored extremely well and is an excellent example of inventive writing within a tonal context. The piece is unusually well-balanced and represents some of the composer’s best work.

Holst, The Planets (1914-16). A tremendously influential work, particularly for film composers, the piece is full of effective and interesting scoring. This is Holst’s most famous work, though he didn’t feel it was his best.

Ligeti, Lux Aeterna (1966). Most people first heard this in the film 2001. This piece explores clusters and densely blurred textures and, like Ligeti’s Threnody, has deeply influenced film composers writing in the horror genre.

Mahler, 9th Symphony (1908-09). A long, difficult, and complex piece. The orchestration is also complex and multi-layered. This piece is astounding in its inventiveness and the sheer amount of musical materials. An in-depth study of the piece would take the most serious student several weeks, if not longer, but would be extremely valuable.

Mozart, String Quartets in A Major K.464 (Consonant) and C Major K.465 (Dissonant) (1785). Mozart wrote these quartets as part of a set dedicated to Joseph Haydn. He wanted to impress Haydn, who was a famous, universally respected composer at the time, so Mozart took a great deal of time and effort with these pieces, revising them several times. These quartets are probably the greatest examples of imitative counterpoint from the Classical era.

Mozart, Symphony #40 (1788). An old chestnut, to be sure, but an example of classical orchestration at its highest level.

Penderecki, Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960). This was a groundbreaking work and remains a source of inspiration for extended techniques, sound mass, and aleatoric elements. These techniques, and their sonic result as displayed in this piece, have been hugely influential in the language used by composers scoring horror films.

Ravel, Pavane (1910). One of Ravel’s best-known pieces and a model of melodic balance and effective scoring.

Ravel, Pictures at an Exhibition (comp. by Mussorgsky) (1922). Ravel’s orchestration of this great piano work is a model of invention, balance, and craft. You can find scores that contain the original piano score and see what Ravel worked from to create his orchestral version.

Ravel, String Quartet in F Major (1904). This is one of the great string quartets of the early 20th century.

Rimsky-Korsakov, Scheherezade (1888). Rimsky-Korsakov was a master orchestrator and this piece displays a wide variety of his scoring techniques. The writing for each choir of the orchestra is extremely well-balanced and scored. The resonance of the brass writing, in particular, is brilliant. Many ideas are scored across choirs and display amazing sensitivity and imagination.

Rachmaninov, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934). This piece, an excellent example of thematic development, is a set of 24 variations on Niccolo Paganini’s Caprices for solo violin.

Shostakovich, 5th Symphony (1937). This brilliant work displays a harmonic language that still sounds modern today. The scoring is efficient and imaginative. There are some extremely beautiful, as well as extremely dissonant, passages that are worth close examination.

Strauss, Don Juan (1889) and Death and Transfiguration (1889). Strauss was a master orchestrator and his tone poems are essential study for scoring invention and variety. Don Juan was his first tone poem.

Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring (1913). This seminal work is full of techniques that have become standard in film and dramatic scoring. Wonderfully scored and containing a wealth of harmonic ideas, every serious student of orchestration should know this work.

Stravinsky, Dumbarton Oaks Concerto (1937-38). A small, relatively short work in the neo-classical style. This piece is notable for the unusual sonorities and scoring devices it contains within a relatively conventional formal context.

Tchaikovsky, Pyotr Ilyich. Serenade for Strings (1880). A wonderful example of string writing, full of different bowing techniques and a wide variety of scoring devices. Essential listening for writers studying string orchestra writing.

Tchaikovsky, Pyotr Ilyich. Swan Lake (1875-86). One of Tchaikovsky’s most famous pieces, in addition to The Nutcracker. This ballet, based on Russian folk tales, is very sensitively scored and a model of instrumental balance and color.

Webern, Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 10 (1911-13). Webern was a student of Arnold Scheonberg and worked with serial compositional techniques later in his career. This piece is a model of brevity and sparse textures.

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