Adventures In Orchestration: From Piano To Ensemble, Part 3

By • October 7, 2008

In previous discussions, we took rudimentary steps in adapting a piano piece for woodwind quintet. We reiterated the concept of all pieces being orchestrations, even for solo piano, and so our task should always be to get at the music underneath the piano version, with the goal of finding our individual statement on what’s there. To proceed, let’s take a look at another movement of the Edward MacDowell “Fireside Tales.” This one was titled, “A Haunted House,” a monicker which, in one sense, practically did our work for us. Example 1 is an excerpt from the piano version:

In this case, the challenge was a bit greater. When I played back the raw notes in a notation program, using various sounds, it only reinforced the choice of title. Dark and somber, how best to bring out that flavor with the quintet? Plus, the tessitura (prevailing pitch range) of the exposition was going to require choices which could prove instructive.

Look at the first two measures and you’ll see a dilemma. Out of range for the ensemble, and out of character if we transpose it up to a playable range. For me, the “music underneath the piano version” took precedence, so my challenge was to achieve the effect of dark and somber while through good choices. Noticing that the extreme low range notes were doubles of the lead line on the upper staff, I elected to change their function from melodic to fundamental support by raising them an octave for the first two bars and then switching to the second-lowest line, assigning the result (naturally) to the bassoon, owing to its almost clichè nature down low as a “haunted house” effect. What to do with the second-lowest line in the first two bars? The octaves and 5ths down that low served primarily to thicken up the bottom, so I experimented with leaving them out. The lead line was as in the original, leaving a middle line to be a hodgepodge of everything not yet covered harmonically.

Perhaps this is my chance to stress melodic writing, even on inner voices. The poor “altos” and “tenors” in an SATB world are constantly burdened by poor orchestrators and arrangers with unmusical “leftovers,” voicing-wise, leading to awkward monophonic lines, all in the name of complete chords. Given a choice, go with performable lines for all concerned.

Now as to color, it would seem that we’re painted into a corner. Flute and oboe can’t go that low, and clarinet just doesn’t seem that “dark and somber” on the lead line. Time to think outside the box. Many oboists double on English Horn, and I verified that I had that option with the group (Calico Winds) which commissioned my adaptation. Not only does it handle that melodic line in the proper octave, but its color at the bottom of its range, like the bassoon, is vintage “haunted house.” Plus, I could hand off that line, albeit briefly, to the clarinet in bar 5, giving us a momentary bit of variety, oh-so-important when you only have 5 performers. Please see example 2 for one possible solution (reduced to two staves to save space) to this musical crossword puzzle.

In bar 11, we are faced with the problem of two many notes and not enough performers (quite a different challenge from the reverse…) As the old punchline goes, “Start with a block of wood and carve away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.” My ear told me that the moving line at the bottom was important enough to double at the start, and carefully-distilled triads on the chords above. If your ears lead you differently, by all means concentrate on the upper chords to make them special and minimize the line down below. Remember, this is all about your take on the music within the piece.

Bars 11-15 have a melodic contour at the top which drops 3 octaves. My ear told me that, with the melody down below being prominent, and my forces left over being flute, English Horn, and clarinet, and eventually horn, I wanted the chords above to be spread out at the beginning and gradually collapsing as the line fell.

Another key element in good orchestration is focus, i.e. making it effortless for the audience to hear, moment to moment, just what you want it to hear. If I had close-voiced the chords throughout, hugging hat lead line, the net effect would have been a sizable mid-range voicing gap at the beginning, leaving 60% of the ensemble all clustered and falling several octaves together. This might result in two equally prominent concepts (the clustered chords above and the melody below) fighting for attention, obliterating the focus. In example 3, see what you think of my solution.

Still to come: Making pianistic devices work for monophonic players, and compelling the version you “hear” by meticulous editing.

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