Posts Tagged: Tchaikovsky

A list of practical advice for the orchestral composer

Here’s Number Zero right off the bat: the orchestra is it’s own medium with its own traditions and aptitudes; what it is not is a plus-sized New Music Ensemble. Here’s what I mean:

1. Tradition & Expertise. The day-to-day work of an orchestra principally involves playing music composed during the hundred years between 1850 and 1950.  In order to get a job playing in an orchestra, a musician must audition on excerpts by Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, and Shostakovich. It behooves a composer to write music that stems from this tradition. The musical possibilities that build on the existing orchestral literature have not come close to being exhausted, I promise.

Corollary: this means that your musical style or voice might be different when you write for the orchestra v. a chamber ensemble. It meant that for Beethoven and he did alright.

2. The schedule. A professional orchestra rehearses a new program every week. Let’s say you’ve written a 10-15 minute concert opener (a commonly commissioned item). In addition to your piece, the orchestra will also be play a 45-minute symphony and a 35-minute concerto on the same program.

Each concert program receives four rehearsals.

  • Rehearsal 1: symphony & new piece
  • Rehearsal 2: symphony & new piece
  • Rehearsal 3: concerto
  • Rehearsal 4: dress (run-thru of whole program)

The two rehearsals available for your piece total roughly 5 hours of actual rehearsal time; the conductor’s main focus will largely be on the symphony. If you’re lucky, your piece will get about 60-75 minutes of rehearsal plus a final run.

That’s very different from having a New Music Ensemble work on your piece for a whole semester, or even, say 6 rehearsals over the course of 2-3 weeks.  And you might think that sounds like an awfully impersonal proposition with not a lot of chance for reward.

And you might be right! And that’s totally OK! I’m here to say that composing for orchestra isn’t for everyone and it doesn’t have to be. “Pierrot Lunaire”, “Density 21.5”, and “Síppal, dobbal, nádihegedűvel” are all certified masterworks that don’t need eighty people to make their musical statements.

3. The strings. The strings are the essence of the orchestra. I don’t in any way mean to undermine the contributions of the winds and percussion, but without strings, what you’ve got is a band. If your piece could work (or almost work) as a standalone work for string orchestra, you’re on to something. (see: Ravel)

The members of the string sections are used to playing as a unit. The agglomeration of several string players playing the same part is what gives the orchestra its distinctive color. Divisi can be glorious, but don’t go crazy; Debussy, Stravinsky and Lutosławski are great models.  Schnittke and Ligeti took string divisi to their logical conclusion, but they did so using very controlled canonic procedures, and it’s also worth noting that they both abandoned single player divisi after a period of experimentation.

You should expect that about half the string players will be sightreading your piece at the first rehearsal.

4. The woodwinds. The woodwinds (and, in many respects, the principal strings) are the star artistes of the orchestra and you should give them compelling solos to flatter their instruments and abilities.

Keep in mind though that technically challenging passagework needs to pay off. It’s a well known fact that a composer can scribble down in 5 minutes what might take a capable musician 5 years to master on his or her instrument. Give them something impressive to play that the audience can actually hear.

5. The brass. Despite their reputation, I have found that most orchestral brass players really do want to contribute their tone color to the orchestra in a sensitive and thrilling manner. However, just be aware that modern brass players are fully capable of blowing the roof off the place, and they’ll do it if you beckon them. Plan your balances carefully, and also consider the fact that the literature for their instruments goes back at least as far as Gabrieli.

A trumpet solo is a great thing, but a trumpet is not a violin. Write for it accordingly.

6. The percussion. These guys are the salt of the earth, and total badasses, and they’re so happy to have interesting parts, but they’ll really respect you if you restrain yourself from using every last toy in their cabinet.

7. The audience. Orchestral audiences cough. A lot. Like it’s their job. Especially if you offer them something soft and dreary and vaguely atonal (especially if it’s the first number on a concert.) Best to begin with a healthy mf AT LEAST and a definitive harmonic concept (be it tonal or atonal) in order to get their attention; save your delicatissimi for when you’ve reeled them in. Feel free to ignore this advice if you want your recording to sound like a Bronchitis Convention (which, incidentally, would be a great title for an orchestral composition.)

8. Final thoughts. I’m not saying you should dumb down your musical concepts when writing for the orchestra – musicians like a challenge. But certain musical ideas just lend themselves more readily to the sonority and capabilities of the orchestra. Others just don’t. So if you have a plethora of ideas (and I hope you do), keep track of them, jot them down, and maybe save some for a percussion quartet and others for a saxophone solo. Just because you come up with an idea while you’re working on a piece doesn’t mean it’s the right fit for the piece you’re working on.

I sincerely hope this little diatribe inspires composers to greater creativity and greater music-making, and I can’t wait to hear what you come up with!

I love this quote

from Bryan Magee’s Confessions of a Philosopher, p. 269:

What to my mind sets Wagner and Shakespeare apart from other artists is the fact that they deal with everything.  Their works confront the totality of human experience, and present our emotional life as it is, in its wholeness.  So much of even the greatest art is aspirational, concerned with, and aiming at, ideals.  Bach said he was composing his music to the greater glory of God; Beethoven said he was trying to express the highest of human aspirations; and one could multiply these sentiments many times over by quoting from the mouths of some of the greatest of artists.  Art that springs from such motives can be wonderful, but cannot articulate the realities of human feeling across more than part of its range.  Wagner’s work, by contrast, is not aspirational but cognitive, truth-telling; and he tells it like it is, down to emotions we disown.  Shakespeare does the same, across an even bigger canvas.  If Wagner is enabled to go deeper it is only because his chief expressive medium is music rather than words.

Now me: I think Mahler was aspiring to do what Wagner did naturally (if not heedlessly,) but it comes off as self-conscious and pretentious in his music instead of id-driven and inexorable as in Wagner’s.

In other news, if you ever get a chance to hear Tchaikovsky’s conservatory dissertation setting of “Ode to Joy”, run for the hills.  Aside from a precious few lovely moments, it’s just one primitive melody after another, set in a wandering morass of the blandest counterpoint.  However, I find it deeply gratifying to know that the composer of Pique Dame and the “Pathétique” Symphony did not spring fully formed from the head of Zeus.  Not every great composer had to start off that way, and that gives hope for the rest of us.

I mention this piece because we’re performing it on a concert with Beethoven’s 9th.  Beethoven’s music, of course, completely overwhelms the text, tossing it around like a raft upon a stormy sea.

Luckily for Schiller, one musician set “An die Freude” perfectly, lending just the right wind to its sails: Franz Schubert.

On Dynamics

Dynamics are really a blunt set of tools composers have to shape and shade what is supposed to be the most ethereal of art forms.  Most of us regularly use about eight markings: ppp, pp, p, mp, mf, f, ff, and fff.  Brahms made a valiant effort with pf (poco forte) but it never really caught on.  Tchaikovsky made a valiant effort with fffff but now we’re all deaf.

Schoenberg had a great idea with marking lines “Hauptstimme” (main voice) and “Nebenstimme” (next voice), but the whole thing becomes too confusing when try you combine those with the traditionally notated dynamic markings on the page.

Poco forte, btw, is softer than mezzo forte. (I find that most musicians don’t know this.)

A composer has to figure out: at what overall dynamic level should the ensemble should sound? How prominently should x instrument sound within that texture? What effect will the natural acoustic properties of said instrument have in determining its volume? Should that even be taken into account, or should we just go for pure dynamics? Based on the entire history of the literature for their instrument, how are players of x instrument likely to interpret y dynamic?

Jennifer Higdon seems to have this whole thing figured out.

Tchaikovsky was really pretty bad at dynamics overall. Most of the phrasing inherent in his music is in no wise notated by the dynamics (though he did get a lot better at this as he progressed.) I just conducted the 2nd symphony, a charming piece with very sloppy dynamics. Let’s not even talk about the meters.

One of my first composition teachers told me that he would complete an entire piece and then go back and insert the dynamics.  This still boggles my mind.  Go back and refine dynamics, yes, I usually do that about 50 times.  But insert?  Interestingly, he believed wholeheartedly that “dynamics really make or break a piece.”

I just conducted Ralph Vaughan Williams’ cantata “Dona Nobis Pacem”.  I think the old man spent about 30 minutes TOTAL marking the dynamics.  Choral basses, stating the theme of a fugue are marked p with trombones and timpani marked f.  This is symptomatic of this piece, which feels hastily assembled and lumpily misproportioned.  There are some great passages though.

Schumann is so often criticized for his orchestration.  I came of age believing that old lie, and now I’ve totally rejected it.  Yes, there’s a lot of balance problems, but most of those occur because he wrote in block dynamics (like… just about every other composer at that time.)  Get a decent bunch of musicians together and they can usually figure out what’s going on with their parts.  Unlike Tchaikovsky, at least the blocks are correctly dynamicized.

When you’ve got, say, woodwinds playing a chord f and you bring in the trombones mf, how will they know what to do in comparison?  Should you write them a little note?


Harps should always be marked f (and doubled or even tripled – what can I say, I just love the harp!)

Great Moments in Classical Music Cinematography

Lots of blog space has been devoted to the various horrors of classical music LP and CD cover art.  But methinks a great deal of plumbing is left to do in the world of video!

1. Tchaikovsky, Piano Concerto No. 1
Alexis Weissenberg, pianist; Herbert von Karajan, conductor

Let’s start with this chestnut from Herbert von Karajan, an entertainment dynamo whose vast ego pushed him to ever more creative, and ludicrous, video projects.  It’s moments like this that have made his an ever-reliable name in the cringe department:

The color scheme, the obvious miming on the part of the musicians, the irreverent placement of wind players, the great “action shot” literally coming from the piano’s action with no discernable movement from the hammers: it’s a veritable smorgasbord of delights.  [Not to mention that 2:10 – 2:20ish makes a very convincing case for filming classical music performances in 3D!]

2. Bartok, Concerto for Orchestra, mvmt. 4
Lorin Maazel, conductor

So, lot to pick apart here.  First, there’s the fact that Maestro Maazel seems to be communicating with his home planet during the opening 10 seconds of this clip.  Then there’s his utterly unique solution to the tricky meter transition right around 2:19. [By the way, let me just interrupt here and say that one often hears about Loren Maazel being a conductor with a flawless technique.  I mean, 4rlz?  My sneaking suspicion is that the original source for this popular opinion is none other than… Lorin Maazel.  I’m not saying that he’s a bad conductor AT ALL… or am I?]

Then of course there’s all the camera spinning, the gong action, the trombones, etc…

3. Beethoven, Egmont Overture
Sergiu Celibidache, conductor

OK, so I’ll finish this installment with a little gem that first came to my attention via one of those “The Art of Conducting” VHSs that I used to watch like 10 times a day when I was in high school.  A very young Celibidache conducting Beethoven’s “Egmont”:

There’s no fancy camera work here, but there is some amazing editing (I mean, come on, 7:13? Srsly u guys?) and the fact that Celibidache’s hair looks like it was spring loaded by the special effects department.  And then there’s that set, which, what exactly is it?  Might it be a discarded “Lion’s Den” from a production of Der Freischütz.  For a nation destroyed by war, trying to reclaim its international reputation by means of its illustrious artistic tradition, this was an… interesting choice.