Playing by the Rules

Berlioz’s Treatise on Instrumentation remains the authority on orchestration, and Alastair McKean discovers pages of personality from the man who wrote the rule book.

Every profession has its weird and wonderful textbooks, and for a composer, one of the most important ones on the shelf deals with ‘orchestration’, or ‘instrumentation’ – a compendium describing the technical characteristics of every instrument in the orchestra, and how to write well for them. Can a cello play the A above middle C? Can a horn can play pianissimo at the very top of its range? Can a harp can play F natural and F sharp at the same time? The orchestration book has the answers. (For the record, these are ‘yes’; ‘not easily’; and ‘read the chapter on the harp again’.)

There are actually quite a few of these books around. Walter Piston and Samuel Adler can be fairly described as minor composers; their immortality is through their orchestration textbooks, which have influenced generations of students. The gloriously-named Ebenezer Prout, whose ‘improved’ arrangement of Handel’s Messiah can be found stashed in many a dusty piano stool, published a book which is of its time (the late 1890s) but still useful. Rimsky-Korsakov’s somewhat didactic tome is rendered faintly otiose by his using musical examples exclusively from his own works, many of which have now, alas, fallen into obscurity. Even Nelson Riddle, whose peerless arrangements achieved the impossible feat of making Frank Sinatra sound even more suave, wrote his own fascinating book on pop arranging for orchestra. But top of the list is the very first of them all: the Treatise on Instrumentation, published in 1843 by Hector Berlioz.

Berlioz was the perfect person to invent the orchestration textbook, because he was also one of the people who invented the Romantic orchestra. Inheriting Beethoven’s ensemble, Berlioz vastly expanded its colouristic and expressive possibilities. The Symphonie fantastique, composed when he was only 26, is packed with wildly original writing. Berlioz instructs the timpanists to use specific sticks to get different qualities in the sound. He calls for the strings to play with the wood of the bow, rather than the hair, making a skeletal clattering. Having discovered the squeaky little E flat clarinet, he gives it a prominent solo in the last movement. Special effects tend to be effective in inverse proportion to their use, and in the hands of a lesser composer these would be gimmicks. Not Berlioz, who knew precisely what he was doing. He was quite obsessed with orchestral instruments and for years had been absorbing all the tiniest details about them. In the Treatise he poured this knowledge onto the page.

The substance of any orchestration textbook is the explanation of how the instruments work, and Berlioz briskly gets down to this: ‘The four strings of the violin are usually tuned in fifths … these strings are called open strings if the fingers of the left hand do not modify the sound by shortening the string’. And so on, to more complex material; for instance, when discussing double-stopping (playing more than one string at a time) he gives an exhaustive table of which chords can and can’t be played. Inevitably, though, aesthetic opinion creeps into the discussion of mechanical principles. The low strings of the viola (‘whose excellent qualities have been unappreciated for the longest time’) have a ‘husky timbre, while its high notes are distinguished by their mournfully passionate sound’. Writing about pizzicato, Berlioz notes that the slow movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No.4 ‘offers a charming example’.

‘Charming’ is a word rarely seen in textbooks. This one is a more cracking read than most because Berlioz had a gigantic personality which it didn’t occur to him to suppress. The ‘noble and brilliant’ trumpet was ‘degraded’ by composers past (‘not even excepting Mozart’), who wrote figurations ‘as vapid as they are ridiculous’. A type of cheap cymbal then in common use is only suitable for ‘the accompaniment of dancing monkeys, jugglers, mountebanks, swallowers of swords and snakes in public squares and at dirty street corners’. Opinionated and irascible, then, but more often Berlioz is irresistibly enthusiastic about the instruments he loved so much. The cor anglais, ‘melancholy, dreamy … has no equal for reviving images and sentiments of the past’. He swoons over the clarinet’s ‘invaluable ability to render distant sounds, an echo, the reverberation of an echo, or the charm of the twilight’.

These thoughts of one of the great minds of the orchestra are one reason this 173-year-old book is still immensely valuable today. The other is its wealth of clever, practical advice. For orchestration is an unusual blend of the practical with the creative. Composers need to know how each instrument works best, because:

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“If the composer writes only that which is compatible with the nature of the instrument, the player must execute it literally. But if the composer errs, then he … must accept the consequences; the performers are no longer to blame.”
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Copyright © Alastair McKean 2016. All rights reserved.

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