Understanding individual instruments and how they fit within their sections is, of course, important for any composer. But orchestration consists of much more than this. Orchestration is the art of finding unique, exciting sounds, about understanding where climaxes are in music and how best to use the massive orchestral forces to express these, and about understanding the more intimate and interesting sounds combinations of solo instruments can produce. On this page, listen to extracts from composers including Debussy, Stravinsky, Holst and Mahler to hear how they used the orchestra to express what they wanted in their music.
Intimate textures and soloists
One of the best ways of creating interesting sounding passages of music is to use very sparse textures with exposed solo parts. The extracts by Mahler, Stravinsky and Holst in the media player to the right all use a single horn player but in very different ways. Mahler uses the horn as a fast accompaniment to the woodwind melodies, Stravinsky employs it in parallel intervals with the bassoons, and Holst uses it as a beautiful solo instrument with harmonies in flutes and oboes above it. The final clip, from Debussy’s Prelude l’apres-midi d’un faune demonstrates that composers can use very sparse textures indeed: just because there are nearly one-hundred players it doesn’t mean they all have to be playing at once!
Blending the sections
The extracts in the media player to the right all demonstrate combinations between the four orchestral sections – strings, woodwind, brass and percussion.
- Stravinsky, Petrouchka: The lack of strings in this extract is typical of Stravinsky’s sound. For a composer concerned very much with clarity, he enjoyed the precision and exact control over note duration available to wind players.
- Saint-Saens, Symphony no. 3: Upper woodwind and brass together in unison on octaves, with strings.
- Lindberg, Cantigas: This extract shows the prominent roll percussion can play in maintaining momentum and excitement. The complex textures and conflicting rhythms are in stark contrast to the extract from Saint-Saens’ Third Symphony, despite the use of many of the same timbres.
- Holst, Mars (from The Planets Suite): Strings, brass and percussion play in unison in the dramatic ending of this movement.
Tutti means 'everyone', but when composers use the word in their music it doesn't always mean that absolutely everyone plays, but that the bulk of the orchestra joins in. Often the word appears after a solo passage to indicate that the orchestra is joining in at this point.
Another way in which the word is used is just within a section. For example, after a cello solo it can appear in all the cello parts (there can be up to 12 players in a section) and this will indicate that the whole section cello should join in.
You can listen to several orchestral tuttis on this page.