Principles of Orchestration

Principles of Orchestration

by Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov

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In this affordable paperback reprint of an influential work of music theory, Rimsky-Korsakov, the great classical orchestrator, provides fundamentals of tonal resonance, progression of parts, voice and orchestra, tutti effects, and much more. This major document includes 330 pages of musical excerpts.See more details below


In this affordable paperback reprint of an influential work of music theory, Rimsky-Korsakov, the great classical orchestrator, provides fundamentals of tonal resonance, progression of parts, voice and orchestra, tutti effects, and much more. This major document includes 330 pages of musical excerpts.

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Principles of Orchestration

with musical examples drawn from his own works

By NIKOLAY RIMSKY-KORSAKOV, Maximilian Steinberg, Edward Agate

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1964 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-31697-0



* * *

A. Stringed Instruments.

The following is the formation of the string quartet and the number of players required in present day orchestras, either in the theatre or concert-room.

In larger orchestras, the number of first violins may amount to 20 and even 24, the other strings being increased proportionately. But such a great quantity of strings over-powers the customary wood-wind section, and entails re-inforcing the latter. Sometimes orchestras contain less than 8 first violins; this is a mistake, as the balance between strings and wind is completely destroyed. In writing for the orchestra it is advisable to rely on a medium-sized body of strings. Played by a larger orchestra a work will be heard to greater advantage; played by a smaller one, the harm done will be minimised.

Whenever a group of strings is written for more than five parts—without taking double notes or chords into consideration—these parts may be increased by dividing each one into two, three and four sections, or even more (divisi). Generally, one or more of the principal parts is split up, the first or second violins, violas or violoncellos. The players are then divided by desks, numbers 1, 3, 5 etc. playing the upper part, and 2, 4, 6 etc., the lower; or else the musician on the right-hand of each desk plays the top line, the one on the left the bottom line. Dividing by threes is less easy, as the number of players in one group is not always divisible by three, and hence the difficulty of obtaining proper balance. Nevertheless there are cases where the composer should not hesitate to employ this method of dividing the strings, leaving it to the conductor to ensure equality of tone. It is always as well to mark how the passage is to be divided in the score; Vns I, 1, 2, 3 desks, 6 'Cellos div. à 3, and so on. Division into four and more parts is rare, but may be used in piano passages, as it greatly reduces volume of tone in the group of strings.

Note. In small orchestras passages sub-divided into many parts are very hard to realise, and the effect obtained is never the one required.

String parts may be divided thus:

a Vns I div. b Vns II div. c Vns div. d 'Cellos div.
Vns II div.
Vns div.
Cellos div.
D. basses div.

Possible combinations less frequently used are:

e Vns I div. f Vns II div. g Violas div. etc.
Violas div.
Cellos div.
D basses div.

Note. It is evident that the tone quality in b and e will be similar. Still b is preferable since the number of Vns II (14 — 10 — 6) and Violas (12 — 8 — 4) is practically the same, the respective rôles of the two groups are more closely allied, and from the fact that second violins generally sit nearer to the violas than the first, thereby guaranteeing greater unity in power and execution.

The reader will find all manner of divisions in the musical examples given in Vol. II. Where necessary, some explanation as to the method of dividing strings will follow in due course. I dwell on the subject here in order to show how the usual composition of the string quartet may be altered.

Stringed instruments possess more ways of producing sound than any other orchestral group. They can pass, better than other instruments from one shade of expression to another, the varieties being of an infinite number. Species of bowing such as legato, detached, staccato, spiccato, portamento, martellato, light staccato, saltando, attack at the nut and at the point, [??] and [??] (down bow and up bow), in every degree of tone, fortissimo, pianissimo, crescendo, diminuendo, sforzando, morendo—all this belongs to the natural realm of the string quartet.

The fact that these instruments are capable of playing double notes and full chords across three and four strings—to say nothing of sub-division of parts—renders them not only melodic but also harmonic in character (1).

From the point of view of activity and flexibility the violin takes pride of place among stringed instruments, then, in order, come the viola, 'cello and double bass. In practice the notes of extreme limit in the string quartet should be fixed as follows:


Higher notes given in Table A, should only be used with caution, that is to say when they are of long value, in tremolando, slow, flowing melodies, in not too rapid sequence of scales, and in passages of repeated notes. Skips should always be avoided.

Note. In quick passages for stringed instruments long chromatic figures are never suitable; they are difficult to play and sound indistinct and muddled. Such passages are better allotted to the wood-wind.

A limit should be set to the use of a high note on any one of the three lower strings on violins, violas and 'cellos. This note should be the one in the fourth position, either the octave note or the ninth of the open string.

Nobility, warmth, and equality of tone from one end of the scale to the other are qualities common to all stringed instruments, and render them essentially superior to instruments of other groups. Further, each string has a distinctive character of its own, difficult to define in words. The top string on the violin (E) is brilliant in character, that of the viola (A) is more biting in quality and slightly nasal; the highest string on the 'cello (A) is bright and possesses a "chest-voice" timbre. The A and D strings on the violin and the D string on the violas and 'cellos are somewhat sweeter and weaker in tone than the others. Covered strings (G), on the violin (G and C), on the viola and 'cello are rather harsh. Speaking generally, the double bass is equally resonant throughout, slightly duller on the two lower strings (E and A), and more penetrating on the upper ones (D and G).

Note. Except in the case of pedal notes, the double bass rarely plays an independent part, usually moving in octaves or in unison with the 'cellos, or else doubling the bassoons. The quality of the double bass tone is therefore seldom heard by itself and the character of its different strings is not so noticeable.

The rare ability to connect sounds, or a series of sounds, the vibration of stopped strings combined with their above-named qualities—warmth and nobility of tone—renders this group of instruments far and away the best orchestral medium of melodic expression. At the same time, that portion of their range situated beyond the limits of the human voice, e. g. notes on the violin higher than the extreme top note of the soprano voice, from


upwards, and notes on the double bass below the range of the bass voice, descending from


lose in expression and warmth of tone. Open strings are clearer and more powerful but less expressive than stopped strings.

Comparing the range of each stringed instrument with that of the human voice, we may assign: to the violin, the soprano and contralto voice plus a much higher range; to the viola, the contralto and tenor voice plus a much higher register; to the 'cello, the tenor and bass voices plus a higher register; to the double bass, the bass voice plus a lower range.

The use of harmonics, the mute, and some special devices in bowing produce great difference in the resonance and tone quality of all these instruments.

Harmonics, frequently used to-day, alter the timbre of a stringed instrument to a very appreciable extent. Cold and transparent in soft passages, cold and brilliant in loud ones, and offering but little chance for expression, they form no fundamental part of orchestral writing, and are used simply for ornament. Owing to their lack of resonant power they should be used sparingly, and, when employed, should never be overpowered by other instruments. As a rule harmonics are employed on sustained notes, tremolando, or here and there for brilliant effects; they are rarely used in extremely simple melodies. Owing to a certain tonal affinity with the flute they may be said to form a kind of link between string and wood-wind instruments.

Another radical change is effected by the use of mutes. When muted, the clear, singing tone of the strings becomes dull in soft passages, turns to a slight hiss or whistle in loud ones, and the volume of tone is always greatly reduced.

The position of the bow on the string will affect the resonance of an instrument. Playing with the bow close to the bridge (ul ponticello), chiefly used tremolando, produces a metallic sound; playing on the finger-board (ul tasto, flautando) creates a dull, veiled effect.

Note. Another absolutely different sound results from playing with the back or wood of the bow (col legno). This produces a sound like a xylophone or a hollow pizzicato. It is discussed under the heading of instruments of little sustaining power.

The five sets of strings with number of players given above produce a fairly even balance of tone. If there is any surplus of strength it must be on the side of the first violins, as they must be heard distinctly on account of the important part they play in the harmonic scheme. Besides this, an extra desk of first violins is usual in all orchestras, and as a general rule they possess a more powerful tone than second violins. The latter, with the violas, play a secondary part, and do not stand out so prominently. The 'cellos and double basses are heard more distinctly, and in the majority of cases form the bass in octaves.

In conclusion it may be said that the group of strings, as a melodic element, is able to perform all manner of passages, rapid and interrupted phrases of every description, diatonic or chromatic in character. Capable of sustaining notes without difficulty, of playing chords of three and four notes; adapted to the infinite variety of shades of expression, and easily divisible into numerous sundry parts, the string group in an orchestra may be considered as an harmonic element particularly rich in resource.

B. Wind instruments. Wood-wind.

Apart from the varying number of players, the formation of the string group, with its five constituent parts remains constant, satisfying the demands of any orchestral full score. On the other hand the group of wood-wind instruments varies both as regards number of parts and the volume of tone at its command, and here the composer may choose at will. The group may be divided into three general classes: wood-wind instruments in pair's, in three's and in four's, (see table on page 13).

Arabic numerals denote the number of players on each instrument; roman figures, the parts (1st, 2nd etc.). Instruments which do not require additional players, but are taken over by one or the other executant in place of his usual instrument, are enclosed in brackets. As a rule the first flute, first oboe, first clarinet and first bassoon never change instruments; considering the importance of their parts it is not advisable for them to turn from one mouthpiece to another. The parts written for piccolo, bass flute, English horn, small clarinet, bass clarinet and double bassoon are taken by the second and third players in each group, who are more accustomed to using these instruments of a special nature.

The formation of the first class may be altered by the permanent addition of a piccolo part. Sometimes a composer writes for two piccolos or two Eng. horns etc. without increasing the original number of players required (in three's or four's).

Note I. Composers using the first class in the course of a big work (oratorio, opera, symphony, etc.) may introduce special instruments, called extras, for a long or short period of time; each of these instruments involves an extra player not required throughout the entire work, Meyerbeer was fond of doing this, but other composers, Glinka for example, refrain from increasing the number of performers by employing extras (Eng. horn part in Rousslân). Wagner uses all three classes in the above table (in pair's: Tannhäuser—in three's: Tristan—in four's: The Ring).

Note II. Mlada is the only work of mine involving formation by four's. Ivan the Terrible, Sadko, The Legend of Tsar Saltan, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitesh and The Golden Cockerel all belong to the second class, and in my other works, wood-wind in pair's is used with a varying number of extras. The Christmas Night, with its two oboes, and two bassoons, three flutes and three clarinets, forms an intermediate class.

Considering the instruments it comprises, the string group offers a fair variety of colour, and contrast in compass, but this diversity of range and timbre is subtle and not easily discerned. In the wood-wind department, however, the difference in register and quality of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassons is striking to a degree. As a rule, wood-wind instruments are less flexible than strings; they lack the vitality and power, and are less capable of different shade of expression.

In each wind instrument I have defined the scope of greatest expression, that is to say the range in which the instrument is best qualified to achieve the various grades of tone, (forte, piano, cresc., dim., sforzando, morendo, etc.)—the register which admits of the most expressive playing, in the truest sense of the word. Outside this range, a wind instrument is more notable for richness of colour than for expression. I am probably the originator of the term "scope of greatest expression". It does not apply to the piccolo and double bassoon which represent the two extremes of the orchestral compass. They do not possess such a register and belong to the body of highly-coloured but non-expressive instruments.

The four kinds of wind instruments: flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons may be generally considered to be of equal power. The same cannot be said of instruments which fulfil a special purpose: piccolo, bass flute, Eng. horn, small clarinet, bass clarinet and double bassoon. Each of these instruments has four registers: low, middle, high and extremely high, each of which is characterised by certain differences of quality and power. It is difficult to define the exact limits of each register; adjacent registers almost blend together and the passage from one to another is scarcely noticeable. But when the instrument jumps from one register to another the difference in power and quality of tone is very striking.

The four families of wind instruments may be divided into two classes: a) instruments of nasal quality and dark resonance—oboes and bassoons (Eng. horn and double bassoon); and b) instruments of "chest-voice" quality and bright tone—flutes and clarinets (piccolo, bass flute, small clarinet, bass clarinet).

These characteristics of colour and resonance—expressed in too simple and rudimentary a form—are specially noticeable in the middle and upper registers. The lower register of the oboes and bassoons is thick and rough, yet still nasal in quality; the very high compass is shrill, hard and dry. The clear resonance of the flutes and clarinets acquires something nasal and dark in the lower compass; in the very high register it becomes somewhat piercing.

Note to Table B.

* * *

In the following Table B the top note in each register serves as the bottom note in the next, as the limits to each register are not defined absolutely. The note G fixes the register of flutes and oboes, C for the clarinets and bassoons. In the very high compass those notes are only given which can really be used; anything higher and not printed as actual notes are either too difficult to produce or of no artistic value. The number of sounds obtainable in the highest compass is indefinite, and depends, partly on the quality of the instrument itself, partly on the position and application of the lips. The signs [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] are not to be mistaken for crescendo and diminuendo; they indicate how the resonance of an instrument increases or diminishes in relation to the characteristic quality of its timbre. The scope of greatest expression for each typical instrument is marked thus, under the notes; the range is the same in each instrument of the same type.


Excerpted from Principles of Orchestration by NIKOLAY RIMSKY-KORSAKOV, Maximilian Steinberg, Edward Agate. Copyright © 1964 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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