In an essay written in 1969[1] about Richard Strauss’ annotated and expanded 1905 republication of Hector Berlioz’ seminal Grand Traité d’Instrumentation et d’Orchestration (1844, 1855), Berlioz’ biographer Edward Lockspeiser observes: “It is hardly possible nowadays to devise a manual for orchestrators. The introduction of electronically produced sounds and of tape recordings makes the earlier instrumental treatises seem wholly remote.” In his Thesaurus of Orchestral Devices from 1953, American composer Gardner Read notes that “nothing seems to date more quickly than an orchestration text-book.” And as early as 1925, in History of Orchestration, composer Adam Carse judged the durability of such efforts in similarly pessimistic terms: “All [such books] … begin to be out-of-date from the moment they are written.”

Nobody will deny that the bulging library of old and new textbooks on instrumentation may illuminate neglected or forgotten aspects of history and aesthetics, or contribute to an understanding of the symphony orchestra in earlier times – knowledge that might otherwise have been lost. As to the relevance of this literary legacy for today’s creators and users, however, many seem to agree: such books are past their expiry date from the outset. On the other hand, quite a few more recent textbooks have achieved worldwide distribution, some with the status of standard works. Walter Piston’s Orchestration from 1955 has been reprinted repeatedly, the sixth edition of Kent Kennan’s The Technique of Orchestration was issued in 2002, and Samuel Adler’s The Study of Orchestration from 1982 is available in a third edition.

In its essence, orchestration forms an integral part of the craft of composition. In his book on the principles of orchestration – yet another textbook still considered to be a standard work – Rimsky-Korsakov insists that “to orchestrate is to create.” But even though composition is taught at conservatories and universities all over the world, few would consider the notion of a workable textbook on how to create genuine musical art to be feasible.

Like all art, music undergoes continuous change and development – creativity can never be subject to inflexible rules or doctrines. Consequently, the teaching of composition is generally more about mindsets, aesthetic positions and constantly renewed insights than about dogma, traditional skills or proven tricks.

As its point of departure, this book adopts a rather different perspective than the extensive and still budding literature on the technique and craft of orchestration. This involves letting some of the paradigms – or “mind models”[2] – of this craft illuminate other aspects of the phenomenon of music, some of which may have been overlooked or neglected in the field of general music theory as well.

The authors share the conviction that immersing oneself in the topic of idiomatic thinking for orchestra means to shed light on certain general aspects of musical thinking in a way that transcends the passage of time and the Hegelian “fury of disappearance.” If this shows itself to be successful, it may well prove to be the book’s raison d’être. Furthermore, it is the authors’ hope that the book may be valuable to readers who want to know more about the use of the symphony orchestra through the ages, and that it may provide useful insights also to those who are involved with the orchestra in an artistic or other capacity.

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Next · Idiomatic practice (Chapter 1. Introduction)

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[1]Edward Lockspeiser, “The Berlioz-Strauss Treatise on Instrumentation.” Music and Letters L(1) (1969), 37–44.

[2]For a more detailed definition of this term, see: Roger Reynolds, Mind Models – New Forms of Musical Experience (Preager Publishers, 1975).

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