How a Conductor Finds the True Intent of a Score

Traditionally, curation has been defined as the acquisition and preservation of physical artifacts that are considered to be valuable, sometimes irreplaceable. Curators are subject matter experts and have been hired to find, acquire and store/preserve these artifacts, whether they are archeological, artistic or culturally relevant.

As we move deeper into the digital state, the term digital curation has sprung to life, which Wikipedia defines as “the preservation and maintenance of digital assets.” Notice that the term acquisition here makes no sense, because digital assets are shared data files. We can talk about ownership of the intellectual property rights, but even that distinction is starting to lose momentum in our public conversation.

The JMV Art Preservation Foundation can provide digital curation of restored and archived scores and librettos that we create; we could also perform a much more important task—we could provide a digital index to songs and shows, wherever they were located. In an ad hoc way, we already provide this service to you; meaning, we create posts and store them on our FB page that you can access anytime you like.

What we cannot do today, the hard part, is the identification of our past posts and the ability to link you to them in a quick and easy way.

When we raise additional funds, this is a key project on our list of things to do.

In the meantime, we will continue to post in real time.

Today, our post is directed at orchestrations, something that we have covered in depth in our study of orchestrators. This time, we want to provide a little bit of information from our website about the how orchestrations are developed.

When composers first put pen to paper, they translate a melody in their mind onto a lined piece of paper by writing notes in a particular key on the lines or spaces between the lines.  This is called musical notation.  Looking at the notes on the paper, it is possible to sing or play the melody (tune) from the musical notation and to change the notes on the paper until the melody reflects what is in the mind of a composer.

In its most simplistic sense, this is the starting point for all music, whether instrumental or vocal.  We almost never hear music that has only a melodic line, unless it is during the period of time when we are learning to sing a new song.  Normally, what we hear is an orchestrated piece of music.  An orchestration is a translation of that one melodic line into a “multi-line” piece of music.

The transformation from one melodic line to an orchestral suite of music is the art of orchestration, involving the rules of composition, counterpoint and harmony.  If we have an orchestra of thirty pieces, we need to have one instrument playing the melody and 29 instruments playing many different notes that surround the melody.  The melodic line may shift from instrument to instrument, as it is carried by strings, wind instruments and brass.

The person who authors this transformation is called an orchestrator.  The mechanics of transforming the melody into a unified body of music is relatively simple, if the composer has instructed the orchestrator to use specific instruments, a specific number of instruments or specific notes for each instrument.  However, it is rare that a composer has the knowledge or skill to make these choices.

Composers, such as Victor Herbert and George Gershwin, could write their own orchestrations and had definite ideas about the nature of the orchestrations that they wanted; but most composers need to trust in the ability of the orchestrator to understand their intent.  The relationship between the composer and the orchestrator is critical to the successful translation from the composer’s mind to the finished piece of music.

Every orchestrator has a unique way of looking at the “mechanics” of orchestration—the art of choosing which voices or instruments carry melody and which carry harmony.  With a hypothetical, 30-piece orchestra, there might be four separate lines of music just for violins; each violin part would have a number (e.g., first violin, second violin, third violin and fourth violin).  When played together, the sound should be rich and full, each line supporting, harmonically, the others.  If the orchestrator decides to let the first violins carry the melody for a period of time, then the other three parts should harmonically support the first violin’s line of music.

However, it may be that the melody is sung by the soprano or tenor, and the violins provide harmonic accompaniment.  Given the nature of harmony, the orchestrator must decide how many violins are needed in total and more importantly, how many should be allocated to each of the four parts, that is how many first violins should be included.  These types of decisions will affect the harmonic outcome.

Wholly apart from the mere harmonic translation of melody into orchestral sound, orchestrators also try to understand the composer’s intent.  Questions such as these need to be answered:

Does the composer want to emphasize a light, optimistic view or foreshadow a coming tragedy?

What type of music has the composer written–a waltz, tango or polka?

What instruments are best suited to convey the harmonic sound and the composer’s intent?  Are strings or woodwinds more appropriate?  When do you use a bassoon or an oboe?  A flute or a harp?  Do you want to emphasize the dark vibrations of a cello or bass, accentuated by a kettledrum?

With all of that said, once the orchestration is completed to the satisfaction of the composer, the conductor’s score is set in concrete; and the score, along with any notes left for future conductors, is passed along to future generations.

Today, we are going to take a look at what happens when orchestras have never played music that if faithful to the original orchestration/composer’s intent. We are about to supply a clip from rehearsals that were recorded for posterity. We owe the producers of this video a deep debt of gratitude.

The video clip captures Sir Georg Solti’s rehearsal and performance of Wagner’s Tannhauser Overture. The notes on the video state that it is divided into three parts: the first rehearsal (about 30 minutes); the second rehearsal (lasts about 13 minutes) and the final performance (lasts about 16 minutes).

Solit is conducting the Suddeutsche Rundfunk Symphony Orchestra, and at the outset we can hear the beautiful melody of the Overture. However, we can also sense that the Orchestra is going through the motions and that the performance is pedestrian, at best.

The most important part of the material, to our minds, is contained in the first rehearsal. This is where Solti, in German with English subtitles, chastises the members of the Orchestra and reminds them that the orchestration requires precision in translating the notes from the page to the stage. Note as he explained to the celli how to integrate the legato and the vibrato into their playing; how he refused the crescendo where it was written for the full orchestra and told only the first and second violins to start the crescendo as written.

Then, he coaxed the violins into playing the triplets, the trio, with more passion but less volume in a distinctly staccato manner. Watch as he persuaded the clarinet to be “seductive.”

While we don’t expect everyone will listen all the way through the hour-long clip, we should listen to the first 30 minutes to understand how Solti took a lackluster Orchestra and produced an inspired sound. We should marvel at the change between the sound produced at the outset and the sound produced at the final performance. We are sure that somewhere Wagner and his orchestrators are smiling.

Tomorrow, we are going to return to Broadway orchestrations and start with the work of Frank Saddler.