Relationship Between Composer and Arranger

The great orchestrator, Robert Russell Bennett, characterized the relationship between the composer and the arranger/orchestrator in this way:  

“The original inspiration, normally, comes through the original composer.  Nearly all show composers carry around a conviction that everything in their score is their own creation, whether they write it down or not, and they are a lot nearer right than you might think.  No matter how rich or poor a composer’s idiom may be a sensitive arrangement of his music is pretty well bound ‘round by what the tune-writer does.  This may be too technical to make good reading, but when a precocious student asks me, ‘Where does Dick Rodgers end and you begin?’ they’ve given me a hard question to answer.”

If we try to make the quote a little less technical, we might say that an orchestrator must fully believe in the composer’s original inspiration—see it, understand it and adopt it.  Once the transformation occurs, there should be very little distance between the original inspiration and the continuation of the inspiration into the orchestration.  The vision or inspiration of the composer has been married to the orchestrator’s consciousness so that two people think as one.

When working with an unschooled composer, such as the wonderful Irving Berlin, Bennett recalled that the best way to find out what Berlin wanted was to try out a couple of ideas on the piano with Berlin listening.  You would try something out; reject a couple of approaches, until Berlin would light up and say “That’s it.”

When working with a musician, such as Leonard Bernstein, consider this observation from Sid Ramin to Susan Stamberg of NPR during a conversation about orchestrators.  (Ramin worked with Irwin Kostal to orchestrate West Side Story.) “He [Ramin] says that when Leonard Bernstein, who wrote the music for West Side Story, handed him the music for ‘I Feel Pretty,’ he heard it right away. ‘We know “I Feel Pretty” is not going to be for brass,’ Ramin says.  ‘It’s going to be feminine, light, happy.  And what pops into a person’s head?  Strings.  Violins.  High woodwinds.’ ”

For a detailed look at how a modern composer of movie scores worked with a modern movie director/producer, we need look no further than the more than forty-year relationship between John Williams and Steven Spielberg.  Here is a video clip from the American Film Institute as Spielberg explains how the partnership has worked over the years.