Various Orchestral Approaches

Let’s take a brief look at five excellent orchestrators, who used very different approaches to write their orchestrations.

Victor Herbert (1859-1924)

As the great orchestrator, Robert Russell Bennett said to Victor Herbert’s biographer Edward Waters:

“Jerome Kern once made an arrangement for orchestra of about 16 bars of one of his melodies while we were on the road together.  That night, after we had played the arrangement, he said to his music director, ‘Did you notice the 16 bars that I arranged?  They were no good—and that’s why that old fellow over there was the greatest of them all,’ pointing to a picture of Victor Herbert on his piano.”

Bennett also had a great deal of respect for Herbert and his orchestrations.  As we read the following quote, keep in mind that Bennett was quite a good musician and composer himself.  In Paris in 1926, Bennett completed a number of varied orchestral works, including his First Symphony, Abraham Lincoln Symphony, Charleston Rhapsody (chamber orchestra), Paysage (a tone poem), Sights and Sounds, two flute-and-piano works, a violin sonata and a quintet for woodwinds.

With that in mind, here are Bennett’s thoughts about Herbert:

 “Victor Herbert was a great musician in every sense of the word—his knowledge of the classics was such that he conducted symphony orchestras for many seasons without reference to scores during rehearsal or concert, and his feeling for the structure of a sound orchestration was infallible.  His only concern in the arrangement of his operettas was the simplest, most effective method of presenting his charming melodies, and his technical contributions to our formula were the result of no search for unusual sounds, but merely of his desire to make his music sound as beautiful as possible. *** The main addition of Victor Herbert was the dividing of the violins into three or more expressive parts, the high vibrant ‘cello just beneath the melody, and the dramatic, full-sounding brass choir at the climaxes.  He detested the usual variations of the flutes and clarinets and kept them low, simple and sonorous.”

Frank Saddler (1864-1921)

Bennett saw that Frank Saddler, who worked closely with Jerome Kern, was not at home with “the broader beauties of a Victor Herbert style of arrangement.  He was a champion of small orchestras, filling up his refrain with the charming tricks of muted brass, unexpected brass progressions, pizzicato effects, duets for two violins against the melody in the lower instruments and many other devices.”

If Herbert and his colleagues represent the first generation of orchestrators on Broadway, then Saddler was the leading, second generation orchestrator on Broadway until his death in 1921.  This is how Bennett (third generation orchestrator) described Saddler’s approach: “He’d have two violins playing a duet against the melody, and then some whimsical bass progression, or he’d come up with a low woodwind that was just right for some little looker with a little voice. One fine idea after another.”

Stephen Jones

Bennett recalled that Stephen Jones, another orchestrator and colleague of Bennett’s at T.B. Harms, had another approach: “But his orchestrations were the daintiest things you could imagine.  His trademark—or one of them—was a habit of coming to a climax in a big brassy chorus and suddenly doing the next four bars with an oboe, two clarinets and a bassoon.”

Maurice De Packh (1896-1960)

Bennett recalls that the producer, Vinton Freedley, suggested the use of a “three-trumpet” brass sound for the pit orchestra, something you might hear in a jazz band instrumentation.  However, Bennett also remembers that his colleague at Harms, Maurice De Packh, “felt that the intrusion of jazz-band instrumentation and scoring into the theatre pit had caused his mentor’s [Saddler] ‘life-work [to] crumble to ruin.’ ”

Robert Russell Bennett (1894-1981)

Some orchestrators work out every line of the music on a piano, as Bennett recalls:

“You hear someone [an orchestrator] who plays everything on the piano ‘to see how it sounds’ slaving away through the night over two or three bars and you wonder how gay and spontaneous it can possibly sound when finished.  Yet somehow when it gets to the audience the passage sounds as if it came with the original inspiration [of the composer].”

Luckily, Bennett didn’t work that way.  In 1924, as the orchestrators were working with Vincent Youmans to get Rose Marie ready to open, Arthur Hammerstein would not move forward with Rose Marie unless he had a new orchestration for “Indian Love Call” from Bennett.  The problem was that Bennett had injured himself playing handball at a YMCA tournament.  Hammerstein was undeterred.

“With a nurse at his side to keep remolding the pentagon of pillows supporting him, Bennett [in the presence of Hammerstein in the hospital room] dashed off a memorable orchestration of ‘Indian Love Call’ on a scratch pad.”

What do you think of the result?