Our second Monthly Orchestration Challenge has stretched on more than twice its anticipated length, due to both my heavy schedule over the past two months, and the complexity of the challenge. Furthermore, since so many entrants had put so much energy and commitment into their entries, I felt obligated to comment on each and every score. It’s been an exhilarating process, but I’m glad that we can put this chapter of the ongoing challenges to bed, and sweet dreams.
We collected 45 entries, including my own. All of these have been archived in the PDF link below, along with commentary on each score. Some commentary is extensive, some brief, but every score had features of interest. As before in our series of challenges, I recommend reading through the selections as a means of developing your mental hearing and score-reading abilities. With so many versions of the same material, your ear will start to just pick out the way that things are scored, and begin to hear what’s intended.
Our source excerpt, the opening of Debussy’s “Reflets dans l’eau,” presented many challenges for our entrants, and I count myself as challenged as well. This type of scoring is no less difficult for an experienced orchestrator, for the line must be walked between the orchestrational style of the original composer, and originality of treatment. One has to imagine what Debussy might have orchestrated, what signature sounds might have been developed in what ways to result in a new and striking interpretation. And that always takes everything an orchestrator’s got.
The arrangement contained three basic sections, each presenting a specific problem for an orchestrator. The first was a repeated gushing of soft chords over a gently chiming melody.
The question here is: which orchestral section or combination of sections best evokes the sense of a flowing, rippling image? Or, if we’re to ignore the imagery intended by Debussy, how to set things in a very natural, effortless-sounding way?
It’s worth looking through the many solutions in the PDF below. Vili Robert Ollila scored trilling winds behind measured-tremolo strings carrying the phrase. Willy-Els Van Vliet put the winds in little groups of cumulatively arching color, as did many other entrants, but supported them subtly with cellos on a sul tasto fingered tremolo. Nickie Fønshauge had winds as well, but supported hers with rippling harp arpeggios and tremolo strings carrying the tone a bit further. Other entrants traded off the groups, like Paul Wendlandt, who scored winds on the first phrase, strings answering and then giving way back to winds again.
I opted for strings in the opening passage, and I was surprised that more entrants did not. For a full description of my orchestration, along with a score sample, please refer to the PDF below. I’ve also embedded Sibelius files in versions 7.5 and 6 for users of that application, along with an audio file of the Sibelius 7 playback, which is not too bad actually. Anyhow, strings were rarely trusted by most entrants with the chordal phrase. But for an interesting twist, check out the very Ravel-like score by Ulrich Charlé, in which he gives divided first violins to job, doubled by winds, supported by seconds and violas whispering over harmonic glissandos, and by harp bisbigliando.
There were three main errors that many of our entrants committed in scoring the first passage. The main one was in pushing the first clarinet extremely high while still expecting a dynamic of p or pp. Even if such a thing were possible, it’s doubtful that the register of the clarinet up there would blend well or have a compatible, reliable intonation alongside the flutes.
Another common error was to trust the completely or partially exposed contrabassoon to play the bottom note of a D 5th or Db 5th with the neighboring bassoons. Since that low note is more reliably played by bassoons anyway, it increases the risk and lessens the stability to trust it to the contra, who’s more adept at strengthening textures than underpinning them solo.
The third error was more a case of cutting and pasting than an mistake in arranging. All too many entrants merely grabbed the opening phrase and dropped it into a staff of winds or strings, neglecting to edit the slur into smaller sections to reflect the needs of bowing or breathing by the players.
The next phrase of Debussy’s score gave our orchestrators an opportunity to try out various ideas. Debussy introduces the second motive of the piece over chromatically ascending 7th chords, the function of which is ambiguous when combined with the top note of the melody.
There were very earthy approaches, like Ian A. Cook’s, with a heavy brass chorale solidified by low strings doubling the tuba and bass trombone. But the standout treatment for this phrase remains Dallas Crane’s, who recognized the origins of Gil Evans-type voicings in the score, and followed suit with a jazz orchestra arrangement. For this phrase, he scored bass clarinet, alto sax, trumpet, trombone, and tuba, making for a fascinating depiction of eras colliding.
The last section was the one I personally found the most challenging. The idea is quite elegant on piano, and yet orchestrationally counterintuitive. Yes, there are many things that could be done, but none them felt right to me. I finally settled for muted trumpets in the middle bar, plus dove-tailing make the phrase flow, but I’m still not totally happy with it. Other entrants had some good ideas, but nothing stood out to me as inevitable or striking.
The biggest error to which the majority of entrants succumbed happened in that middle bar shown above. All too many just cut-and-pasted the phrase, without correcting the slur over the top. Unfortunately, this slur covers some notes which repeat, and without any articulation to guide the player, such as portato or slurred staccato, the marking becomes meaningless. Even more confusing, some entrants corrected the slur in one section, like the winds, but left it uncorrected in another, like the strings. But for what it’s worth, probably the most accurate way to score that bar would be in couplets, slurring every two notes.
I invite you once again to view the PDF below, reading through all the feedback provided, and compare with your own thoughts and conclusions. For those who’ve got the moxie to get through all 45 applicants, a huge jolt of orchestration training awaits. For those who can’t make it past the first few scores, well, you’re missing some great arrangements, especially as some of the most professional scoring is achieved around the end of the list.
And of course, I’ve included a copy of my own entry, as I stated above, with a full rundown of the reasons for my choices. Hoping you’ll enjoy it, and hope to see your score with the next round!