Starting the Orchestration

First things first: how many instruments? Can the opera bear a huge orchestration? And: Can the opera afford a huge orchestration? How big or small a sound do I need? What is practical for this opera at this time? Is there a certain “sound” I can’t live without? I started my research with the City Opera VOX “maximum ensemble size” which consists of the following:

Strings: 10/8/6/5/4

Woodwinds: 3/3/3/3

Brass: 4/3/3/1

Timpani, 2 Percussion, Harp, Piano, Celesta

That’s a pretty big orchestra full of possibility. (By the way, there is no VOX at the moment, which is sad. Hoping for the best for City Opera as they redefine themselves.) The Met orchestra is much bigger. Here it is for comparison’s sake:

Strings:  18/12/10/8/6

Woodwinds: 6/4/5/5

Brass: 9/5/7/1

3 Timpani, 3 Percussion, 2 Harps, (Celeste, Organ, Guitar)

Skylight Opera in Milwaukee is much smaller:

Strings: 3/2 /2/2/2

Woodwinds: 1/1/2/1 (then lists 5 doublers)

Brass: 2/3/2/0

Percussion, Harp

I imagine we will be pursuing productions with regional opera companies, so I consulted with a conductor who works with several regional opera houses around the U.S. She suggests the following:

Strings: 8/8/6/4/2

Woodwinds: 2/2/2/2

Brass: 2/2/2/0

Timpani, 1 Percussion, Harp, Piano/Celesta (double)

Practical I think. I’m making a little variation –  we may be able to get away with fewer strings – maybe 6/6/4/3/1. And for the woodwinds, I really like 3 flutes – thematically (there are 3 “furies” and 3 children!) as well as having the sound of a “mini-flute choir,” so I’m going with 3/2/2/1.  And in the brass department, I don’t think I will miss the tuba. I may use a bass trombone for the second trombone if I’m feeling the need.  Having a doubler for piano and celesta means that they can’t be played at the same time. Unless the player has really long arms.

Here’s what we have at the moment (on paper, at least):

Strings: 6/6/4/3/1 (this is variable – would love to go with 8/8/6/4/2 if it’s possible.)

Woodwinds: 3/2/2/1

Brass: 2/2/2/0

Timpani, 1 Percussion, Harp, Piano/Celesta (double)

I have orchestrated the first nine minutes, and this configuration is working for me so far. I am especially enjoying the flutes. Ada is a child in this scene, and engaging in “flights of fancy” as her mother says – and there is something about those flutes that helps those flights come to life.


4 responses to “Starting the Orchestration

  1. Dear Kim —

    For those of us who are IDIOTS, can you explain what all those little numbers mean exactly? I know strings means violins, violas and cellos and whathaveyou.

    And how do you keep it all straight? Do you picture/hear the violins playing one line of music and the flutes playing another at the same time?

    Thanks. Karin

  2. First of all, you are not an idiot! And I’m so glad you asked. All those little numbers are shorthand for groups of instruments. Even though we list the strings first, in the actual score, the strings are on the bottom. And even though they are made of metal, flutes are part of the woodwind family. Score order goes like this: Woodwinds are on the top, brass below them, timpani, percussion, harp, piano and celeste are below that, then the voice parts, and under those the strings. So–

    Strings: 6/6/4/3/1 means: 6 First Violins, 6 Second Violins, 4 Violas, 3 Celli, and 1 Contrabass.
    Woodwinds 3/2/2/1 means: 3 flutes, 2 Oboes, 2 Clarinets and 1 Bassoon.
    Brass: 2/2/2/0 means: 2 French Horns, 2 Trumpets, 2 Trombones and 0 Tubas.

    The rest is straightforward – “double” means that one player would play two instruments. In this case, the Piano and Celeste are played by the same person. (The Celeste, which is also spelled Celesta, is a keyboard instrument that makes a lovely chime sound. You have most likely heard it in “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”.)

  3. Oops I forgot to respond to your second question, which is less straightforward. Sometimes I think of orchestration as coloring and shading – reinforcing a certain line of melody, or counter-melody. Defining a bass line. Providing a harmonic fabric. Creating a rhythmic texture. Layering different instruments together to create textures of sound. Sometimes I hear it in my head, and have to figure out how to realize the sound I’m hearing with the instruments I have chosen. And score-making is very visual for me as well. You can almost feel a score by looking at it.

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