Books on Orchestration – a review
By Terry Dwyer (Poolman)
This is a brief review of eight popular books on orchestration and/or instrumentation. There are many more than eight out in the big wide world, but these are well known. At least I possess them, have studied them, and carefully rated them according to a large number of criteria. I must now make the usual disclaimer that what follows are the personal opinions of the reviewer, and you rely on them at your discretion.
One important criterion looms above the others: is this book about Instrumentation (description of instruments and their capabilities) or Orchestration (how to combine instruments effectively in a composition)? It happens that most of the following books are correctly titled, but two of them (Piston and Forsyth) are not, as they claim to be about orchestration whereas that element is negligible or minor, and they are principally about Instrumentation. This does not bar them from usefulness, since orchestrators must above all know what instruments can and cannot do.
In all, I applied 16 major criteria. To summarise them, they boil down to:
a) How complete is the list of instruments and their capabilities, including unusual instruments and unusual methods of tone production?
b) How many practical hints were given for individual instruments?
c) How useful were the examples given from actual standard works?
d) How much practical advice was given on orchestration problems?
e) Were suitable exercises included for student practice?
f) Were amateur groups catered for?
g) Was advice given on how to lay out scores correctly?
h) Were useful tables and appendices included?
But even these could not cover everything. Some authors revealed a hidden strength or weakness. Some of these books are more suited to beginners, others to more advanced readers. And so on.
The list, in order of merit, with brief comments
(N.B. Prices given are as found on the Internet on 8th April 2005, and may change)
1) Alfred Blatter, Instrumentation and Orchestration (Schirmer Books) 508 pp, $61.
The only book to pay equal attention to both aspects of the subject. Very suitable for a beginner, as it includes full advice on laying out a score, plus everything else one could wish for. Plenty of good examples given, though perhaps some of the ultra-modern conjuring tricks are unlikely to be of value to the learner. The only book to be really clear on what to do and avoid with amateur orchestras. Excellent appendices of essential information. Includes advice on writing for voices. Price a trifle high perhaps but it is excellent value for money.
2) Kent Kennan & Donald Grantham, The Technique of Orchestration (Prentice Hall) 401 pp, $14
Emphasis on orchestration, though instrumentation is well covered. First-class on scoring advice and examples of good orchestration. Covers most of the other topics quite well though not as fully as Blatter. Very suitable for student level. Fantastic value for money – if only you can find a copy. It seems that only second-hand copies are available at present.
3) Samuel Adler, The Study of Orchestration (W.W.Norton & Co.) 640 pp, $74
Again the emphasis is on orchestration, though the instrumentation section is excellent too. The great strength of this book lies in the enormous wealth of examples, though a slight drawback of some of these is the tiny, almost unreadable print. Regrettably there are no suggestions for students’ exercises. But this book goes into some depth on the finer points of orchestration. Heavy going for a beginner.
4) Walter Piston, Orchestration, (Victor Gollancz) 477 pp, $54
Definitely a book on Instrumentation, but outstanding at explaining the nature of each instrument and exploring its various possibilities. Some exploration of orchestration problems but no exercises suggested. Weak on the extras. A book for the student with some experience.
5) Cecil Forsyth, Orchestration, (Dover Books) 529 pp, $12
Very specialised, and certainly mistitled. There is some attempt at examples, and a little advice here and there, but mainly this concerns what the instruments can do, and very thorough it is, even if it is a little outdated now. The section on bowings, articulations, etc. of stringed instruments is unparalleled and the book is worth buying for this alone, though there is plenty of other useful information. Good value for money at $12.
6) N. Rimsky-Korsakov, Principles of Orchestration, (Dover Books) 340 pp, $14
Virtually nothing on instrumentation, but plenty of excellent advice on orchestration from an acknowledged master. (It was Rimsky who first formulated the rule-of-thumb “Two horns equals one trumpet or trombone when above mezzoforte”.) A slight drawback is that the musical examples are all from his own works, also that they are in a separate part of the book, which makes it difficult to use. Nevertheless another bargain at the price.
7) Gordon Jacob, Orchestral Technique, (Oxford University Press) 106 pp, $24
Definitely a slim volume. Information on instrumentation is at a minimum but the book is packed with sound advice on scoring from an expert in this field, set out in a clear and easy manner. But it is far from being as complete as any of the other books and poorish value for money at the price. (I have a soft spot for it, as it was my first orchestration book ever, and I learnt a lot from it. If only it were priced at $8!)
8) Paul Gilreath, The Guide to Midi Orchestration (MusicWorks Atlanta) 702 pp, $40
Not at all in the same category as the others; there is little enough of either major subject here. Its chief use would seem to be for one who is a beginner, not only at orchestration, but at working in Midi sequencing also. Very strong on the technical side, but not recommended for pure orchestration. The price is reasonable for its content, but bear in mind that a lot of your money goes to producing a very heavy hardback with thick glossy paper, many coloured illustrations, and large print. Postage may add considerably to the price.
It depends who you are, what you already have, and how much you can afford. All the books are worth having – buy them all if you can afford it! If you are really hard up, you will have to buy cheaply, but if it is quality you want, you will pay, even if through gritted teeth.
If you are going to have only one book, then go for the Blatter, especially if you are a beginner, and perhaps even if you are not. Anyway, here are my recommendations for different approaches:
Intermediate Student : Kennan (good value for money) or Adler (not such good value)
Advanced composer: Piston if you can afford it, or Forsyth (good value)
Quick and easy: Jacob, if you don’t mind the price.
T.D. April 2005