by Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov

Chapter III

Part 1 - General Observations

Lesson Notes: In this brief lesson we will begin our discussion on harmony. There are no interactive scores in this lesson. The information provided in this lesson will set the goundwork for the following lessons dealing with harmony among the various instrument groups.

Professor Belkin Comments: Up till here, the discussion has focussed on melody, which normally means a foreground line. In this section, two important new situations will be examined: harmony as BACKGROUND, and chordal textures with no separate melodic line. In other words, for the first time we are talking about orchestrating with MULTIPLE LINES at the same time. The key issues here are: BLEND, and BALANCE. Without blend, the harmony will not be heard as a homogeneous unit; without balance, some parts will stick out inappropriately.

General observations.

The art of orchestration demands a beautiful and well-balanced distribution of chords forming the harmonic texture. Moreover, transparence, accuracy and purity in the movement of each part are essential conditions if satisfactory resonance is to be obtained. No perfection in resonance can accrue from faulty progression of parts.

Professor Belkin Comments: It is a commonplace, but requires repeating here: Without a thorough grounding in HARMONY, one cannot orchestrate with confidence, since harmony starts with the study of homogeneous, chordal, textures. The principles this learned, while originally intended for vocal writing, all apply equally well to instruments. However instruments ADD other resources as well.

Note. There are people who consider orchestration simply as the art of selecting instruments and tone qualities, believing that if an orchestral score does not sound well, it is entirely due to the choice of instruments and timbres. But unsatisfactory resonance is often solely the outcome of faulty handling of parts, and such a composition will continue to sound badly whatever choice of instruments is made. So, on the other hand, it often happens that a passage in which the chords are properly distributed, and the progression of parts correctly handled, will sound equally well if played by strings, wood-wind or brass.

The composer should picture to himself the exact harmonic formation of the piece he intends to orchestrate. If, in his rough sketch, there exist any uncertainly as to the number or movement of harmonic parts, he is advised to settle this at once. It is likewise essential for him to form a clear idea as to the construction and musical elements of the piece, and to realise the exact nature and limitations of the themes, phrases and ideas he is going to employ. Every transition from one order of harmonic writing to another, from four-part harmony to three, or from five-part harmony to unison etc., must coincide with the introduction of a new idea, a fresh theme or phrase; otherwise the orchestrator will encounter many unforeseen and insurmountable difficulties. For example, if, during a passage written in four parts a chord in five-part harmony is introduced, a fresh instrument must needs be added to play this particular fifth part, and this addition may' easily damage the resonance of the chord in question, and render the resolution of a discord or the correct progression of parts impossible.

Number of harmonic parts—Duplication.

In the very large majority of cases harmony is written in four parts; this applies not only to single chords or a succession of them, but also to the formation of the harmonic basis. Harmony which at first sight appears to comprise 5, 6, 7 and 8 parts, is usually only four part harmony with extra parts added. These additions are nothing more than the duplication in the adjacent upper octave of one or more of the three upper parts forming the original harmony, the bass being doubled in the lower octave only.

Professor Belkin Comments: There is also a kind of four-part writing with more complex added parts, but as RK says, these extra lines remain secondary. More on this later …

The following diagrams will explain my meaning:

A. Close part writing

B. Widely-divided part-writing.

Note.In widely-spaced harmony only the soprano and alto parts may be doubled in octaves. Duplicating the tenor part is to be avoided, as close writing is thereby produced, and doubling the bass part creates an effect of heaviness. The bass part should never mix with the others:

Professor Belkin Comments: This is an important principle, often forgotten: While the bass may be doubled (rarely in more than ONE octave), if the higher octave crosses into the other middle parts, the bass line loses its clarity.
no music, since this kind of spacing is (necessarily) typical of piano writing.

On account of the distance between the bass and the three other parts, only partial duplication is possible.

Note. Notes in unison resulting from correct duplication need not be avoided, for although the tone in such cases is not absolutely uniform, the ear will be satisfied with the correct progression of parts.

Consecutive octaves between the upper parts are not permissible:

Professor Belkin Comments: RK is talking here of REAL, independent parts, and NOT orchestral doublings.

Consecutive fifths resulting from the duplication of the three upper parts moving in chords of sixths are of no importance:

The bass of an inversion of the dominant chord should never be doubled in any of the upper parts:

Professor Belkin Comments: Put this way, the rule is too extreme. The underlying principle is: be cautious about doubling sensitive, “active” tones. They make for awkward part writing or momentary accents.

This applies also to other chords of the seventh and diminished seventh:

The rules of harmony concerning sustained and pedal passages apply with equal force to 'orchestral writing. As regards passing and auxiliary notes, echappees, considerable licence is permitted in rapid passages of different texture:

Professor Belkin Comments: … especially when the timbres are varied.

A certain figure and its essentials; in simplified form, may proceed concurrently, as in the following example:

Professor Belkin Comments:The double bass part is often simplified in this way, for ease of playing, when the cello line is very quick and agile.

Upper and inner pedal notes are more effective on the orchestra than in pianoforte or chamber music, owing to the greater variety of tone colour:

Professor Belkin Comments: …. and also the fact that they SUSTAIN.

In Vol. II of the present work many examples of the above methods will be found.

Distributionof notes in chords.

The normal order of sounds or the natural harmonic scale:

may serve as a guide to the orchestral arrangement of chords. It will be seen that the widely-spaced intervals lie in the lower part of the scale, gradually becoming closer as the upper register is approached:

The bass should rarely lie at a greater distance than an octave from the part directly above it (tenor harmony). It is necessary to make sure that the harmonic notes are not lacking in the upper parts:

To be avoided:
Professor Belkin Comments: This serves mainly for BLEND. Large gaps encourage the ear to hear the result as separate planes of tone.
The use of sixths in the upper parts, and the practice of doubling the upper note in octaves are sometimes effective methods:

When correct progression increases the distance between the top and bottom notes of the upper parts, this does not matter:

But it would be distictly bad to fill in the second chord thus:

Hence it follows that the distribution of intermediate parts is a question of the greatest importance. Nothing is worse than writing chords, the upper and lower parts of which are separated by wide, empty intervals, especially in forte passages; in piano passages such distribution may be possible. Progression in contrary motion, the upper and lower parts diverging by degrees gives rise to the gradual addition of extra parts occupying the middle register:

When the voices converge, the middle parts are eliminated one by one:

Professor Belkin Comments:This is often a trap for beginners orchestrating piano music, since this kind of spacing is (necessarily) typical of piano writing.