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Topic: Question About Choir and Orchestra

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  1. #1
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    Question About Choir and Orchestra

    I am currently refining a piece I wrote for orchestra and choir and I'm trying to figure out balance. I have looked over several scores from the baroque era (The Messiah) to modern film (John Williams.) Sometimes the choir is fully doubled by orchestral instruments either on pitch or in another range, sometimes just the choir's melody is doubled (in octaves mostly), and sometimes the choir is not doubled at all. Some excerpts can hold their own without choir and some need the choir or else it will sound unbalanced or even empty.

    For example in one excerpt I looked at (from Duel of the Fates by John Williams) melody was fairly sustained in 4-part choir singing forte doubled by 4 french horns playing mezzo forte with everyone in the ocatave above middle c (concert pitch.) The rest of the orchestra (literally every part) was playing fairly moving bass or accompaniment spanning five and a half octaves at mezzo forte. The comments at the beginning of the score said that choir is optional. Now, if the choir didn't sing in this passage I would think that the horns would be buried, right?

    Say I write a passage for 4-part choir with several middle woodwinds doubling the melody at pitch. How much heavier (compared to orchestrating the passage without the choir on melody) would I have to orchestrate everything else (bass, counteroint, etc.) to achieve balance? What about choir with brass? Strings?

    So overall my question is how much weight do you give a choir when orchestrating a passage? I know it varies with the dynamics and range the choir is singing in, but is there any general rule I can use to determine what a choir is "worth" in balance weight?


    - Brian

  2. #2

    Re: Question About Choir and Orchestra

    Well, I tend to take Mahler's example in his Second Symphony as a good rule of thumb.

    When the orchestra is called for VERY loud passages (and Mahler LOVED loud...and he also loved really really soft too), the choir is almost always in octaves (or unison), but as soon as he wants that choir to split into harmony, he backs the orchestra off a bit. There are exceptions to this in this particular piece, but for the most part, if you want the choir to be heard, don't have the WHOLE orchestra blaring at the same time. But if you do, make sure the choir has all melody and are in octaves.) There has to be a balance there. Unless you just want the choir to be treated as another orchestral instrument, you have them sing lyrics. You want them to be heard.
    If doubling the choral parts in the orchestra is called for, it will support the choir, but don't count it to make up the lack of volume. Mahler had an organ double the choir parts in the last few pages of his 2nd. In many recordings I have of this, the organ overpowers the choir. Go figure. But I have many others where the organ SUPPORTS the choir.

    Again - it is all about balance. Choirs are usually meant to be HEARD and hopefully understood. Otherwise, they are just their own instrumental section in the orchestra.


    My opinion here.

    Jerry
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  3. #3
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    Re: Question About Choir and Orchestra

    If you consider that all the instrument groups are called choirs as in Brass Choir, it gives you a good perspective on treating the vocal choir. They can play alone or be supported and or doubled in numerous ways. They can be featured or a part of a basic texture as well. Admittedly choirs tend to dominate when they are singing/playing at least in the large percentage of the repertoire but they have been used in very subtle ways as well. The question is what sound you want. Polyphonic texture often have them exactly doubled by their string counterparts. They can also sit in the middle of an orchestral texture pretty much alone with little reinforcement which may barely be heard but knits them into the sonic fabric. The Mahler doublings mentioned (great example) are indeed to effect a balance with the orchestral forces. An over simplified rule would be that as long as the basses and cellos are going you will not lose the sense of support one expects from an orchestra and that the other instruments can sort of come and go from there.

  4. #4

    Re: Question About Choir and Orchestra

    Quote Originally Posted by Jerry W.
    In many recordings I have of this, the organ overpowers the choir. Go figure. But I have many others where the organ SUPPORTS the choir.
    It could be due to the volume of the organ, but it might just be microphone placement and the hall.

    I attended a local concert here that was general admission. We saw the first half up front and the second half in the back.

    Up front the 1st violins overpowered everything. The cellos and basses were almost silent. In the back, the orchestra was more balanced - but the cellos and basses were almost painfully loud.

    There's only so much the composer and conductor can control.

  5. #5

    Re: Question About Choir and Orchestra

    Quote Originally Posted by JonFairhurst

    There's only so much the composer and conductor can control.
    Not in Mahler's case, He was supreme commander on the podium. he he. At least in Vienna.

    I guess my point was it is obvious that Mahler wanted the choir to be heard, and not just meant to be in "the mix" sonically speaking. The way the organ part is written, it was meant to enhance, not overpower, the choir. My point was about having a balance there somewhere.

    But Jon, you are absolutely right about how different the experience can be, depending upon where you sit in a live performance, or where mics are placed, and how mixes are mastered in the recordings.

    I personally love the differences in recordings of famous works. At one time I had 23 different scores (editions, re-arrangements, re-orchestrations (Mozart), etc.), to Messiah and almost as many different recordings. I LOVED to hear the different interpretations. It is such a hoot.

    Jerry

    Sorry to get off topic there.
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  6. #6

  7. #7

    Re: Question About Choir and Orchestra

    Quote Originally Posted by JCLG
    SWEET!

    Thanks! This is cool. (And yet ANOTHER interpretation and performance for me to enjoy!)


    Jerry
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  8. #8
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    Re: Question About Choir and Orchestra

    Thanks to everyone who replied. That helps me a lot.

    While we're on this subject, I have one more question about doubling. In many of the examples I have looked at when the choir is doubled it is usually at pitch in unison or harmonized with the choir's melody, and/or an octave higher in unison or harmonized with the choir's melody. I can't find an example where the orchestra doubles in the octave below (and no where else) the choir's range. For example if the choir was singing in 4 parts in the octave above middle c and they were doubled partially by the horns and/or trombones in the octave below middle c. Is there a reason why this is not done usually? I guess the result would be a bit heavy but it seems like someone would want that effect somewhere. Have I not look at enough examples?

    Thanks Again,

    Brian

  9. #9

    Re: Question About Choir and Orchestra

    Quote Originally Posted by AtmosMan
    Thanks to everyone who replied. That helps me a lot.

    While we're on this subject, I have one more question about doubling. In many of the examples I have looked at when the choir is doubled it is usually at pitch in unison or harmonized with the choir's melody, and/or an octave higher in unison or harmonized with the choir's melody. I can't find an example where the orchestra doubles in the octave below (and no where else) the choir's range. For example if the choir was singing in 4 parts in the octave above middle c and they were doubled partially by the horns and/or trombones in the octave below middle c. Is there a reason why this is not done usually?

    Brian
    Probably because the result WOULD be too heavy and muddy. The only time I have seen doubling BELOW would be the just the basses might be doubled an actave below their pitch to add depth and strength. I am not totally fluent in all choral literature, but I have never seen an example like the one you posed above.

    But... theoretically, your example COULD work, given the right instruments were used for the doubling. But somewhere the choral doubling instruments would also have to be playing their actual pitches too. Say, the strings doing the choir's actual notes, and the brass an octave below. (or vice versa)

    Jerry
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  10. #10
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    Re: Question About Choir and Orchestra

    That's what I thought, Jerry. I initially orchestrated this piece when I was a senior in high school and I'm going through it now looking at my orchestrations and I see some things where I say "what was I thinking?" I had the situation I mentioned in my previous post with the brass below the choir. Oops. It's incredible how much I've learned the past 4 years (just by reading books, studying scores, and asking questions on this forum.) Thank you to everyone.

    - Brian

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