Orchestrating from a piano sketch is a common task in the film scoring world. A composer will sometimes give their orchestrator a piano part that has all the melody, harmony, and rhythm in it, and it is the orchestrator’s job to expand that into a full score. Many large-scale symphonic works of the 20th century were originally composed for piano. Stravinsky prepared piano versions of his ballets for rehearsals with choreographers, while Holst composed The Planets in a two-piano version that he later scored for orchestra. This article serves as an introduction to this topic and provides a few audio examples with scores from my recent works. When transcribing from piano to orchestra, one needs to bear a few technical details in mind.
Consider the following example:
This arpeggiated figure falls perfectly under the pianist’s hand and can be performed very easily. The same figure would be awkward for the violins, because of the quick octave leap between the extremes of the position. Below are a few versions that achieve a similar effect while being more idiomatic to string writing.
(As a side note, the reverse is also true. The following excerpt from Beethoven’s violin concerto demonstrates a very idiomatic type of writing where the bow undulates between sixths and an open string. The same part would be extremely uncomfortable for a pianist, whose average hand span does not exceed a tenth).
Anton Rubinstein famously said: “The pedal is the soul of the piano”. Pedal markings are crucial in determining the appropriate way to transcribe a piece to preserve the composer’s original intent. The sustain pedal is used to “fill up” space, so it usually calls for orchestral devices that generate a similar effect, such as pedal tones, tremolo chords, etc.
Eliminate octave doublings where necessary
Playing melodies in octaves on the piano yields a satisfying resonance. However, it is often advisable not to faithfully copy octave doublings into the orchestral score. A line with no doublings can sound very satisfying when it is performed by a single instrument. In general, octave doublings result in a brighter sound and they should be introduced at the right moment to serve the arc of the piece.
Move lines to different registers
When transcribing a piano piece for orchestra, it is sometimes preferable to move lines up or down to other registers. Because of the limited span of the hand, lines are sometimes confined to a narrow register. This is not a problem for the orchestra, where it is often advisable to separate different ideas by register.
Tip 1 – Parts from simple lines
When I score for orchestra, I seek ways to analyze lines into their constituents, from which I derive interesting instrumental parts. Here is an example of a pulse:
To turn this single line into an interesting texture for strings and harp, I treated the downbeats and upbeats separately and used a pedal D harmonic as the equivalent of the sustain pedal. Here is what the orchestrated pulse looks like:
Downbeats: Vln2, Harp (r.h.) Upbeats: Vla, Harp harmonic (l.h.) Pedal: Cello (harmonic)
Another example of a pulse scored for violins, violas, flutes, clarinets, and piano.
Tip 2: Scoring motor figures
A simple motor figure and two ways to score it:
a) clarinets (dovetailing),
b) violas staccato, (here I have the violas play the figure and its inversion simultaneously, partially doubled by the harp (remember: interesting parts).
Another example of a motor figure scored for viola doubled by piano and harp. Note the replacement of the second C of the pattern with B# in the harp part to maximize its resonance.
Tip 3: Two units within the string section
In chordal string writing, it is sometimes useful to treat the violins and the violas+cellos as two units that need to sound full within themselves. Let us look at an example of a melody with chordal accompaniment. The dreamy, magical character of the piece informs the choice of texture.
Here is a breakdown of the orchestration:
First phrase (m. 1-4): Violins divisi play four-part chords tremolo. Violas and cellos divisi play semi-open chords pizzicato (interlocking). Harp chords support the violins. A solo line is given to the flute, supported by clarinets.
Second phrase (m.5-8): Violins divisi play the harmonized melody. Violins 2 are enclosed between Violins 1 (better intervallic relationship within groups, blended sound). Violas and cellos play four-part harmony tremolo. Double bass enters to provide support as the register expands. Ascending clarinet line doubled by harp, joined by oboe and horn 8vb.
A sequence of 7th-chords chords.
Here, I divided all the groups except the first violins (and double basses). Interlocking results in a blended sound. The woodwinds play a few flourishes here and there. The snare drum fills in the upbeats.
Tip 4: Orchestrating a crescendo
One way to orchestrate a crescendo is to decide how to score the “big” moment and then work your way backwards. Let us now look at an example from Debussy’s prelude for piano “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair”.
We notice a registral expansion by upward transposition of an ascending pentatonic figure. The ascending figure is repeated three times in different octaves. After we decide how to score m.22 onward, we need to work our way backward and plan how to introduce timbres to expand the overall sonority.
First phrase: The cello plays the ascending pentatonic figure. The two horns “answer” with the last three notes of the figure.
Second phrase: Clarinets and bassoons in octaves. Violas and cellos begin with a “shimmering” wave. Violins and celeste answer with a short “sparkle”.
Third phrase: Ascending figure is played by the winds. All the strings (except the double bass) play rising fingered tremolos, “lifting” the overall sound. Horns and bassoons provide the final push with a four-part chord, joined by an upward harp glissando and the celeste.
Tip 5: Homogenous Tutti
To obtain a full sonority with mixed color, make sure the two main functions, melody and bass, are sufficiently represented in all sections.
Here is another climactic moment. The modulation A7 – Db major has a dramatic effect that suggests a considerable growth of the orchestral sonority.
For the orchestral version, I composed a countermelody played by violins in octaves and put the melody in the middle register. The melody and the bass have a lot of weight, while background figures impart a sense of forward motion.
English Horn, Clarinets, Horns, Cello, Viola tremolo : Melody
Violins (in octaves): Countermelody
Piano, Harp : Arpeggios
Trumpets, Oboes, Flutes: Pulse
Double bass, Tuba, Bassoon: Bass
Trombones, Tuba, Bassoons: 4-part harmony
Some of the most complicated symphonic works can be condensed to a two-hand piano version. Composing in the form of a piano sketch is a practical way to convey the melodic and harmonic aspects of a piece while leaving room for creative orchestration choices. Deep knowledge of instrumental timbre and orchestral dramaturgy is necessary to orchestrate from the piano while maintaining the composer’s original intent.
Another very useful exercise is to do the opposite: make piano reductions of orchestral scores. Not only does it sharpen your score reading skills, but it also helps to expand the associations between piano and orchestra and memorize patterns that you can use in your own sketches.
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring
Full Orchestra: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rP42C-4zL3w
Piano version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1shEGuzWIig
Thomas Goss analyzes Ravel’s transcription of Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tr-j0h7MPF4&list=PLleBmAodXIiOyZGpu_uXTWzsuwEZzwsFe
Rachmaninoff: Vocalise (chordal accompaniment)
Notes on transcription from Kennan: Technique of Orchestration http://www.clt.astate.edu/tcrist/orch/pianotrans/pnotranscription.pdf