For this Assignment, I was asked to orchestrate a piece written for piano. Initially, to make it easy and out of habit, I wanted to use one of the sonatas from the Classical Area, as I have played some myself and often find writing in classical style rather simple (even when orchestrating pieces).
Nonetheless, over the process of this course, I got really interested in Gershwin’s music. Even though it might be more challenging in terms of rhythm and alternating different themes, I decided to orchestrate his preludes I, II, and III, as they are often performed together and have an average duration of about 6 minutes.
To start getting a feeling for the piece, I listened to it several times, I made the following Listening Log entry:
Three Preludes for Piano
- Composer: George Gershwin
- Year of composition: 1926
- Instruments: Piano
- Performed by: Krystian Zimerman
The first of the three preludes is quite groovy, has a jazzy character and defines itself mostly through the maintained rhythm of the bass notes from the left hand. The main motif consists of 5 notes often repeated in varied ways throughout the piece.The following melody melody sees to be played rather freely, often playing up – and down running scales.
The second prelude has a darker and more melancholic character, created by the almost hypnotizing 4 – 2 – note -movement of the left hand. The right hand plays a thematically simple but lovely melody, repeated in octaves later within the piece. The centre part is more cheerful, the tempo gets slightly faster and the left hand takes over the melody, leaving the right hand to continue the 2 – note movement.
The third prelude has a dramatic, slightly hectic sounding introduction, after which a question – answer motif can be heard. Due to the faster tempo it creates a slightly stressed character, which really suddenly is changes to a mournful lovely and strong main theme. Unlike the previous two preludes, this one doesn’t have a jazzy, but more Eastern sounding character.
The next step for me, was to choose the right instruments for the orchestra. Whilst listening to the piano version, I already tried to imagine which instruments would capture the character of specific phrases well without loosing the composer’s original idea. I made some notes within a printed score about the instruments I was going to use.
For the main theme of the first prelude, I chose the clarinet, as the theme itself slightly reminded me of an old agent/detective film, the clarinet was often used for jazzy sounding background music, thus I felt it would be appropriate to use it as the leading instrument. Some quick runs, which were played rather calmly on the piano are played by the harp, due to it’s calming colour. For the strong bass notes, I used drums alongside staccato stings, to recreate the slightly quirky/disharmonic sound.
- Within the third bar I already noticed, that the idea with the staccato strings for the bass sounded too harsh, I instead made a mix of strings and brass instruments to soften the sound. In addition, I also managed to get some of the jazzy character back by using the brass section.
- Bar 20: There is a slight change in character within the original piece, similar to a transition. I used the harp for the fast arpeggios in addition to continuing pizzicato strings in the bass.
- Bar 25 – 28: As a short phrase from bar 16 is repeated, I wanted to bring some alteration in by using brass instruments instead of woodwinds (which I used in bar 16). Although, during the process, I noticed, that the sound would be far too soft to represent this part of the piece well, thus I used the woodwinds again, but added the tuba to play the second voice.
For the rest of the piece, I tried to use the clarinet as a reappearing feature, especially when the main three was played. Nonetheless, for the other surrounding parts, I altered several instrument groups.
Over the process of the course, I was lucky, to get to know some more about brass instruments, which I haven’t used much within previous pieces, as I often found them too loud and bulky sounding. Although, through one or two Listening Log entries, I was surprised to find out, that these instruments can have a soft, melancholic or jazzy side to them as well. Therefore, I chose the trombone to play the first part of the melody within the second prelude.
- Bar 12: For a change of sound, I used the bright “voice” of the trumpet to answer the melodic line from the trombone. I furthermore strengthened the bass line by adding the tuba to it and brought some general variation to the accompaniment, by using some woodwinds.
- Bar 18: The main theme appears again, played in octaves within Gershwin’s version. I used the previous two solo instruments (trombone and trumpet) and strengthened their sound with the clarinet and the bass clarinet, the calm melancholic atmosphere stayed the same.
- Bar 31: For the B-part I decided to focus on the woodwind section. As there was barely a transition between the A and B section within the original, I tried to change the colour of sound completely, also by adding some percussion parts, which I didn’t use within the A – sections.
The last prelude was the mos challenging one for me. It took me quite a few attempts to get the sound I wanted for the first few bars. As the main theme has a bit of an oriental character, I decided to use the English horn for these first few bars. The short intro came out as a mix of brass instruments and woodwinds.
- Bar 17: For the repetition of the short section which started in bar 13, I used softer instruments for the melody, in order to create an echoing effect.
- Bar 21: For the second repetition of the main theme, I wanted the woodwind and brass section facing each other. Although knowing, that the brass instruments often have a more penetrating sound, I slightly decreased the volume, so that the two sections could communicate slightly better.
- Bar 29: For this B-part, I used strings only, to create a softer, smoother contrasting theme to the thilling sound of the previous theme a. The second half of theme B, I added the woodwinds again, leading to an increasing tension, which is only slightly resolved again within the main theme following in bar 51.
- With each repetition of the main theme, I tried to increase the amount of instruments, but still keeping the oriental character, by pushing the woodwinds and strings to the front.
- Similar to the previous pieces, I only added the percussion at the very end, being careful, not to overuse them.
Overall, I think it was a good choice to orchestrate Gershwin’s pieces. As initially thought, I found it challenging yet rewarding to work on it. The piece I enjoyed most, was the second prelude, due to its warm and melancholic character. I am also really happy with the result of the chosen instruments. The other two pieces were harder to work on, especially when it came to finding a start for them.