At long last- the research has been completed, the results have been tallied. We can now say with absolute, factual certainty who the 15 greatest orchestrators of all time are. Check out the results, then let us know which ones you got wrong…. Er, we mean, let us know who you think should be on the list.
Scoring was on the basis of-
1- How good they were: does their work sound great?
2- How original they were: does their work sound unique?
3- How idiomatic/professional they were: does their work work as they wrote it?
Stay tuned for next time, when we look at the most problematic orchestrators ever chose between 2nd oboe or 2nd clarinet.
A giant, whose musical achievements look bigger and more impressive as the years go by. His Concerto for Orchestra is every bit as great as Bartók’s, and his symphonies are simply amazing works, full of color and originality.
Mozart’s music, is of course, some of the most beautiful ever written. As an orchestrator, he leaves an awful lot of the welfare of the music in the hands of the musicians. It simply has to be well-played to work at all- the orchestration covers no problems and really makes very few effects. On the other hand, there are wonderful diversions and surprises in his orchestral choices- the divided violas in the Sinfonia Concertante, the use of clarinets instead of oboes in the 39th Symphony or the dark sound of basset horns and trombones in the Requiem. His most strikingly original orchestral work is the Gran Partita, a work with only one player (the double bass) there to represent for the strings.
Perhaps no composer better understood the poetic power of orchestral sonority than Bruckner. Often compared to Wagner and Mahler, his sound-world is more austere and restrained, and the music is all the more powerful for it. For me as a listener and conductor, he’s in the top four all-time orchestrators. I’ve bumped him back in this listing out of deference to all those string players who wish they’d learned how to play tremolo without tension before they encountered his music.
Some may be surprised to see Brahms on this list- he’s not a composer known for his attention-grabbing orchestration. Of course, that’s exactly how Brahms would have wanted it: a composer of such exactly honesty and discipline could only have wanted an orchestral world where every detail was completely in service of the musical narrative. The magnitude of his achievement and the skill of his work can be best appreciated by sampling Schoenberg’s well-meaning but desperately incompetent and misguided orchestration of Brahms’s G minor Piano Quartet
Mendelssohn is one of the many composers on this list who was also an expert conductor of vast experience, and it shows on every page of his music. If less ambitious than Berlioz or Schumann, he was far more polished. Everything works, everything fits under the hand.
Yes, his music is harder to play than Mendelssohn’s or Brahms. If one strays too far from his original number of players and stage setup, it can be hard to make the balances and textures work, but he was far more original, daring and inspired than either of his masterful friends. His brass writing is particularly original- check out the trombone chorale in the Third Symphony or the mind-blowing horn writing in the Konzertstucke.
Shostakovich had the wisdom to recognize early on that Mahler and Strauss had taken orchestral micro-managerialism as far as it could go. There are more expressive markings in the first ten pages of Mahler 7 than in the entire 15 Shostakovich symphonies combined (disclaimer- this statement is probably not actually factually true, but you get my point). Shostakovich’s orchestral palette is incredibly wide-ranging. He can do stark, he can do contrapuntally insane, he can do Russian lyricism. No composer before or since could do so much with contrabassoon and piccolo. And yet, as diverse as the language is, the voice is always instantly recognizable.
Wagner changed everything, especially the sound of the orchestra. From the opening of Rienzi through the final pages of Parsifal, Wagner’s orchestra has a grandeur, a power and a breadth of colour the likes of which had never been seen before. His influence is immeasurable.
If one were to be so curmudgeonly as to try to find fault with Bartók as an orchestrator, the only fault to find might be in the fact that one can hear the influence of Stravinsky and Debussy in so much of his work. Still, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best.
Stravinsky was the Miles Davis of classical music. Over a long career, he managed to reinvent himself over and over again, and, like Miles, he seemed to almost welcome the despairing cries of his fans every time he left a beloved style behind. He could have written Firebird another 50 times and been the richest composer who ever lived. Instead, he went on a sixty year journey of constant renewal, from the primal fury of Rite of Spring ,to the acidic modernist tang of the Octet for Winds and Symphonies of Wind Instruments, to the neo-Classical delights of Dumbarton Oaks and Danses Concertantes, to the severity of Oedipus Rex, and then on to the atonal abstractions of Agon. And through it all, the listener needs only one of those trademarked tutti staccato chords to know you’re still listening to Miles Davis….. er, I mean Stravinsky. He would rank even higher on this list but for his tendency to revise and fuss- like Mahler, he could never leave his orchestrations alone (profit was a big reason in Stravinsky’s case)
The name “Ravel” has practically come to mean “great orchestrator.” He was a great, great, great composer, too, but with the rare gift of inhabiting the sound world of other composers. Of all the composers who were drawn into orchestrating or re-orchestrating the music of Mussorgsky, I think Ravel strikes possibly the most judicious balance between keeping the best of Mussorgsky’s original ideas and making the music shine for the listener. Has there every been anything lovelier than the Minuet from Tombeau de Couperin or the end of Mother Goose?
Of course, Mahler has to be high on this list. The originality of his orchestral writing is just amazing- and really worlds away from the blocks of sonority favoured by Bruckner and Wagner. It’s chamber music on a vast scale. Possibly the greatest conductor who ever lived, his orchestral writing is informed by a huge depth of practical experience, not least conducting his own works, which he revised again and again whenever he performed them, always seeking to get closer to his musical ideal.
Elgar shares a gift also held by Shostakovich and Bruckner- that of having an instantly-recognizable orchestral fingerprint. His orchestrations of other composers’ works sound more like Elgar than Parry, Bach or the like. A pragmatic professional musician, his orchestration is generally also more fluid and idiomatic than even his great Austro-Bohemian near-contemporary, Gustav Mahler.
2. J. S. Bach
The fact that Bach places at no. 2 on the list of history’s greatest and most imaginative orchestrators is all the more impressive considering the fact that in Bach’s time, orchestration really wasn’t much of a “thing.” Bach’s orchestral Klagnwelt is amazingly wide ranging: from the sparking trumpet-and-drum brilliance of the Christmas Oratorio to the austere and direct atmosphere of the Saint John Passion and the poly-choral and poly-orchestral complexities of the Saint Matthew.
1. Richard Strauss
When it comes to orchestration, Strauss is in a league completely and totally of his own. It’s no accident that so many of the composers on this list (Mahler, Wagner, Bruckner and Elgar) share a certain late-Romantic sensibility. Their music emerges from a time in which the orchestra really was the symbol of civilization and art. However you rank all the figures on this list as composers, as a master of the orchestra, Richard Strauss really has no competition. Where Mahler, Bruckner and Stravinsky seemed to be unable to quite put their musical ideas into a final form, Strauss wrote with supreme confidence and seemed to never need to revise. No composer before or since seems to have been able to put so much on the page at once and have it all make sense. Others who have tried, such as Schoenberg around the time of Pelleas and Melisande and Gurrelider, have come to grief- the balances are almost impossible to get right. Think of the range of his orchestral universe, too- from Heldenleben to Metamorphosen, from the Oboe Concerto to Elektra, from Till Eulenspiegel to Aiadne auf Naxos.
1. There is a sequel to this post here. It’s a (mostly) affectionate look at orchestral music’s problem children.
2. Some very good suggestions have come up in the comments, notably
– Tchaikovsky. Yes! Totally deserves to be high on this list. An absolute genius of an orchestrator who never seemed to put a foot wrong.
– Sibelius. Yes, also. Brahmsian in it’s unobtrusive perfection and the absence of pointless effect
– Nielsen. Many amazing things in his music, but it can be damnably hard and there are many things that are baffling. If and where you put him on this list depends on what you think the balance between the bold and the baffling is.