The Dangerous and the Disastrous: Orchestrators to approach with caution

There’s no point in compiling a “worst orchestrators” list- the guilty parties would all be hopelessly minor and un-interesting composers. Far more interesting is to have a look at the who the great composers are who are most able to humble, wrong foot, humiliate or frustrate orchestras and composers.  Some ask too much, some didn’t know what to ask for. Either way, when you see their music coming on the season schedule, be sure to set aside a bit of extra preparation time.

Please share your comments below- which composers’ use of the orchestra fills you with dread?

The Dangerous!


Debussy was perhaps an even more imaginative and visionary orchestrator than Ravel, but he almost completely lacks Ravel’s practical and pragmatic touch. I once did a seminar on balance and texture problems that Debussy has left the composer to solve in my favourite Debussy orchestral work called “If Ravel had orchestrated La Mer.” You can count on Ravel to give you a score full of safe and reliable performance instructions- do as he says, and every little detail comes across. Debussy’s scores suggest breath-taking colours and revelatory  ideas, but it’s up to the performers to figure out how to bring them to life for the audience.


In Solomon Volkov’s “Testimony” Shostakovich is quoted speaking rather derisively of Prokofiev’s commitment and prowess as an orchestrator, going so far as to suggest that Prokofiev was one to let others finish his orchestrations for him. I’ve always been sceptical on that count, as I find that Prokofiev has an amazingly strong sonic footprint. I love the sound of his orchestral music- it’s incredibly powerful and distinctive. On the other hand, his use of the orchestra is often eccentric, and things can go badly wrong. His two most popular symphonies, the “Classical” (his first) and the wartime Fifth are among those works most likely sound ragged in concert. They’re just incredibly difficult and very exposed. One does often get the feeling that Prokofiev held a long-standing grudge against orchestral violinists and horn players. Approach his work with caution and plenty of rehearsal time.


In terms of “things people tend to say immediately before publicly humiliating themselves,” the phrase “there’s also some Dvorak overture on the program which I’ve never played, but I don’t think it will be too hard” is right up there with “hey guys, watch this!” I can think of plenty of violin players for whom the mere mention of the Husitska Overture is enough to make them break out in hives. Even as standard a piece as Carnival usually sounds sloppy if you listen carefully to the poor violinists. Musicians often underestimate Dvorak because we all played the New World Symphony in our respective youth orchestras. Dvorak’s orchestral writing gets simpler and more idiomatic as he got older- so just as the New World (his final symphony) is the most playable of the nine he wrote, so too his final concerto, the B minor Cello Concerto, is the most manageable of his works for soloist and orchestra. Dvorak grew up in the great Czech school of string playing- even before Mr Sevcik unleashed his dreaded finger exercises on the world, Czech string players have always seemed to be able to play anything. If you’re not blessed with the technical fluency of a Milos Sadlo or Joseph Suk, and you happen to be playing the Othello Overture on the next concert, get the part early. Dvorak seemed to be among music’s all-time nicest guys, but he sure had it in for second oboists. There are few more dangerous passages in all of music than the low, slow, soft and sustained second oboe parts in the slow movements of the Cello Concerto and the Seventh Symphony. If you know a second oboist tackling either piece, make sure they’re well stocked with hugs and post-rehearsal booze.



As we saw with the music of Dvorak, writing a classic youth orchestra work can create a misleading impression of how difficult a composer’s music is to play. “Hoe Down” is one of those delights that sounds way harder to play than it is, and as a result, it’s a great vehicle for young musicians to get that first experience of playing something really fast and virtuosic. In almost every other piece he ever wrote, the music sounds much easier to play than it really is…. until it all goes horribly wrong. I’ve taught Appalachian Spring countless times to young conductors, and the piece is usually a litany of failure and trauma when they perform it. The piece goes off the rails in concerts all the time, and, familiar as it is, it’s rare to hear a performance in which all the intonation challenges have been addressed. Copland’s famous Third Symphony is one of the most difficult pieces in the orchestral literature- we all know about the Fanfare for the Common Man and the challenge it poses for the brass, but it’s the first violins and high woodwinds who usually need therapy after attempting it. Even more difficult is the Third’s precursor, the Short Symphony. There’s nothing particularly gnarly about the orchestration other than the fact that it’s a fifteen minute piece for which you are supposed to source a hecklephone, but it’s one tough mother to conduct.



LvB himself on this list? Yup. Even the greatest string quartet violinist of Beethoven’s era, Ignaz Schuppanzigh, found some of Beethoven’s violin writing impossibly difficult. When he begged the master to simplify a passage, Beethoven replied, unsympatheticall, “Do you believe that I think about your miserable fiddle when the muse strikes me?” Of course, Beethoven’s use of the orchestra is visionary, but he was not the least bit interested in making anyone else’s work any easier. In fact his music is so incredibly demanding that 90% of the best professional musicians don’t dare even try to get close to the tempos he wanted. In addition to being technically demanding, Beethoven’s music demands perhaps the greatest clarity of rhythmic structure and security of pulse of any composer this side of Stravinsky. Making Beethoven’s music more playable is one of classical music’s most enduring traditions, one that’s been exacerbated by the influx of overpowered modern brass instruments. Slow, mezzo-forte and soggy. Blech! In the music of composer-conductors like Elgar and Mendelssohn, if the musicians tell the conductor “it’s incredibly awkward at this tempo” you can bet you’re going the wrong way with your interpretation. In Beethoven, if you start hearing words like “awkward” or “nearly impossible,” you’re probably very much on the right track.


The Disastrous


Pity poor Mussorgsky- officially the most re-orchestrated composer of all time. Even his biggest fans (Shostakovich and Rimsky) felt compelled to try to sort out his use of the orchestra. I’ve conducted the original version of A Night on the Bare Mountain- it’s a way cooler and much more insane piece than the Rimsky version we all know, but it’s incredibly problematic for the orchestra. It needs a lot of patience and mojo to pull off. It’s full of science fiction balances and technically awkward instrumental writing. Too little formal training or just too much vodka? Who knows…..


Schoenberg wrote some of my favourite music, and his re-orchestrations of the music of Mahler and Johann Strauss are gems. However, his track record as an orchestrator is definitely mixed. Pelleas and Melisande is a great work, but Schoenberg’s lack of hands-on experience really shows throughout. The balances all need tweaking and adjusting. Schoenberg played the cello, but I don’t get the feeling that he had much regard for the welfare of the human hand. Richard Strauss’s music is supremely athletic and virtuosic, but it does, in its crazy way, lie under than hand. Schoenberg’s undermines the hand. So much of his instrumental writing is uncomfortable, awkward, tiring and even painful. It’s all of a piece with the neurotic intensity of his musical persona, but sure makes it hard to play.




I’ve previously tried to defend Chopin’s much-maligned use of the orchestra in these pages, but age and experience have led me to concede that really, it’s pretty drab. Krystian Zimmerman’s recording of the Piano Concerti makes the best possible case for his use of the orchestra, but I’m sure KZ had about 100 rehearsals before they rolled tape.


Some nice ideas, but full of balance problems: I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a live performance of the Helicopter Quartet where one could hear the countermelody in the second helicopter clearly enough. Joking aside, I suppose the Helicopter Quartet is an over-simplified and overly-convenient piece of cultural shorthand for “20th C. music that is more trouble, expense and difficulty than it’s worth.” Nevertheless, if one must select a work to stand in the place of every work that relies too much on pointless effects, nightmarish difficulty and a general lack of reward for performers and listeners, this is as good a choice as any. Interestingly, John McCabe really rated much of Stockhausen’s music, so I’ll be giving it a rethink over the summer.


I’m afraid The Onion kind of beat me to the punch on this one, but Rimksy-Korsakov: The Great Orchestrator must be the third most overrated figure in music history (the two most overrated figures being Erik Satie: The Great Composer and Joseph Joachim: The Great Violinist). Yes, his adaptation of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain is a fantastic orchestral showpiece, but it leaves out a great deal of what makes Mussorgsky’s original so interesting- the whole-tone scales, the strange mixture of colors and registers and the general sense that you’re dealing with a very talented madman. It’s a classic case of the baby being tossed out with the bathwater. However, it’s in his own music where the shortcomings in his orchestration really come to the fore: the fact that he codified his over-reliance on attention catching percussion tricks that add little to the music in one of the cheapest books on orchestration you can buy has sent thousands of young composers marching down the path of budget-busting triviality. If you’ve ever played Capriccio Espagnol in a reverberant hall, you’ll know that in Rimksy-Korsakov’s hands, the tambourine can truly be a musical weapon of mass destruction.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Spread the word. Share this post!

About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

2 comments on “The Dangerous and the Disastrous: Orchestrators to approach with caution”

  1. Brian Hughes

    Debussy? Come on now, Ken. You’ve got to be kidding….What has always amazed me is the fact that, even when writing for a very large orchestra, he rarely uses it for pure sonic effect. As for La Mer? If Ravel had written it, the piece wouldn’t have been so evocative of the sea.

    As for Chopin, I’m with you all the way. Most boring use of the orchestra imaginable.

    I’ve noticed the absence of Berlioz on either list. Care to comment?

  2. Tristan

    I’m surprised that Jean “Swim in the Soup” Sibelius, whose arrangements are the subject of so many loud opinions both for and against, is mentioned on neither list. I’ve never performed his music, but word ’round the campfire is that his scores don’t exactly balance themselves.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *