By Thomas Heuser
Tonight we have a chance to experience all the colors of the orchestra, from fiery reds to hazy blues, and to marvel at the ability of music to tell a compelling story. A composer’s ability to create orchestral color is due largely to their skills of orchestration, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was one of the most important orchestration experts in the 19th century. His textbook on the subject has been a benchmark since the time of its publication: he explains how a certain color, mood or effect can be achieved with an orchestra, and shows aspiring composers how to manipulate the orchestra to achieve their expressive goals.
The 19th century saw an explosion of orchestral effects, from composers like Berlioz in the 1830s through to the operas of Bizet and the symphonies of Gustav Mahler, but no composer was as adventurous and influential as Claude Debussy. Often the chromatic flute solo at the beginning of Debussy’s Prelude is credited with changing the course of music history and ushering in an era of modern composition that has continued to the present day. The important question, though, is why did Debussy write what he wrote? Orchestration is only interesting in so far as it serves a musical purpose. For Debussy, as with Rimsky-Korsakov and others, choices of orchestration serve to illustrate something, to paint a picture or to create a sense of cultural time and place.
Thus large orchestras and the growing complexity of orchestration in the 19th century can be understood as directly related to those composers’ fixation on programmatic music and the ability of music to follow a narrative. Listeners were often supplied with a written description of the action depicted in the music, and then orchestration was expected to make clear connections between the music and the text. As storylines became more exotic, so too did the choices of orchestration, which is why the score of Carmen is colored by tambourine and castanets, Scheherazade features the enchanting solo violin, and in Debussy’s Prelude, the single meandering flute hovers over smooth string chords and harp flourishes to paint a picture of the pastoral dream world described in Mallarmé’s original poem.