This will probably be the first in a series of posts I make about orchestration. Today, I’m talking about orchestrating piano music, as the title would suggest.
One of my goals with my music arranging and creating is to arrange pieces I really love for ensembles I really love. Those who know me know I play a fair few instruments, and I dabble in several more, but the three I focus on are cello, double bass and piano. Objectively, of the three, I should really be writing for double bass because there’s a distinct lack of double bass music, but I really love string quartets, so that’s what I write most for. Specialising in three instruments, of which two are quite similar, means I’ve seen a lot of repertoire from different composers and genres and eras and everything else, and it often makes me sad that good repertoire is not available for all the instruments (again; see double bass, but I’m working on that).
One really good example is Frederic Chopin. He wrote a lot of piano music (and I do mean a lot) but not much else. Sure, there’s scattered piano concertos, one piano trio and a cello sonata, but I really feel like he could have done some fantastic work in chamber ensembles, especially considering the tones, textures and timbres he managed to pull out of the piano! So I decided to do it for him, and have arranged his Opus 64 waltzes for String Quartet.
When I was writing these out, there’s two main steps. The first is to separate the layers of his piano writing into different parts and lines and then assign them to an instrument. I tend to arrange in a very literal way, because I want the original material to shine and not be significantly changed, so I’ve mostly separated his waltzes into melody, accompanying chords and bassline, which I then write into my file. I tend to start with melody, followed by bassline and then chords, because sometimes I’ll accidentally press too many keys and melodies tend to be distinct, so they’re easy to keep track of in a file. Again, the fact that I tend to literal transcriptions means that the bassline will go to the cello part, and the first violin gets the melody, with the inner strings making up the chords between them. This works nicely in the first and last waltzes, but the second waltz (C# minor) is a good example of where I have to be a little more creative. It’s got a melody with a harmony line, along with the chords and bassline, but is written in a way in which it’s obvious that it’s a very expansive sound, so my writing has to reflect that. When this happens, the parts change around a little more, and the roles tend to be more flexible for each instrument.
The second is to go back and look at the textures and voicings that Chopin has used in his writing, and if his piano writing isn’t translating nicely to string quartet voicings (which function differently then piano voicings) to find ways to make the sound work. There’s a section in the third waltz (Ab major) where Chopin’s piano writing just seemed particularly orchestral to me, and I’ve chosen to use tremolo to create the gentle sound I believe he was going for instead of the repeated pianissimo chords that he wrote. In this sections, I’ve bought out a cello melody and decorations that appear in the violin parts, but the remainder of the accompanying chords are tremolo, and it creates a really beautiful orchestral texture, which is the kind of section that makes me wish Chopin wrote for instruments other then piano more often! Bowings, articulations and shifting are all also aspects of the work I have to take into consideration that Chopin didn’t (because he wrote it for a different instrument), and register is also important. There are some sections which I’ve simply transposed an octave down because it would have made the violin writing ridiculous, instead of merely difficult. There’s also a line at the end of the Ab major waltz that it simply isn’t practical/possible to play on a single string instrument, and I wind up weaving it through three different parts to make it happen.
Wow, that was a lot of words! If you would like to check it out, it’s published on Sheet Music Press and you can find it here: