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Book Review

The Study of Orchestration

The Study of Orchestration by Adler

Fourth Edition

Samuel Adler
W. W. Norton & Company pp xix + 1003
ISBN-10: 0393920658
ISBN-13: 978-0393920659
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The new fourth edition of Samuel Adler's The Study of Orchestration amply retains its place in the top rank of the several excellent books on instrumentation and orchestration. Such titles as those by Kennan (ISBN-13: 978-0130407719), Piston (ISBN-13: 978-0393097405), Blatter (ISBN-13: 978-0534251871), Rimsky-Korsakov (ISBN-13: 978-0486212661) and Forsyth (ISBN-13: 978-0486243832) add immensely to listeners' understanding of how music actually work, how it's produced by experienced players. These are all lengthy, substantial and thorough books. But now Adler's is by far the longest at over 1,000 pages including index etc – almost 15% longer than the third edition from 2002.

It is not length that should determine the quality of a book, of course. And Adler's superb grasp of the principles of how instruments work in an orchestral context (he is, after all, an accomplished composer) makes this book one to be recommended without hesitation. Expensive (well over US$130 on Amazon at the time of writing) and heavy, though it is, it's well worth it and would last a lifetime.

It's no co-incidence that the books by Piston, Rimsky-Korsakov and Berlioz (ISBN-13: 978-0486269030) feature prominently on the shelves of anyone wanting better to understand how music works from an instrumental and orchestration perspective. Composers must have such an in depth feeling and technical knowledge in order to make anything worthwhile of their melodic, harmonic, rhythmic and textural ideas. Similarly, as listeners, we're likely to appreciate better the challenges (of pedalling, breathing, bowing and fingering, for instance); of the huge variety of tonal support for melodic lines; and of the need for contrast to provide variety and surprise as well – again – as continuity in underpinning almost all the music we listen to.

Samuel Adler's The Study of Orchestration is intended primarily for students in the sense that all the principles covered and explored – in admirable depth and with exemplary clarity – are illustrated both in the book with score extracts and access to audio and video samples online recorded by members of the Eastman School of Music. This edition also covers material relevant to composition for bands in greater depth.

The Study of Orchestration is divided into "Instrumentation", chapters 1 to 14, almost two thirds of the substantive text; and "Orchestration", chapters 15 to 19, with a couple of dozen pages of appendices and references; and two indices – of concepts and of works and composers.

In the first part, after a very brief survey (four pages) of the development of the orchestra, chapters 2, 3, 4 and 5 (170+ pages) examine the string family from its individual members' construction, characteristics, capabilities, ways to play, to modern techniques and ways in which the strings work, play and sound together. Chapters 6, 7 and 8 (almost 150 pages) look at woodwind – again examining all aspects that anyone not only listening to (recorded) music, but also playing, would need to know. This will benefit non-specialists because such topics as contrapuntal writing, winds to add color to other families; transcription; as well as scoring for transposition all reveal extra subtleties not always appreciated by the casual listener. Again, new types of articulation are dealt with.

Similarly chapters 9, 10, and 11 (200+ pages) cover brass in a similarly imaginative yet thorough way. In this section, too, Adler looks at the ways in which the most effective uses are made in a variety of established and innovative musical contexts and combinations of instrument families. These also look at the ways in which the particular characteristics of each (member of the) family are specifically exploited. In chapter 12 (50 pages) Adler examines percussion from multiple angles: categories historically within the orchestra; the ways in which different sounds are produced; and the absence/presence of pitch, for instance.

Chapters 13 and 14 (almost 90 pages) look at keyboard instruments, and keyboards scored with percussion. Once again, Adler's coverage is well-paced, expertly-arranged and nigh exhaustive. As with most of the other instruments examined in The Study of Orchestration, positions in the performing orchestra and score are explained and illustrated. By this time in the book, the reader will be used to the way in which Adler talks as much about the uses of the instruments and their families in context and concert with one another as about their individual attributes (though he does cover these very well too). This is a big bonus for listeners because it almost inevitably deepens our appreciation by allowing us to pick the sound apart.

The second part of the book is as strong, as readable and as useful to music-lovers of every stamp as the first. It's based on the premise that the orchestra is its own instrument. So chapters 15 and 16 (130 pages) look at the ways in which the orchestra is used to convey musical invention by itself and as "accompanist" for soloists and ensembles. Chapters 17 and 18 (120 pages) look in great depth at transcription and the way in which scores and parts work and are used to produce the concerts and recordings at the center of our listening. Over 80 pages are devoted specifically to scoring for wind ensemble where – once again – wind instruments in situ are examined as part of a composer's wider intentions and conceptions.

Throughout Adler's treatment and coverage of each instrument, its range is given; its name(s) in other languages than English; some history of its development; anything relevant to players, listeners and composers about its physical construction; "special" effects of which it is capable; score extracts where it "shines" with pointers to additional "passages for study" – often as many as several dozen; good practice for scoring/notation; specifics such as the difference between brass (trumpet, horn, trombone) slide positions with different valves depressed; the use of mutes, mallets and other "detached" parts of an instrument; how and why to transpose (in all appropriate cases); what to expect from groupings (soli, divisi and tutti) in the orchestra; how different articulations are achieved; how different colors are achieved; and so on.

Each of these is presented in attractively laid-out short and easy-to read sections and paragraphs with plenty of white (yet no wasted) space. Sometimes there are photographs of the instruments being played, line drawings which contrast, say, the shape, size and features of F, CC and BB♭ tubas etc. Where useful, monochrome illustrations are provided – of mutes, fretboards and posture etc. Where relevant, important and/or illustrative, Adler provides the smallest detail such as the difference which the listener can expect to see when following a score between spiccato and pizzicato in left-hand bowing. These are not to be considered as minutiae: they are the very essence of playing and at its very center. Music lovers who go beneath the surface of the sound will benefit every time from knowing why and how what they are hearing – even in comparing one interpretation of a (solo instrumental and/or orchestral) score with another.

The book is attractively produced with pages that – for the book's size – are pleasingly substantial in quality. For all the book's detail, there is never an impression of cramping or overflow. Yes, this is an expensive book, which may sadly rule it out for beginners and casual readers. But such a price is not unusual for a compendium of this depth and breadth. For all his deliberate and highly successful determination to be thorough, Adler has produced something that amounts to a great deal more than a patchwork of barely-related threads. By basing the entire enterprise on why and how instruments work in the ways they do in order to do the jobs which they do, in solo, ensemble and orchestral contexts, The Study of Orchestration is wholly integrated. You'll be easily led into byways, into following examples, which you had never intended to follow on starting at almost any one point; and into a much enriched understanding of the ways in which the orchestra and its subgroups and smallest components work in the most minute detail. And all with ample illustrative support from the repertoire. An excellent book to be recommended in every way.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Sealey.