Orchestration in the 20th Century

In the 20th century a composer’s individual musical style greatly determined their use of orchestral resources. Although this is true of all periods, it is especially evident in contemporary music. The first unique style to emerge in the 20th century was impressionism. Other schools, representing divergent orchestral styles, include the expressionist, the neoclassical, the neoromantic, and avant-garde experimentalist.


The spirit and disposition of impressionists influenced their orchestral style. Woodwinds became equal in importance to strings, but in a subdued fashion. With blend and homogeneity the goals, the power of the brass was subverted by mutes and low dynamic levels. The colors of the pitched percussion instruments were exploited, as were special effects for strings. The overall sound was veiled, at times delicately punctuated, but quite transparent on the whole.

Debussy, whose l’Apres-midi d’un faune was a significant contribution in 1894, stands at the forefront of the style. Romantic excesses were not appropriate for Debussy or Ravel, whose scores were filled with subtle shadings woven from thin, contrasting colors. The harp assumed an important role, and muted divisi strings were frequently called upon to play with tremolo techniques. Ravel scored with exquisite restraint, almost in a classical manner. His ballet music, Daphnis et Chloe (1912), exhibits perhaps the highest craft in impressionistic orchestration. Ibert often scored in the impressionistic style, as did Milhaud and Poulenc at times. Influences were evident in the music of composers of the period outside of France as well. In Italy Respighi, in Spain Falla, in Brazil Villa-Lobos, and in America Griffes demonstrated their assimilation of the impressionistic ethos.


The orchestra became a vehicle for the dodecaphonic serial technique and the use of linear counterpoint was a common compositional device. The texture of pointillism was often preferred, and a propensity for mixing diverse timbres was evident. Extended techniques and the use of mutes became standard for the strings. Unconventional use of woodwinds and unusual combinations were sought after. The traditional role of the choir was shunned. Techniques such as flutter tonguing, glissandi, and muted forte passages were commonplace. The use of extreme registers for all instruments was typical. Percussion instruments were used carefully, and dry, high-pitched sounds were predominant.

Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra is a landmark work, displaying an application of his klangfarbenmelodie with extreme fragmentation of thematic material. Webern’s scores are sparse, consisting of pointillistic leaps, lacking mass, and exploiting the use of silence. Berg’s music is the most emotional of these three exponents of the style, and his opera score Wozzeck is a prime example of the expressionistic technique. As has always been the case, the orchestra was used to express the attitudes and philosophy of the composer.


Clarity was the purpose of neoclassical orchestration. It was accomplished in exemplary fashion in 1917 by Prokofiev in his Symphony No. 1. Stravinsky’s orchestral style from the 1920s through the 1950s matched his neoclassical compositional style, and he is primarily responsible for the evolution of these techniques. His materials are controlled and contrapuntal, the parts soloistic, and the effect quite impersonal. Many 20th century composers, including Copland, Carter, Barber, and Piston employed neoclassical scoring techniques at times.


There was a return to fullness of sound and a more passionate romantic spirit among many composers. Bartok and Hindemith, Shostakovich and Prokofiev, Britten and Vaughan Williams, Copland, Schuman, Harris, and Hanson can all be included in this group. In general, large-scale forces were employed in all sections, particularly percussion. Not integrated with any particular compositional style, neoromantic scoring traits are evident in the works of such diverse composers as Honegger and Piston. There was a dichotomy, however, between the orchestrations in this style and those created by more avant-garde experimental composers.


The experimentalists or avant-garde faction in the 20th century created works in order to expand the vocabulary and often the very precepts of an art form. Exoticism for its own sake has been applied to orchestration, with varied results. An early successful venture for the percussion ensemble was Ionization, written by Edgar Varese in 1931. Penderecki and Ligeti both helped establish a new style with the use of sound masses, clusters, microtones, and innovative percussion. Numerous composers borrowed from non-European resources and developed music with asian and jazz elements. Electronic instruments and tape recordings were being combined with orchestral textures, as were acoustic sound sources previously not considered appropriate for the concert hall. Unusual seating arrangements and theatrical antics were added to the business of music making. Aleatoric or improvisatory elements became commonplace techniques, and their notation had a significant impact on the appearance of modern scores.

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