On the Creation and Performance of Orchestral Reductions

Extemporaneous essay on the art of realizing orchestral reductions on the piano.


While many of the challenges of creating a reduction of an orchestral accompaniment can be undertaken either in preparing the reduction itself, or in performing a given reduction, there are specific objectives that must be noted, and decisions that must be made.  The objective is to provide an audible representation that is faithful to the musical text, evocative of the instrumentation and orchestral colours, yet is pianistic enough to be playable in an artistically solid manner.  Many reductions which strive to be pianistic fail by nature of the simple difficulties inherent in the mannerisms and figurations of orchestral writing, or as a result of the difficulties of transcribing specific instrumentation.  Despite the best attempts of composers (or those musicians generating orchestral reductions), many works simply require simplification and elimination of musical material for the sake of playability.  This is the least gratifying element of performing any reduction (as musicians of integrity usually suffer some amount of guilt when dispensing with musical material).  To cite an example from the saxophone literature, Ingolf Dahl makes it a point, in the preface of the piano score to his Saxophone Concerto, to describe the reduction as a fully “playable” version.  It is a somewhat infuriating statement since the textural complexities of the third movement make the reduction appear to be manageable (given enough time and effort in preparation), but once the proper tempos are engaged the near physical impossibilities of much of the material becomes painfully evident.  Therefore, it is best to acknowledge that pianists will rework any reduction as needed to be able to convincingly perform the work (despite the claims or intentions of the composer who provided the reduction).   Otto Singer’s reductions of Richard Strauss’ operas are very impressive examples of transcriptions that attempt to be playable while accounting for all the significant material in the score.  Even as such, some rethinking is required when preparing to play them.  However, the positive example they provide is that they offer enough of the musical text to allow the pianist the opportunity to make decisions about what material to play and what not to play.  Unfortunately, these reductions lack the instrumental annotations often found in “informative” reductions that would be very helpful in the performer’s imitation of instrumental colours. 

The first question one must ask when preparing to reduce an orchestral score is:  what purpose will this reduction serve?   Although it is clear that the intention is to provide a realization of an orchestral accompaniment that can be performed at the piano, there are two kinds of reduction that can be produced. 

The first is a truly “playable” reduction that seeks to reduce the orchestral material into idiomatic writing for the keyboard, adapting figurations and registers as needed in order to provide a reduction that is derived from the orchestral material, without necessarily being enslaved to it.  By attempting such a reduction, it is expected that the realization will be played verbatim, note-for-note as it would if the part were originally composed for piano (such as the accompaniment to a violin sonata of Brahms, for example).  While this may be an admirable intention, it assumes the person playing the prepared reduction will take no responsibility for providing a faithful portrayal of the orchestral text as they see it.  In other words, any respectable accompanist who finds him/herself playing an orchestral reduction of any kind will attempt to provide an audible presentation of the work which attempts to imitate the instrumental coloring, while presenting notes and rhythms as accurately and completely as possible.  Knowing that every reduction provided will be‘re-written’ by any accompanist who takes it up lends usefulness to the second type of realization:  the “informative”  reduction. 

The informative reduction is one in which as much information as possible (or seemingly relevant) is presented, condensed onto a grand staff, with the preconceived expectation that the pianist will make decisions about what and what not to actually play.  The advantage of such a reduction is that such scores are usually clearly annotated with instrumental cues (distinguishing which instruments are playing specific passages or figures).  This is an invaluable device in any type of reduction as it provides the pianist with a clear view of the orchestral sonorities he is expected to imitate.  It is also extremely valuable for soloists and coaches as a study aid.   However, these scores provide complications by being overly busy (visually) and impractical to play as written.  Tremendous effort is expelled on simply deciphering the musical text, deciding how virtually unplayable passages are to be executed effectively, and how the musical material is to be distributed.  In the end, it is necessary to complete a reduction of the reduction.  Clearly the ideal orchestral reduction is one that incorporates both elements. Of course, once a reduction is worked out on paper, the ultimate test lies in how the reduction is to be realized by the pianist in performance.  In order to convincingly present an orchestral score on the piano, a number of challenges must be addressed.  A few of the most prominent issues will be discussed here as they relate to the process of creating and performing a reduction. 

A matter of critical importance when creating a reduction, and even more important when performing a reduction, is to take note of octave doublings in the bass.  It is common in 18th century orchestral writing to have the string basses doubling the cello; for that reason these parts are usually notated on the same staff of the orchestral score.  However, reductions rarely take into account the fact that the string bass sounds an octave lower than written.  Therefore, these ‘doubled’ parts between celli and bassi actually sound in octaves.  While it is impractical, and often impossible, to perform both octaves in busy passage work, an attempt should be made to realize this important voicing whenever possible.  In particular, those purely accompanimental passages often found in arias, etc., where the bass may simply play anchoring notes on strong beats, can usually be sounded in octaves.  A perfect example is the famous mezzo-soprano aria from Gounod’s Faustin which the straight-forward accompaniment consists of repeated chords in the upper strings, and ( I believe) pizzicato notes on the two impulses of each (6/8) bar.  This bass line is notated in single notes in nearly every anthology as well as every vocal score of the opera.  However, the color of the accompaniment becomes distinguishingly more ‘orchestral’ if the bass is played in octaves.  This is one instance in which it is easily manageable and tremendously complimentary to the aural effect while also being decidedly faithful to the accuracy of the orchestral reduction.  Needless to say, if the reduction from which the pianist is playing does not already note this doubling, the pianist should be well enough acquainted with the orchestration to realize the necessity of this octave doubling.  Richness of sound is built from the bottom upward.  This is as true on the piano as it is with the orchestra.  To that end, an octave doubling does not necessarily add volume as much as it adds a ‘warmth’ to the orchestral sonority. 

Another useful instance in which to ‘double’ at the octave is the instant of attack for prominent timpani/percussion entrances.  Timpani rolls especially sound slightly more authentic on the piano if the initial attack is dropped by an octave.  While this may seem to deviate from the text of the orchestral score, the sonic effect is more percussive if the lower octave of the piano is utilized in the initial attack.  Likewise, prominent and isolated timpani parts can be more effective if executed entirely in octaves.  A passage, such as the dialogue between the Music Teacher and the Haushofmeister of Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos is punctuated by dramatic commentary from the timpani.  Each gesture begins with a quarter-note roll followed by oscillating eighth notes.  The darkness and depth of the timpani sonority is best imitated in octaves on the piano.

Perhaps one of the most difficult instrumental families from which to transcribe is the strings.  The sustaining capacity, combined with the myriad of color and effects with which these instruments are capable, makes it truly impossible to imitate convincingly on the piano.  Few instruments can produce a tone from a true “niente” the way a bowed stringed instrument can (the possible exceptions being the clarinet and saxophone).  In the course of transcribing string parts for the piano, there is little that one can notate to accommodate the effects.  One must, instead, settle for merely notating the melodic lines as they appear on the page with the hope that the pianist will find some way to account for the string sonority.  The most problematic, but often encountered problem, is that of sustained notes (or chords) marked with a quiet dynamic (‘p’, ‘pp’ , etc.)  Particularly in accompanied recitative, the strings will produce an atmospheric chord at a moment of dramatic poignancy.  The haunting colour comes from the fact that no ‘attack’ of the chord is heard.  Instead, the beginning of the chord is virtually inaudible.  The sound simply seems to emerge from the silence.  This can be a breath taking effect from a string section, but sounds very uninspiring when simply sounded as a blocked chord on the piano.  Not only does the piano not have the capacity to sustain (much less add any gradation of swell or crescendo), but the decisive attack of the piano is contradictory to the essence of the sound we wish to emulate.  One option is to ‘soften’ the attack by rolling the chord on the piano.  This may suffice in some circumstances, but can often sound too busy and disruptive in its own way.  Another option is to delay the sounding of the chord ever so slightly.  In the process of rehearsal this may need to be discussed with the conductor; however, playing the chord slightly behind the conductors beat will actually imitate more accurately the sonic response of a string section.  In addition, the fact that the rhythmic ‘impulse’ is diluted through this technique will more effectively soften the sense of ‘attack’.   In addition to such attacks, there are other idiomatic string features which simply cannot be translated to the piano.  Microtones, for instance, are simply impossible on the piano, as are string glissandi.  Glissandi are particularly troublesome in that a certain speed and distance are required on the piano for an effective glissando, whereas stringed instruments are capable of lengthy, drawn-out glissandi which cover relatively small intervallic distances.  In my reduction of Schnittke’s Monologue for Viola and Strings, I encountered a passage in which the entire string orchestra, all beginning on different pitches, slide slowly upwards over several bars.  No glissando technique on the piano could possibly imitate the wall of sound created in this passage.  In response, liberty had to be taken with the musical text by transcribing this passage as a series of chromatic clusters played indiscriminately with both hands, slowly working their way up the keyboard.  This gradual motion, void of  discernable centers of pitch, is intentionally blurred by holding the ‘tre corde’ pedal down throughout the passage to provide the sonic ‘wall’ of the strings.  In short, some liberties must be taken when transcribing certain string textures to the piano.  If they are not notated in the reduction as such, then those liberties must be assumed by the performer.     

Another instrumental category which defies translation in pianistic terms is the percussion family.  As has already been mentioned, some creativity must be taken when performing prominent timpani parts on the keyboard.  However, the timpani is a pitched instrument which at least offers the pianist tangible musical material with which to work.  However, the majority of percussion instruments are not precisely pitched and, therefore, pose challenges to the process of reduction.  Anyone acquainted with the ‘classical’ saxophone literature will immediately think of the finale of Karel Husa’s Saxophone Concerto which begins with an extended passage for a large percussion battery.  While it is impossible to accurately depict the sound of these instruments on the keyboard, the piano reduction that exists of this work successfully assigns pitches in distinctive registers of the piano for the various instruments encountered.   Snare drum rolls (for example) are notated as semi-tone trills, bass drum “thumps” notated as low-sounding clusters, etc..  When performed with a decisive rhythmic edge, one can at least evoke a perception of the percussion sonorities.  In some instances, depending on the musical context, it is best to depict percussion effects with pitches consistent with the harmonies of the other instruments.  However, particular features, such as the gongs in Turandot, are best represented in dramatic fashion by playing clusters in the lower octave of the piano.  Of course, such decisions depend entirely on the context.  Likewise, certain effects (woodblocks, etc.) can sometimes be effected by tapping on the fall-board or slapping beneath the keyboard.  While such brave techniques can be left to the discretion of the pianist, one should not avoid notating them in the reduction where the technique seems like the most effective solution to a timbral problem.

These are just a few examples of difficulties encountered by the pianist who undertakes the creating of an orchestral reduction.  The decision making required by these challenges is in the service of ones attempt to recreate, as much as possible, the sound of the original ensemble for which the work was scored.  While every reduction is, to some degree, doomed to fail in its attempts, the process of creating and executing a quality reduction is an important element of the accompanist’s art.