Orchestrating Mozart….

This is not a post about how to transcribe piano music for a full orchestra, or ensemble, but rather some thoughts on how imagining certain instruments and visualising sounds can help shape piano music, creating an exciting and contrasting sound world.

I often remind my students that the piano can be “any instrument you want it to be”: a trumpet, a cello, a bass drum, shimmering violins, mellow woodwind, a pure soprano voice. And beyond, to the sounds of the natural world: rain dripping, ice creaking, birdsong, fluttering wings, sighing trees, a dog barking, a horse’s hooves. Some students just look blankly at me – and then at the piano. “It’s just a piano”, they seem to be thinking. “How can it be anything else?”. Others are quick to embrace this idea, and a short exercise in which we “imagine the sound” before we play can make a huge difference to the kind of sound produced. This exercise has been particularly helpful in two pieces I am teaching for Trinity Guildhall graded exams, Fanfare for the Common Cold (Grade 2) and Song of Twilight (Grade 3), about which I have written on my piano studio blog (see posts here and here). The piano is a percussive instrument: the sound it produces comes from the mechanical action of a hammer hitting a string, a set of actions initiated by the finger striking a key. The balance, timbre and quality of the sound is controlled by the pianist; the suggestion of other instruments comes from the imagination of the pianist.

A great deal of piano music naturally lends itself to “orchestration”, and you can easily hear within its measures the other instruments the composer had in mind: bright, shiny trumpets in the opening of Rachmaninoff’s Etude-Tableaux Op 33 No. 4 (sometimes also listed at No. 7); tremolo strings in the repeated triplet figures in the exposition of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata, Op. 31 No. 2, the ‘Tempest’, the purity of the human voice in many of Chopin’s work, and particularly in Schubert. Such effects are not only to imply other instruments, but also to help create atmosphere.

Sometimes, a piece is a direct transcription from an orchestral work, such as Bach’s D minor Concerto after Marcello BWV 974, which I have been studying. Bach obviously knew the original work and his transcription for keyboard retains many of the features and textures of Marcello’s original concerto, while also taking advantage of the textural and sonic possibilities of the harpsichord. One makes another leap of interpretation when playing this music on the piano: I don’t try to imitate the harpsichord because that is impossible, but there are certain textural gestures which suggest a harpsichord.

French composer Olivier Messiaen often includes directions in his scores to help the pianist imagine and recreate the sound he wanted: “xylophone” and “oiseaux” (birds) both appear in my score of the Vingt Regard IV. (Messiaen also annotated his scores with colours, but that is another blog post…..!)

I gave this post the title “Orchestrating Mozart….” because it is Mozart’s A minor Rondo K511 which has received the most detailed “orchestration” from me in the course of my study of it. This late work offers so many of the key elements of Mozart’s music in the microcosm of a piano miniature: the beautiful aria of the Rondo theme; later on, string quartet textures and articulation, solo violin and ‘cello, grand operatic statements, even trumpets and woodwind. With all these different sounds – coming together, answering one another, or playing solo – a most interesting and contrasting piece of music is created. This “orchestrating” of the music does not make it any more complicated to play; if anything, it has simplified the music for me, bringing what I hope is a purer, more ‘musically aware’ interpretation.

Alongside this orchestration exercise, it is always worth listening around the piece you are studying to set the music in context of the composer’s other works. For the Mozart Rondo, the following pieces are particularly helpful:

from The Magic Flute, Act II – ‘Ach, ich fühls, es ist entschwunden’ (Pamina)

Piano Sonata, No. 8 in A minor, K 310 – II Andante Cantabile

Piano Concerto No. 23 in A, K 485 – II Adagio

Here is Mitsuko Uchida in the Rondo in A minor, K511, for me the best performance of this work (link opens in Spotify):

Mozart: Rondo in A minor, K.511


“Die Bildung des Ohres ist wichtiger, als die der Hand.”

(“The cultivation of the ear is more important that that of the hand”)

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

1 Comment

  1. Speaking of orchestration, and speaking of Mitsuko Uchida, Radio 3 played an interesting orchestral arrangement of Schubert’s f minor Fantasie for piano 4 hands during the interval of Uchida’s Royal Festival Hall recital this past Monday evening. This is available to listen to on the BBC iPlayer.

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