Major differences between a 30 (Studio) and a 50 piece (Epic) orchestra
The task of composing for an orchestra is one where pathways abound and possibilities are limitless. This medium of music-making itself can present an infinite flexibility, notwithstanding its stable core, that of a group of musicians divided in three main families: strings, woodwinds and brass. Within each of these groups (alongside additional elements like percussion, harp, piano, among others) lies a range of different instruments and combinations.
The size of the orchestra at hand can serve as a clear guide for the expectations one can have while writing for it. There is not one standard for number of players, as it can range from around a dozen (ex: a small string ensemble) to more than a hundred (ex: some Hollywood film scores, large scale symphonic repertoire, Mahler, Strauss, etc…).
Starting on January 30, Musiversal will be running shared orchestral sessions with two new orchestras based in Budapest, the Studio orchestra (30 musicians) and the Epic orchestra (50 musicians). By studying the case of our new Studio and Epic orchestras, one can easily establish some of the major differences between what they can provide.
The Studio orchestra is a 30 piece group, consisting of single woodwinds, 2 french horns, 2 Bb trumpets, 2 trombones (1 tenor and 1 bass), 18 string players (5, 4, 4, 4, 1), a harp and 1 percussionist who covers the timpani and any other standard orchestral percussion instruments.
Despite the smaller number of players, the Studio orchestra can make for a very powerful and solid tutti sound, as long as the composer uses all its resources effectively by carefully balancing the roles of the different instrumental families. Its general dynamic range is very wide. It is naturally capable of the most intimate pianissimos while employing a part of the orchestra, or even all of it, as long as the orchestration is sensibly controlled by allowing all instruments to be playing in their most comfortable ranges. But taking advantage of the brass section (although few in number, large in power), composers will also be able to create full bodied fortissimo textures, albeit without the power of an orchestra of greater numbers.
The strings are the most independent member of the Studio orchestra, as they can work as a chamber sized string orchestra without any support whatsoever from the rest of the instruments, if the composer so wishes. This will be especially true in musical contexts of traditional tonal harmony with melody and accompaniment textures, as orchestrating chords according to the structure of the overtone series will improve the overall resonance of the string sound, expanding its projection and allowing for strong fortissimos. Counterpoint textures will also work, however it will be best to assign each musical line to one full section, and avoid divisi. The reduced number of players can easily make divisi sound thin, though an experienced composer can definitely use a much divided string group effectively, should there be a fitting musical context. Lastly, a word of caution is in order regarding the double bass. Apart from solos (which must be treated with great care due to balancing issues), since there is only one player the double bass won’t probably be able to carry an independent line by itself, and will work best doubling the cellos for the most part.
A group of single woodwinds cannot be expected to provide by themselves a very solid sound, and should be used alone only in very delicate musical environments. They will have two main functions: to provide solos, as any of the four instruments (and even the piccolo, if used carefully) can bring its unique color to the orchestral palette; and to make doublings with other sections of the orchestra, the most standard being bassoon doubling the bass line or the cellos, and flute, oboe or clarinet doubling melody lines.
The brass section of the Studio orchestra, having two players per instrument, is more versatile than the woodwinds. They can provide a solid background harmony support, punctuate accents, reinforce the strings with doublings much more powerful than the woodwinds, and naturally will also work very well as soloists. Owing to the brass instruments’ larger sound and much more uniform timbre, they can work well by themselves, particularly in more solemn, piano chorale like textures, as long as the best registers are used. Still, fanfares or other contexts of a more lively character can also work very well when handled exclusively by the brass, as long as the scope of the overall register is not too wide, and the harmony not complex.
The Epic orchestra comprises 50 musicians, having double woodwinds, 4 french horns, 2 Bb trumpets, 3 trombones (2 tenor and 1 bass), 1 tuba, 30 string players (8, 8, 6, 5, 3), a harp and a percussionist. Apart from fewer strings, it is very similar to a standard romantic period orchestra, as in Brahms’ symphonies.
The Epic orchestra contains everything the Studio orchestra has, but in greater quantity (apart from the addition of the tuba). Thus it retains the pianissimo capabilities of the smaller group, while raising the bar on the louder side of the dynamic spectrum. With a larger array of strings and brass, the Epic orchestra can achieve a much more powerful fortissimo. Furthermore, the higher number of players also amounts for more textural and timbrical possibilities.
Having almost double the players the Studio orchestra has, the Epic orchestra’s strings have by themselves a much larger dynamic range, and in terms of balance are able to provide a much more substantial backbone to the brass in tutti fortissimo passages. Yet, the most important improvement is in terms of divisi writing, as any of the sections (except for the double basses) can now successfully play two different parts without losing fullness of sound. Therefore, the Epic orchestra’s strings are capable of reaching levels of textural intricacy much beyond the Studio strings. The double basses, although still rather few to play workable divisi lines (except maybe in more experimental works) can now hold their own with an independent line (separate from the cellos) much better.
From the Studio to the Epic orchestra, the woodwinds are the section that gains the widest amount of possibilities, as their numbers are doubled. With two players per instrument, not only are solid woodwind only textures possible, but very effective, as the woodwinds are the richest family of the orchestra in terms of timbral variety. Other possibilities abound as the woodwinds can now form a stable harmonic background to the rest of the orchestra, embellish orchestral textures with passagework, and provide much fuller doublings.
Much like the strings, the brass of the Epic orchestra improves on the possibilities a smaller group offers, lending more power and a more sustained overall sound to the orchestra. The 4 french horns are the highlight of the section, being able to tackle all kinds of maestoso Hollywood-like melodies with great force. Also, the tuba not only functions as a very capable soloist, but can also single-handedly greatly improve the depth of the register of the orchestra, in virtue of its weighty low tones.
Naturally, the Epic orchestra can do everything the Studio orchestra does, but it can also do more. In order to engage with all its possibilities the composer might want to refrain from using the complete group at all times during a composition, exploring both a more intimate sound that requires only part of the orchestra, and full blown tutti sonorities. Yet sometimes a 30 piece ensemble might be far more than enough of a vehicle for the composer’s ideas. Only the design of each music piece can dictate the orchestral forces it needs.
Has this article inspired you to have your piece played by a live orchestra? Then book a session with Musiversal today!