Instrumentation and Orchestration, by Alfred Blatter

October 1, 1998

Instrumentation and OrchestrationInstrumentation and Orchestration, by Alfred Blatter. Second edition. New York: Schirmer Books, 1997. xix + 508 pp. ISBN 978-0534251871.

Teaching courses in basic instrumentation, orchestration, and arranging can be among the more difficult instructional tasks one faces, not because of the subject matter but, rather, because of the complexity of supplying the student with all the resources necessary to master the knowledge and skills involved. Much the same as with teaching composition, success in mastering the art of scoring and of the idiomatic use of musical instruments depends in great part on learning from one's mistakes, and especially on being able to hear live performances of exercises and projects. No textbook can provide this, obviously; the instructor and students are dependent on each other and on the resources of the educational institution—and often on the sheer generosity of friends and colleagues who are willing to provide this kind of support for the learning process.

While a textbook indeed cannot provide this service, it can be written and organized to take the importance of this aspect of teaching orchestration into account. This approach distinguishes Alfred Blatter's Instrumentation and Orchestration, which now appears in a revised second edition. Blatter's approach is successful for various reasons. In each chapter he provides a large number of problems from which the instructor can choose as fits the situation. All of them are practical in scope and purpose, and the vast majority consists of well-known music that is to be transferred to another performing medium. (Blatter continually prods both teacher and student by concluding the directions for each problem with a phrase such as "Hear your solution performed!") Each chapter includes a truly copious number of examples drawn from fully identified works which illustrate various points made by the text. Most of the works in the author's eclectic selection are readily available, and the student should, of course, be encouraged to pursue them in their entirety. Especially welcome are the examples from contemporary compositions and from the jazz field; these are illustrative of the text's thorough discussion of expanded playing techniques and they also encourage informed experimentation beyond the "tried and true." The combination of examples, text, tables, appendices (there are twelve!), and an exhaustive bibliography yields a resource so thorough and detailed that one would be hard pressed to think of a problem for which the text could not provide at least a theoretical solution. In fact, the coverage in Blatter's text is literally encyclopedic, and his literary style supports that characteristic without becoming tedious or repetitive. This quality makes the text appropriate for personal reference as well as for both undergraduate and graduate courses of various designs and durations. Omissions and abridgments are simple to contemplate because of the clarity of organization and layout; and expansion, into a discussion of styles of orchestration, for example, would be facilitated by the number and variety of musical examples as well as by the author's focus on musically satisfactory results throughout.

The title of the text previews its organization. The first seven chapters, including an opening chapter on the preparation of score and parts, are devoted to "instrumentation," covering the qualities, capabilities and limitations of the various families and each of their individual members (including those less frequently encountered, e.g., bass flute, or Wagner tuba). For each instrument, in addition to helpful characterizations of tonal qualities and precautions regarding volume and balance issues, three practical range guides are provided: elementary school, high school, and professional. These guides will make the text particularly valuable for students in Music Education curricula (attention to band scoring is also included, later in the book). There is a fine chapter on the voice and another which covers the harp, pipe organ, guitar, and accordion, among other oft-omitted instruments. The percussion chapter is particularly outstanding, owing to its completeness, to the assistance of some very fine photographs, and to the logically organized listings of instruments which even include the pictograph symbols agreed upon by the 1974 Ghent Conference.

The concluding five chapters are devoted to "orchestration," covering scoring considerations for various vocal and instrumental media, both large and small. The brief discussions of methods of approaching transcription and of how transcription differs from arranging are not only appropriate to this text's overall scope, they also provide plenty of material for expansion of the topic or for dealing with more advanced students needs. Throughout these chapters, Blatter rightly advocates probing analysis of musical structure as a necessary starting point for making any decision about instrumentation, scoring, or adaptation.

The twelve Appendices include supplementary information that most users will find quite essential: Transposition, MIDI theory and terminology, guitar chord diagrams, woodwind fingerings, and trombone glissandos are among the topics discussed here.

This new edition adds Spanish to the other four languages in which all terminology is presented. It includes new material on the bugle, an extensive revision of the very detailed pipe organ section, and expansion of the percussion chapter as well as revisions and additions in various other parts. The Appendices on MIDI and on guitar fingering and chord diagrams are also new, and more than one hundred musical examples have been added to those in the first edition.

A book this detailed and this comprehensive could hardly be expected to appear error free, but the slips discovered by this reviewer were generally quite obvious and not so subtle as to be more than minor inconveniences (e.g., the designation of the famous trombone solo from Mozart's Requiem as the "Tuba Miriam"). On the contrary, the clarity of the notational reproductions and the accurate inclusion of the requisite array of musical symbols, helpful photographs and tables, and other special markings are a credit both to the publisher and to those who performed the laborious task of proofreading. In short, this is a text that will meet virtually any need, that is infinitely adaptable, and that also should find its way onto the reference shelf of any serious musician or music library. 

4739 Last modified on October 18, 2018