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13 minutes reading time (2588 words)

Breakin’ it down: The art of modifying orchestral reductions at the piano

Many college and pre-college level pianists have not experienced the complexities of working with orchestral reductions.This is an essential skill for pianists to cultivate, since singers frequently perform works from the genres of opera and oratorio, and instrumentalists play concerti and other works originally written for a solo instrument with orchestral accompaniment. A similar situation is found in the choral setting because choirs often perform music with piano that was originally intended for a larger ensemble. This is done either out of necessity, or during preliminary rehearsals with piano that will culminate in a performance with the original larger ensemble. 

The art of modifying orchestral reductions at the piano often involves editing the score to make it more playable, since orchestral reductions often have too many musical lines or notes to execute with two hands. One of the most common editing techniques involves a procedure called thinning. Thinning is commonly done when there are simply too many notes for one pianist to play, and is generally done on a case-by-case basis. There is no steadfast rule on how much to thin because this will vary depending upon the level of each pianist. A college piano major may have to thin slightly, where a more advanced pianist can play the score as is, and an intermediate junior high school pianist may have to do considerable thinning. The first example, shown below, is an excerpt of an orchestral reduction "Largo al factotum," a popular aria for baritone from Gioacchino Rossini's opera, Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville). If you are not familiar with the work, you may have heard this aria played on television cartoons as a child. In the initial orchestral introduction, the pianist is asked to play parallel sixths in the right hand at a very brisk tempo (see Excerpt 1). This etude-like pattern is very awkward and nearly unplayable at performance tempo. At the very least, it is a pattern with which many younger pianists will experience great difficulty in remaining free of excess tension. Similarly, the left-hand pattern is severely taxing for most pianists and should also be modified (this will be discussed later in the article).

Excerpt 1: “Largo al factotum” from Il barbiere di Siviglia, by Gioacchino Rossini, mm. 1-2.


A thinned-out version is shown in Excerpt 2. Omitting the parallel sixths creates a more idiomatic rendering and through the inclusion of the E-natural in the right hand on each strong beat, a fullness of sound is still present.

Excerpt 2: Thinned version of “Largo al factotum.” from Il barbiere di Siviglia, by Gioacchino Rossini, mm. 1-2.


In some cases, severe pruning is essential to make a reduction even playable by one pianist at performance tempo. Excerpt 3 is from the last section of Jean Françaix's work for oboe and orchestra titled "L'horloge de fl ore" (The Flower Clock). A quick glance clearly reveals how unplayable this example is for two hands at an approximate metronome marking of quarter note=132.

Excerpt 3: L’horloge de fl ore, by Jean Françaix, rehearsal number 34, mm. 1-2.


Not only is this example unplayable at quarter note=132, it is unplayable by two hands at any tempo due to the large, unrealistic intervals in each clef. It is possible, through octave displacement, to incorporate a portion of the upper alto line with the right hand and to also shift the lower alto line down an octave in the left hand; however, this is not recommended since it would tend to sound clunky and not light and delicate as it does when played by the orchestra. A better, more practical solution, shown below, is to omit both alto voices, and heavily thin the two tenor voices (see Excerpt 4). Notice the use of octave displacement in the bass line to eliminate leaping in the left hand. This is a common technique frequently employed in both hands to alleviate large leaps in orchestral reductions. 

While the technique of thinning may be considered to be a pianist's bread and butter, the true art of deciphering an orchestral reduction lies in modifying orchestral patterns to make them more pianistic. Many patterns that work well on one instrument can be treacherously diffi cult or impossible on a different instrument. 

Common patterns found in orchestral reductions include rapid repeated notes, thick textures that require quick changes in hand position, large leaps in the left or right hand, and tremolo. There were also rapid repeated chords in our first example, "Largo al factotum," from Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia.

Excerpt 4: Revised version of L’horloge de fl ore, by Jean Françaix, rehearsal number 34, mm. 1-2.


Many pianists will find this pattern of repeated blocked chords cumbersome, resulting in a great amount of forearm tension. It is permissible to modify the pattern, making it more pleasing technically, while maintaining the rhythmic vitality of the orchestra. Two possible solutions are shown in Excerpts 5 and 6. 

The second excerpt is the preferred one, since it incorporates a slightly thicker texture, resulting in a fuller, more orchestral sound. The fi rst excerpt is somewhat simpler and thinner, but the pattern tends to sound

Excerpts 5 and 6: Revised versions of “Largo al factotum,” from Il barbiere di Siviglia, by Gioacchino Rossini, mm. 1-2.


more like a pattern found in a piano sonata or sonatina from the classical period rather than a full wall of sound we associate with an orchestra. Although the articulation in the left hand is marked staccato, it is advisable to use a fair amount of damper pedal to imitate the full resonance of sound heard in the original orchestral part. Another instance of an awkward musical passage which includes repeated notes can be seen in an excerpt from Handel's oratorio, Messiah. This example is extracted from the bass aria, "Why Do the Nations So Furiously Rage Together?" (see Excerpt 7).

Excerpt 7: “Why Do the Nations So Furiously Rage Together?” from Messiah, by G. F. Handel, mm. 23-24.


Originally, the repeated notes in the treble clef were scored for upper strings. This is a relatively common pattern found in string literature. Technically, it lies well on the instrument and can be played on an open string.

Excerpt 8: Revised version of “Why Do the Nations So Furiously Rage Together?” from Messiah, by G. F. Handel, mm. 23-24.


In contrast, when transferred to the piano, this pattern becomes unidiomatic and hard to maintain over any lengthy period of time. Since the majority of this aria contains these repeated note patterns, it is essential to modify them in order to achieve clarity, note accuracy, and technical ease of playing. One solution is to play eighth note patterns in the right hand instead of sixteenth notes; however, the rhythmic excitement of the piece suffers greatly when subjected to this treatment. A far superior rendering can be accomplished quite easily without compromising the rhythm or technical diffi culty by simply creating a broken octave pattern commonly found in many works for piano. This interpretation is shown in Excerpt 8. Many pianists will fi nd this pattern much more manageable, both technically and musically, as it maintains the original rhythmically driven aesthetic found in the orchestral part. 

As demonstrated, repeated note patterns can easily be modifi ed to be more pianistic; however, thick textures with repeated note chords that require quick changes in hand position can frequently prove to be more diffi cult when fi nding possible solutions at the piano. A specific case is found in the third movement of Gordon Jacob's Concerto for Horn and Strings (see Excerpt 9).

Excerpt 9: Concerto for Horn and Strings, by Gordon Jacob, Mvt. 3, rehearsal letter J, mm. 7-10.


At a performance tempo of quarter note=132, the blocked chords in the right hand are unplayable as written for most pianists. There are several ways of reducing this example, but in order to be successful, it is imperative to retain the sixteenth note pulse and as much of the harmonic integrity as possible. Sometimes, this involves changing the pattern, reordering the notes, or even adding notes, as shown in Excerpt 10 in measure one on the second half of beat one. 

A different formula might include playing the repeated note pattern in the right hand, but with only the top note, thus sacrificing harmonic fullness. Another possible option is to play the chords as written, but in an eighth note rhythm. A wealth of other choices is available to the pianist, but I believe the one shown below most concisely represents the harmonic content and rhythm effectively, all within a pattern that is comfortable for the pianist. Also, note the modification of the leaping octave patterns in the bass clef. By alternating between octaves and single notes in the left hand, a full sound is still heard in the bass, but the tricky jumps are avoided.

Excerpt 10: Revised version of Concerto for Horn and Strings, by Gordon Jacob, Mvt. 3, rehearsal letter J, mm. 7-10.


A similar situation also exists in an excerpt from Beethoven's choral masterwork, Missa solemnis, shown in Excerpt 11. In this particular example, thick textures in the right hand combined with large leaps at a vigorous tempo produce a wide range of awkward, technical difficulties for the pianist. While it is certainly permissible for the pianist to simply play the top note in each group of sextuplets as a possible solution, there is another option that is not significantly more technically challenging, but creates a substantially thicker texture.

Excerpt 11: “Agnus Dei,” from Missa Solemnis, by Ludwig van Beethoven, rehearsal letter I, mm. 10-12.


Not only is it nearly impossible to play this series of parallel thirds and sixths at dotted quarter note=76, but it is also equally unfeasible to negotiate the large leaps in the middle of each of the three measures up to tempo. A slightly thinned version is shown in Excerpt 12. The incorporation of thirds and/or sixths at points where strong beats occur and also when they conveniently fit the current hand position creates a more desirable representation of the original while still feeling natural under the hand.

Excerpt 12: Revised version of “Agnus Dei,” from Missa Solemnis, by Ludwig van Beethoven, rehearsal letter I, mm. 10-12.


Notice also the changing of notes and intervallic content in the middle of the second measure from the original sequence of octave, third, fifth to the edited sequence of three successive parallel thirds. In the key of A major, this is a very natural fingering pattern for most pianists. Other possible options include playing the second half of measure three in the same octave as the first half of the measure to avoid the right-hand leap, or to omit the E-natural at the end of the first sextuplet to allow more time to execute the right-hand leap comfortably.

Excerpt 13: “Marsch-Septett,” from Die lustige Witwe, by Franz Lehár, mm. 31-36.


Leaping patterns in the left hand are commonly encountered in orchestral reductions and are pianistically awkward to execute accurately. The example shown in Excerpt 13 is selected from Franz Lehár's operetta, Die lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow). At an approximate metronome marking of quarter note=120, the leaping patterns in the left hand are possible, but note accuracy is often sacrificed, causing many errors. In this example, what is of utmost importance is retaining the rhythmic integrity of the eighth note pattern while also providing a harmonic backbone when it is realistically possible. 

An example of an alternate solution is shown in Excerpt 14. Minimizing the distance of each of the leaping patterns in the left hand is achieved through the process of re-ordering chordal tones to fit under the hand in relation to the bass notes on beats one and two of each measure. 

Excerpt 14: Revised version of “Marsch-Septett,” from Die lustige Witwe, by Franz Lehár, mm. 31-36.


Essentially, each quarter note beat in the left hand is confined to the distance of one octave rather than a tenth or more. Modifications in the right hand are most prominent in measures three and four of this example. By omitting the low E at the beginning of measure three, the right hand is closer to the high E, thus shortening the distance of the leap. In addition, sixteenth note octaves found in the original are replaced in the edited version with a single note followed by two eighth note octaves. This is a technically more friendly pattern, as playing rapidly moving octave patterns is challenging for many pianists. 

Finally, it is essential to include an example of orchestral tremolo. Tremolo patterns create an underlying intensity and are frequently found in orchestral music. In particular, these patterns are scored almost exclusively for strings. This is effective, since rapidly alternating between up and down bows on a single, repeated note is idiomatic for a string player. The same is not applicable for pianists. In most orchestral scores, tremolo patterns consist of an entire chord in which each string section plays one note that is repeated as quickly as possible. When transferred to the piano, this is not realistically possible. 

"O! du mein holder Abendstern," from Richard Wagner's opera, Tannhäuser, contains this challenge (see Excerpt 15). While it is not idiomatic to tremolo the entire chord at the piano, particularly in measure 68, a very similar effect can be achieved through playing a blocked chord on the downbeat, retaining the sound with the damper pedal, and shifting to a rapid alternation between two notes of the written chord, usually a small interval of a fifth or less.

Excerpt 15: “O! du mein holder Abendstern,” from Tannhäuser, by Richard Wagner, mm. 67-69.


Use your ear as a guide to provide the best possible richness of sound. Technically, this pattern will be easier to execute at a quick tempo if the player does not let the key come all the way up to the top, almost as if one's fingers are glued to the keys. A possible solution implementing these concepts is shown below (see Example 16). One need not be too meticulous regarding the exact number of repetitions of the 32nd notes. The main goal should be to create unmeasured ripples of sound.

Excerpt 16: Revised version of “O! du mein holder Abendstern,” from Tannhäuser, by Richard Wagner, mm. 67-69.


In conclusion, working with orchestral reductions at the piano requires knowledge of musical patterns that are idiomatic for the piano, the ability to ascertain which orchestral patterns need modification, a mental conceptualization of the wide array of tone colors heard in an orchestra, and a certain amount of creativity. Thinning an orchestral reduction with many different melodic lines is one of the more fundamental skills; however, modifying rapid repeated notes, thick textures that require quick changes in hand position, large leaps in the left or right hand, and tremolo require more ingenuity, and perhaps individuality. In the process of modifying an orchestral reduction, the pianist creates his/her own version of the work portrayed as accurately as possible with two hands, and the two overarching goals should be to simulate the original orchestral palette of sound while working with a musical vocabulary that feels natural at the piano. 


L'HORLOGE DE FLORE. Music by Jean Francais. © Editions Transatlantiques. Used by permission of G. Schirmer, Inc. Concerto for Horn and Strings by Gordon Jacob. © Galaxy/EC Schirmer. Used by permission. 

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