C7 | Texture, timbre and colour
in romantic instrumentation

What are the main developments in romantic orchestration?

  • With the further development of instruments during the Romantic period, much more emphasis was put on the exact sound needed by different instruments to convey the vision of composers.
  • It became more possible for composers to achieve the exact atmosphere needed in their works. This was partly due to the developed nature and sounds of the instruments but they were also able to create different combinations and instrumental textures to achieve the desired effect.
  • An experiment was launched some time ago, asking young children to state what colour they associated with the sounds of different instruments. Nearly without fail, they stated that the sound of brass instruments were orange or red, that a flute sound was light blue or pink and that the sound of deep instruments such as a double bass was black or brown.

Try it yourself ... What colour would you associate with the music on the following videos?

Developments from the Classical to the Romantic period

  • During the Classical period, the typical Classical orchestra was used to create symphonies with emphasis mainly on structure. By the Romantic period, the main characteristics of music was extreme dynamics and stretching the ranges of instruments. Emphasis was also put on depicting scenes from nature, conveying extreme emotions such as love or hate and relating traditional stories through music. Further developed instruments were needed to fully achieve this.
  • Often during the Classical era, e.g. the concerto, the main theme was played by the solo instrument and the orchestra was used to accompany. By the Romantic period, the whole orchestra became involved in playing main themes and the solo instrument often became the accompanist. This would complement the denser texture if a deep stirring emotion was conveyed. Listen to the following example. It’s the opening of the Concerto for Piano, no. 1 by Tchaikovsky. Discuss which instruments play the melody and which instruments accompany the main theme?
  • In Mahler’s Symphony no. 1, composed in 1888, the third movement (Funeral March) opens with just two notes as accompaniment, before the main theme is introduced and counter melodies heard. Many have named this theme or round as Frère Jaques but in a minor key. Do you remember singing this song in the round?
    Frère Jacques, frère Jacques
    Dormez-vous? Dormez-vous?
    Sonnez les matines, sonnez les matines!
    Ding, daing, dong, ding, daing, dong!

    Discuss how the texture is built or expands in Mahler’s work by gradually adding instruments.

In these last steps, we’ll be looking at the types of works or genres that became popular during the Romantic period. You are now quite experienced in harmony, using chords and tonality in general, as well as understanding how to deal with instrumentation and writing for different instruments. What about looking at the texture and timbre of instruments? .