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I treated myself to a day off yesterday, as everybody else appeared to be doing the same, but today I am planning to get on with some more arranging of the Tchaikovsky. This is progressing very well, making my original deadline seem wholly pessimistic, but it is still producing some unusual challenges, so it is important to have the brain switched on.

My task involves reorchestrating the work to make it performable by a slightly smaller ensemble than originally intended. This has the most obvious repercussions on the brass section, where the original (four horns, four trumpets, two trombones, one tuba) needs to be recast for two horns and two trumpets only. Luckily Tchaikovsky’s orchestration tends to divide pretty cleanly into melody and accompaniment, which means either that these instruments are playing the former, in which case it needs to stay, or the latter, in which case it is often doubled elsewhere, and can be dropped, if necessary. Rests, of course, cause no such problems.

What makes this task slightly more tricky, however, is that the original score is for instruments in a number of different keys and clefs. The trumpets and horns are transposing instruments (meaning that what is written for them to play is different from the sounding note), while the trombones use the fairly obscure tenor clef. What makes things more nasty is that the horns are in F and the trumpets either in E or A, so the horns need to be ‘heard’ down a perfect fifth, the trumpet in A down a minor third, while the trumpet in E up a major third. It means that what looks like complete chaos on the page will often turn out to be a common or garden chord of E major, even if the brain has to jump through hoops to get there.

Of course, horns nowadays are still notated ‘in F’, so it might appear that the simplest thing to do would be simply to copy them out, but I need to work out what notes are sounding in all instruments before I can do the rearranging which is at the core of this task. It all means that the brain can get tired fairly quickly, and I know that doing all the work in one stint would lead to errors, which is why I am breaking it down into smaller chunks to be worked on when I am fresh.

This all serves as a timely reminder that being a composer is not just about sitting down in front of a computer and tapping things in, but about many other complementary skills as well, among them orchestration, transposition and goodness knows what else. These skills are, however, hard work to acquire, and, like so many other things, might just be too much bother for many who think that a quick blast on X-Factor will see them through financially into retirement, or, indeed, for budding composers who ask why they have to study the music of dead people (and yes, I have been asked this). As long as this remains the case, however, it means that there will be work for the likes of me, orchestrating, arranging and so on in the gaps between or even alongside commissions. A friend of mine was once approached by a rather large publishing company to ask whether he might like to be a certain quite successful composer’s official orchestrator, which goes to show how far up the tree such work can lead. He declined.

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