Orchestration and Melodic Doublings: An Analysis and Comparison between Samuel Adler and Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov’s Approach

Composition has been understood as the mastery of harmony, counterpoint, and form. Only recently, within the last couple hundred years or so has orchestration slowly risen and developed into a separate art itself. Orchestration is defined as the study of writing for orchestra.[1] Like the other pillars of composition, orchestration is a discipline that can be taught and mastered through study and practice. The two texts I have selected to compare were chosen based on their popularity in this subject, as well as the attention these specific texts receive for teaching this material. I will be looking at correlations between the two and analyze the melodic doublings found in Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto to find any possible relation between the treatises and musical style.

To fully analyze and understand the differences between the two treatises, it is imperative to study not only the text, but also the authors themselves. Samuel Adler (1928) is a German composer, author, and conductor who studied at both Boston University and Harvard University. Adler’s composition teachers included Randall Thompson, Paul Hindemith, and Aaron Copland. Adler was guided in following and continuing the ‘Neoclassicism’ school from Hindemith and Copland (ibid). Interestingly enough, Adler’s music does not have a strong ‘Neoclassic’ quality to it, but rather, a more contemporary harmonic and formal language. Adler published the first edition of the textbook The Study of Orchestration in 1982 and released newer editions in 1989, 2002, and 2016. For this paper, I will be using the fourth edition, which is the newest and most up to date version available.

In contrast to Adler, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov was a Russian composer who was born in 1844. Korsakov was a member of the group of Russian composers known as “The Five,” the other members being Mily Balakirev, César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, and Alexander Borodin. Korsakov, along with the other members of “The Five”, believed in creating a strong Russian music legacy with distinctive nationalistic qualities. Korsakov primarily studied with Balakirev, but also received significant feedback from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky[2]. Both Korsakov and Adler experienced and lived through transitional time periods with regards to the evolution of Western Classical music. Korsakov lived in the latter half of the romantic era, in which music was becoming more and more chromatic, straying away from the traditions of the 19th century. Alternatively, Adler experienced Post-Modernism at its pinnacle, with an over saturation of new genres, styles, and techniques all evolving at once. I am curious to see how these two very diverse and unique backgrounds will affect the respective author’s treatise on orchestration.

I will first discuss what each text suggests regarding melody, and bringing a melodic line out of the texture, as well as which doublings are more successful. Though the orchestra can be divided into five main sections, I will focus primarily on the strings, woodwinds, and brass sections (percussion and keyboard writing deals less with doublings and more with texture.)

Korsakov’s treatise essentially states that two of the four instruments within the string section are practical for melodic writing. The violins, as historically used, provide a sure success with the full resonance and high range and violoncellos, with their thick, rich timbre. It is noted that Korsakov states the violoncellos are to be used for “passionate, expressive” melodies, rather than quick rapid phrases. The violas rarely will have a melodic line for an extended period due to the “nasal quality” of the instrument as well as the lesser number of performers within the orchestra, compared to that of the violins or cellos (Korsakov pg. 37). The double bass never receives the foreground melodic line without being doubled with either the cellos or another instrument. Due to the range and muffled resonance, the bass should never stand-alone without support from other members[3]. Interestingly enough, Samuel Adler’s text discusses the foreground within the string section as not dependent on the individual instrument being used, but the range, dynamics, and sound quality desired by the composer. Adler similarly states that the violins are an extremely common group to give the melody to, as well as the cello’s being equally appropriate. Adler agrees with Korsakov regarding the cello’s should be used for more lyrical melodies due to the instruments resonance. The use of the viola however, is stated as being just as acceptable as the violin, as long as the tessitura of the other stringed instruments allows the viola to shine through the texture. Adler also notes the bass has increasingly become more independent but is less common to carry the melody alone[4].

Korsakov describes orchestration within the woodwind family as being a matter of “personal taste.” He makes it clear that the natural order of the register should be strictly followed (i.e. flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons) or the resulting sound will be a far-fetched, unnatural sounding tone quality (Korsakov pg. 47). Within woodwinds, doubling in unison between different instruments will change the timbre of the original sound. As long as the composer is aware of the sound quality created, doublings at the unison are acceptable. Korsakov strictly states that doubling the same instruments at the octave, however, should be avoided at all costs as the different registers will not correspond with one another. All other doublings within the woodwind family should follow the natural order as stated above (Korsakov pg. 47). In comparison to the Kosakov text, Adler disagrees and states that doubling similar wind instruments at the unison is correct, with precaution taken regarding the change in the sound spectrum. Adler also suggests that such doubling is most effective in tutti sections (sections where the full orchestra plays at once) but should not necessarily be avoided. Adler also discusses how doubling should occur between two instruments with similar resonance for a more effective result[5].

The brass section is best known for creating the powerful climaxes, and hair-raising moments within compositions. Korsakov describes the section as only taking the melody when simple, energetic power is desired. The nature of brass instruments dictates the incompatibility with expressive and passionate melodic phrases. Brass is most effective solo, or doubled at the unison according to Korsakov. For extreme power, a variety of different brass instruments doubled at the unison will create a very dense and thick sound quality. Lastly, Korsakov notes that doubling the same brass instruments at the octave, thirds, sixth, etc. yields great results[6]. Adler discusses the large make up of modern brass sections, and discusses the resonance produced based on different chords. Essentially, Adler suggests following the overtone series and where the pitches fall most naturally within each instrument’s spectrum. Adler also states that doubling within brass is dependent upon the dynamics. If the passage is softer than a mezzo forte, any doubling is effective. If a passage is louder than a mezzo forte, the horns should be doubled to match one trombone’s dynamic[7].

The orchestra is an instrument with a wide variety of sounds and possibilities at the composer’s dispense. Melodic doublings are often carried between different instrumental families to provide new timbres and sounds. Korsakov simply lays out the variety of melodic doublings in combinations between the families. He first discusses doublings between the woodwind and brass sections. Doubling a melody with a woodwind and brass instrument results in a very complex resonance. The brass instrument, in this case, predominates the sound, while the woodwind instrument softens the overall tone. According to Korsakov, the most common brass instrument to be doubled with woodwinds is the trumpet. The trumpets range and rich timbre give it the most freedom to blend better with other instruments. The horn is a less common doubling that is rarely found in the repertoire doubling the melody with a woodwind. The next combinations discussed are melodic doublings between strings and woodwinds. In the words of Korsakov, “All combinations of strings and wood-wind are good.”(Korsakov pg. 58).  He describes how the woodwinds increase the resonance of the strings, and the strings soften the resonance of the woodwinds, creating a beautiful timbral blend.  The final combinations of doublings are the strings and brass. Korsakov advises the composer that the different resonance does not blend well. In fact, a melodic doubling between a string instrument and brass would be heard separately as two distinctly different instruments. The only combinations Korsakov deems acceptable are the horns and cellos. The two instruments create a beautiful, lyrical sound often found in the repertoire[8]. Samuel Adler discusses melodic combinations in a different manner than Korsakov. Rather than lay out what he deems acceptable, Adler provides a brief overview of several doublings found throughout the Common Practice Period. He, as did Korsakov, insists the horn and cello create a good doubling suitable for sustained melodic gestures. Adler briefly describes trumpets and oboes as a very successful doubling between brass and woodwind due to the sharpness each of the instruments possess individually. As Korsakov, Adler states woodwinds and strings double very naturally. He suggests the composer mind the counterpoint, harmony, and color he is trying to achieve when deciding what to double[9].

Sergei Rachmaninoff, the 20th century Russian composer, was known for carrying late Romanticism into the 20th century. His Piano Concerto No. 2 Op. 18 was composed in 1901 at the turn of the century. I chose this piece for two reasons; Rachmaninoff was a Russian composer who was influenced by Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian nationalistic views and, the heavy late romantic style that is employed heavily in this piece. Because of these reasons, this piece will be a good indicator if either the Korsakov or Adler text leans towards a particular style or not.

The famous concerto’s first melodic theme opens following the low piano chords. Rachmaninoff introduces the orchestra by doubling the Bb clarinet, violins, and violas for the main theme of the piece.  The low registers in the strings blend with the unison clarinet creating a dark, round timbre.  At rehearsal letter 2, the cello enters in dialogue with the piano melody. The high register of the cello easily breaks through the texture. Up until this point, the clarinet and strings have been doubled with the melodic line; the bassoons and horns are simply sustaining chordal harmonies in the background. Interestingly enough, following the first piano interruption, the woodwinds take the melody with a doubling between the oboe and clarinet (figure A). This soft, round sound quality sticks out at this moment due to it’s unfamiliar timbre up to this point in the piece. This moment is also interesting because of Rachmaninoff’s choice to have the horn and bassoon sustain chord tones underneath the texture. Both the range and dynamics of this section add to the success in having that particular line stand out from the texture.

Following the second piano interruption, the climax begins to approach. Rachmaninoff employs the strings, piano and clarinet for the foreground melody, and the brass for the background harmonies. Similar to the opening, the strings are doubled at the octave for the low, dramatic theme while the clarinet is doubled an octave higher. This doubling of strings and woodwinds creates a beautiful rich timbre, as described by both Korsakov and Adler. The piano is accentuating the melody by playing the second theme over the strings and clarinet, with the consequential harmonies lining up for a thick, dense texture. Just as the climax approaches its end, Rachmaninoff chooses to thicken the melodic voice by adding flute and oboe into the doubling. Now the melody is played by: violins, viola, cellos, clarinet, flute, oboe, and accentuated by the pianist. This proves to be very effective as it prevents the long melody from growing stale to the listener. By constantly changing the doublings, Rachmaninoff is altering the resonance and sound quality for the listener. The last interesting melodic choice in the first movement that I find pertinent to point out is the horn melody that rises from the preceding piano texture (figure B).

This is also a shocking, yet satisfying moment because, until now, Rachmaninoff had not yet given a solo melodic gesture to the horn alone. The ‘heroic’ sound perfectly follows the dense and dark climax it follows[10].

When analyzing the melodic doublings and voicings Sergei Rachmaninoff employs, I found that the majority of his melodic content was between strings and clarinet, clarinet and oboe, and lastly strings, clarinet, oboe and flute. Notice how there were no instances within this movement where he chose to double any melodic material with brass, or have any melodies within the brass for that matter. His most frequent doubling was that between strings and woodwinds. Both the Korsakov and Adler text supported this doubling as the most successful choice for clear, melodic doublings. Where they differ, Korsakov demands that brass should rarely, be doubled with strings, whereas Adler states the possibilities as long as registral similarities are accounted for. Perhaps Rachmaninoff’s Concerto did not have adventurous enough melodic doublings to make a more solid point, however, based on the heavy string use, woodwind/string doubling, and lack of brass as a melodic motive, I would conclude that Rachmaninoff’s style of orchestration slightly agreed more with that of Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov. Perhaps, that was expected, however, I was hoping to find more commonalities with the Adler. Through studying both texts extensively, Samuel Adler’s approach is much more aimed at personalizing your own style of orchestration while being conscious of the resulting sounds different doublings will produce, whereas the Korsakov text is much more heavily opinionated. Korsakov is not afraid to state phrases such as “the student should never…” or that a certain doubling should “always be avoided.”

Student composers and orchestrators alike should constantly seek out texts as well as score study to master their craft. Though I have found the Korsakov to lean more towards the style of “The Five” and Russian nationalism, that should not dismiss the text all together as it is still an incredibly helpful tool every composer should possess. Both Samuel Adler’s The Study of Orchestration and Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov’s Principles of Orchestration contain a plethora of knowledge and advice regarding doublings, instrumentation, and melodic voicings. As long as the student composer is aware that different authors may have varying opinions, it should not detract or persuade one to abandon that text altogether. With the wealth of knowledge available today, composers should take advantage of every outlet available, and form their own opinions, but only after learning the basics of orchestration.


[1]  Samuel Adler, The Study of Orchestration , 4th ed. (New York , NY: W.W. Norton and Company, 2016), 7.

[2] Slonimsky, Nicolas, and Richard Taruskin. "Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov." Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., April 20, 2009. Accessed April 9, 2017.

[3] Slonimsky, Nicolas, and Richard Taruskin. "Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov." Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., April 20, 2009. Accessed April 9, 2017.

[4] Adler, Samuel. 2016. The Study of Orchestration. New York, NY: Norton.

[5] Adler, Samuel. 2016. The Study of Orchestration. New York, NY: Norton. p664

[6] Rimsky-Korsakov, Nikolay. 1964. Principles of Orchestration. Newbury Park, CA: P.L. Alexander. P48

[7] Adler, Samuel. 2016. The Study of Orchestration. New York, NY: Norton. P394

[8] Rimsky-Korsakov, Nikolay. 1964. Principles of Orchestration. Newbury Park, CA: P.L. Alexander. P61

[9] Adler, Samuel. 2016. The Study of Orchestration. New York, NY: Norton. P395

[10] Rachmaninoff, Sergei. 1901. Piano Concerto No. 2, Moderato, Op. 18. Moscow: A. Gutheil.


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