What I Learned From: Rimsky-Korsakov's "Principles of Orchestration"

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's approach to writing is modest and meticulous. He takes great care to describe the basics and techniques of orchestration while his own valuable insight is delegated a secondary role, often slipped in as notes in a smaller font. My intent here is to gather together those unique perspectives he offers. To be certain, some of his ideas must be considered within their late-19th-century context, such as his casual dismissal of the percussion family.


It is a great mistake to say: this composer scores well, or, that composition is well orchestrated, for orchestration is part of the very soul of the work.

Fundamental Axioms:

  1. In the orchestra there is no such thing as ugly quality of tone.
  2. Orchestral writing should be easy to play...
  3. A work should be written for the size of orchestra that is to perform it, not for some imaginary body...

Pitfalls for students to avoid:

  1. The phase during which he puts his entire faith in percussion instruments.
  2. ...a passion for the harp, using it in every possible chord...
  3. ...adores the woodwind and horns...
  4. The more advanced period, when he has come to recognize that the string group is the richest and most expressive...

In small orchestras passages sub-divided into many [string] parts are very hard to realize, and the effect obtained is never the one required.

In quick passages for stringed instruments long chromatic figures are never suitable... such passages are better allotted to the woodwind.

Nobility, warmth, and equality of tone from one end of the scale to the other... render [strings] essentially superior to instruments of other groups.

Owing to a certain tonal affinity with the flute, [harmonics] may be said to form a kind of link between strings and woodwind instruments.

Two classes of woodwinds:

  1. Nasal quality and dark resonance - oboes and bassoons (eng. horn and double bassoon)
  2. Chest-voice quality and bright tone - flutes and clarinets (piccolo, bass flute, small clarinet, bass clarinet)

Consider all orchestral timbres beautiful from an artistic point of view.

Distinct and penetrating staccato passages are better suited to the oboes and bassoons, while the flutes and clarinets excel in well-sustained legato phrases. As far as woodwinds are concerned, double tonguing is only possible on the flute.

The clarinet is not well adapted to sudden leaps from one octave to another.

Arpeggios and rapid alternations of two intervals legato sound well on flutes and clarinets, but not on oboes and bassoons.

A melody coinciding in character with the instrument on which it is played is of special importance, as the effect cannot fail to be successful.

Characters of the woodwinds:

  • Flute: Cold in quality, specially suitable, in the major key, to melodies of light and graceful character; in the minor key, to slight touches of transient sorrow.
  • Oboe: Artless and gay in the major, pathetic and sad in the minor.
  • Clarinet: Pliable and expressive, suitable, in the major, to melodies of joyful or contemplative nature, or to outbursts of mirth; in the minor, to sad and reflective melodies or impassioned and dramatic passages.
  • Bassoon: In the major, an atmosphere of senile mockery; a sad, ailing quality in the minor.

The search after extravagant and daring effects in orchestration is quite a different thing from mere caprice; the will to achieve is not sufficient; there are certain things which should not be achieved.

When a phrase is imitated in the upper register it should be given to an instrument of higher range and vice versa.

After a long rest the re-entry of the horns, trombones and tuba should coincide with some characteristic intensity of tone, either pp or ff; piano and forte re-entries are less successful, while re-introducing these instruments mf or mp produces a colourless and common-place effect. This remark is capable of wider application. For the same reasons it is not good to commence or finish any piece of music either mf or mp.