Why I Dislike Adler’s Orchestration

Every orchestrator I know lauds and praises Samuel Adler’s Orchestration. I don’t.  I can’t stand the book.  I find it riddled with errors, pedantic, and uncreative.

First, I must acknowledge that the Adler is designed as a college textbook first and foremost.  For creativity, there are far better books out there.

Second, I must acknowledge that I only own the 1st and 2nd editions of the book.  I’ve had no reason to purchase the 3rd edition.  I would greatly hope that the cornucopia of mistakes Adler makes have been rectified in the newer edition.

With all that said, I will focus on the problems with wind instrument sections of the book.

Flute

  • I find no glaring errors with any of the section on the various flutes.  It is, however, out of date due to the great expansion of the flute family in recent years.

Oboe

  • Adler treats the Bass Oboe and the Heckelphone as like instruments.  Players will disagree.  The instruments have different ranges and techniques.  Otherwise, this section is good. The Delius excerpt is shown using a non-standard notation style. 

Clarinet

  • The clarinet section does have some big errors.
  • The Bass Clarinet section is the worst.  Adler mentions the difference between French and German notation, and goes on to say that French notation is the only way to go nowadays (correctly).  However, all of the Bass Clarinet examples are written in German notation – and some for the extinct Bass Clarinet in A.  A poor example for students trying to learn.
  • The Alto Clarinet section incorrectly states the range.  All modern Alto Clarinets will possess a written low E-flat.  This is a minor quibble, but one that is easy to get right.
  • The Contrabass Clarinet section is very poorly written, and seems to have been written by someone with no experience with the instrument at all.  Adler gets the ranges wrong for both the Contrabass and Contra-Alto Clarinets.  Adler states that the lowest note of the Contrabass Clarinet is a written low E.  However, all instruments will descend to either a written low E-flat or a written low C.  He complicates his point by including an example where the range goes to a written low D, which will leave younger orchestrators scratching their head.  The Contra-Alto Clarinet is treated far worse.  Adler only briefly mentions that the instrument exists, but states that its range is one octave lower than it actually is (the same range as the Octo-Contra-Alto Clarinet).

Saxophones

  • Adler clearly has no experience with saxophones at all.  This sections seems to be an afterthought thrown together from examples in musical dictionaries.  Adler spends a lot of time talking about Bolero and its use of the Sopranino Saxophone in F – an instrument that has never freakin’ existed!  He then goes on to spend the rest of the time talking about Symphonia Domestica, a piece where the saxophones are useless at best and have parts written for more saxophones THAT DON’T EXIST!  Adler also includes altissimo notes in the standard range charts without mentioning that these are advanced technique.  I’m sure that this has led to many parts being written that are more difficult than they need to be.
  • A high school student could write a better orchestration guide to the saxophone than Adler has produced.

Bassoons

  • Nothing to note here.  The bassoon section is usually quite good.

Horns

  • Again, quite good on the horn part.  However, Adler does not talk about the Wagner Tuben except to say that they are obsolete and of no use.  Try telling that to Hollywood film composers who use them all the time.

Trumpets

  • The only errors here involve the Bass Trumpets.  Adler spends some time on the Bass Trumpet in D.  I don’t know why.  Such an instrument has never existed.  It only shows up in Wagner’s score to his Ring, but the actual instrument was always in C or E-flat (the B-flat instrument came later).  This was only one of Wagner’s brass scoring whims where he liked to notate crook changes when none were actually to be done.  Adler also states that the range of the E-flat Bass (Alto) Trumpet descends to a written low F.  This is done because Stravinsky included the note in The Rite of Spring.  However, that note is outside the range of a standard 3-valve instrument.

Trombones

  • Adler gets more wrong with the trombone section.  Biggest error is the inclusion of the famous Bartok glissando (the glissandos from the Concerto for Orchestra).  He mentions that the gliss from low B to F is easy on the Bass Trombone.  It isn’t.  In fact, it’s impossible.  Adler is clearly confused on how this instrument works.
  • He also glances over the Contrabass Trombone saying that it is useless echoing earlier texts that say that the instrument is difficult to play.  He doesn’t even include a range chart.  Again, like the Wagner Tuben, try telling this to modern Hollywood composers who use the instrument every day.

Tubas

  • The information on the tubas is mostly correct.  Adler states that Wagner Tuben parts are generally played on the Euphonium in this country – they aren’t, nor have they ever been.  He briefly discusses the Euphonium and the Baritone, but never clarifies their relationship.

Conclusion

Adler is good when it comes to the standard orchestral instruments, but is completely out of his element when it comes to auxiliary instruments.  Every orchestration text gets the basics right though.  I can pick up any of them, and they will, for the most part, look the same.

The Adler textbook is good for a historical look at how composers have used instruments, but he has failed to keep up with modern developments.  There is only technique here and no soul.  And what’s worse, even his technique is wrong when it comes to instruments he doesn’t care for, doesn’t know, or simply overlooks. The spark of genius is void in the book.  As a creator, I can take no inspiration from Adler’s writings.

If I need a textbook with correct modern information, the best source is Alfred Blatter’s Instrumentation and Orchestration.  If I need inspiration from a great master, I always go back to the original, Berlioz’s (edited by Strauss) Treatise on Instrumentation.  I can’t recommend the Adler to any one.

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3 thoughts on “Why I Dislike Adler’s Orchestration

  1. Very minor point, but as contrabassoonist who doubles on (tenor) banjo I found the passage of Rhapsody in Blue he quoted funny. If you consider the score, part, original jazz band score, and the fact that it’s scored for a 4-string tenor banjo the quoted “melody” is clearly a cue line (likely used since the banjo is the only instrument other than the horn melody that plays each measure rather than every other measure). The actual banjo part is the downbeat chords. He then goes on to say that the melody couldn’t be heard over the horn! (Though I am absolutely not suggesting that a thorough treatment of the banjo is necessary for a college-level orchestration text.)

    Having taught undergrad orchestration classes it’s a sad situation that one-semester courses seems to be the norm. Coupled with the fact that many students came into it completely unprepared regarding transposition (which I feel should be covered in-depth early in the music theory sequence) and music technology (which was a required course where I taught but was bizarrely not a prerequisite for orchestration) even covering instrumentation to a basic level with which it is reasonable to start discussing actual orchestration was like pulling teeth. (I should say that, while the university I taught at wasn’t the most prestigious by any means, from speaking to others the situation I describe was far from unique.)

  2. Michael-david Reisman

    I, too, was quite disappointed with the Adler text. I’ve read Keenan which was okay, there are others that are better (Including Berlioz / Rimsky-Korsakov), Piston’s book is pretty good as well.

  3. Pingback: 2015 in Review | Bandestration

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