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I am going to arrange Wagner's Prelude and Liebestod for British brass band. I am not sure if it will be a good fit, but it is worth a try.

The instrumentation that I am writing for is standard:


  • 1 Soprano Cornet in E♭
  • 8-10 Cornets in B♭ (in separate parts for 'Solo', 'Repiano', 2nd and 3rd cornets; there are 4/5 players on the 'Solo' part, one 'Repiano', two 2nd, and two 3rd)
  • 1 Flugelhorn in B♭ (notated on the same part as the 'Repiano' in some older music)
  • 3 Horns in E♭ (called Solo, 1st and 2nd)
  • 2 Baritone Horns in B♭ (Each with separate parts)
  • 2 Tenor Trombones (notated in B♭, playing separate parts)
  • 1 Bass Trombone (the only brass instrument in the band notated in Concert Pitch (C) on Bass Clef)
  • 2 Euphoniums in B♭ (Usually playing the same part with divisi sections)
  • 4 Tubas (2 in E♭ and 2 in B♭, both notated in Treble Clef; often called Basses)
  • 2 or 3 percussion players (with 2 or more timpani, glockenspiel, snare drum, triangle, cymbals, a drum kit and more)

I need to adapt parts from these orchestral instruments to fit the brass instrumentation.

  • Flute
  • Oboe
  • Clarinet
  • English Horn
  • Bassoon
  • Bass Clarinet
  • Harp? Probably not
  • Horn
  • Trumpet
  • Trombone
  • Tuba
  • Violin 1
  • Violin 2
  • Viola
  • Cello
  • Bass
  • Tympani
  • Isolde

Some parts are the same, and some correspond to obvious parts. Some are not obvious.

There might be some overlap between brass parts for strings. Cornets should represent most of the high passages, including flutes, violins, and Isolde.

What would be a reasonable way to represent Oboe, Clarinet, English Horn, Bassoon, Bass Clarinet, Viola, and Cello?

I thought of using flugelhorn, or mutes for cornets, but I don't know all of the options.

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Interesting question! It would be helpful if you included a summary of the brass band instrumentation, as external links are not always reliable, long-term. –  Bradd Szonye May 24 at 7:17
Is this your first arrangement for brass band? If it is, I'd suggest leaving it on your to-do list for the moment and do some smaller, less ambitious pieces first. –  Brian THOMAS May 25 at 21:26
I would suggest to replace "Isolde" by "voice (soprano)". You need a distinguished tone color for that to stand out from the others, possibly the sopraon cornet warned against in other answers? –  guidot Jul 8 at 12:41

4 Answers 4

up vote 14 down vote accepted

Great question! I just happen to have the Prelude on my desk at the moment - you've got a really interesting project on your hands there, but quite a lot of work - good luck!

Hopefully I can add to jjmusicnotes really useful advice with some ideas that will make this a far simpler project for you.

Firstly, from your question, it seems like you are "half-way" to understanding the basic approach your project will need. You acknowledge, for instance, that "Cornets should represent most of the high passages…" Yes, this is likely to be the role taken by cornets in your arrangement and is a good approach. But, you also say, "Some parts are the same, and some correspond to obvious parts." This is not a useful approach; you would not simply copy trombone music from the Wagner into the trombone parts of your arrangement. Also, the question itself asks how to "approximate instruments" when arranging. This, again, is not always a useful approach; although a brass band is a beautiful ensemble, capable of a wide range of interesting timbres and techniques, it is never going to match the range of a full orchestra of winds, strings, brass and percussion. So, you should not simply be thinking about what will most sound like a cor anglais, for instance. Rather than trying to make your brass band version sound as similar as possible to the orchestral version (which will be very difficult), you should aim to use a range of contrasting instrumental colours available within the brass band instrumentation, just as Wagner uses a range of instrumental colours within the orchestra.

So what is the right approach?

Well, to understand how to go about your project, let me give you an example of a much simpler method of arranging; this will give you an insight into the different method your project requires.

If you wanted to arrange an SATB choral piece for string quartet, you have a very simple project. You could simply give the Soprano line to Violin I, Alto line to Violin II, Tenor line to the Viola and Bass line to the 'Cello. Okay, you have to remove the lyrics, check the ranges work okay and maybe change some phrasing, but essentially this is a one-to-one mapping of parts. It is like translating a single word from one language to another.

You cannot take this one-to-one mapping approach when arranging your brass band version of the Wagner. This is more like trying to translate a whole book; you need to understand the fundamental meaning of the text (or music in your case!) before creating the new version. Rather than simply giving music from one instrument of the orchestral music to one instrument of the brass band, you need to assess: what role this instrument plays in the original, what role groups of instruments play in the original and crucially what role different musical material has in the original (for instance, is it melodic, harmonic, part of the bass line, part of a countermelody etc.) You then assign this music from the original to instruments that are suitable for such a role in the brass band.

To complete this project successfully, you are not really arranging, you are re-orchestrating.

And yes, this is quite a lot of work. But there are two ways you can do this; one is a lot easier than the other.

Re-orchestrating the hard way.

Assess the role of all musical material in the original score. Assess which instruments (or groups of instruments) will effectively be able to perform each piece of musical material in your brass band version. This may change through your arrangement; musical material associated with particular instruments in the original may not always be associated with one instrument or group of instruments in your version. Instead, at any one time, you need to be thinking about which instrument or group of instruments are best able to play musical material within the overall musical texture.

A somewhat simpler approach.

Use a piano reduction of the original orchestral score (or four-hands piano, or piano and voice etc.) Well, this is essentially the same approach as above, but now the initial process of condensing the musical material of the orchestral score has already been done for you, meaning you can get on with the process of orchestrating straight away.

In reality, you will need to take an approach somewhere between the two. I would work from a piano reduction, but constantly refer to the orchestral score, to check that I am reflecting changes of timbre and techniques in the original orchestral version in the new version. But again, this needs to be approached with common sense; you are attempting to preserve interesting changes of timbre, texture, technique, tone and tessitura in the original when writing your brass band version. But you are not simply mimicking or copying the original. You can't give pizzicato instructions to your brass players, but how would you create a similar contrast of tone in your ensemble? No instrument in your ensemble may be able to easily play the flute part at the same pitch, it is more important that different pieces of musical material appear in the correct register relative to other music in your arrangement.

I could go on, but as jjmusicnotes pointed out, orchestration and arranging are an art; there are plenty of rules and useful approaches that can be learnt, but effective orchestration requires study, thought and practice.

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Great answer here - the OP could consider my answer to be the piano 4 hands reduction :D and yours to be the orchestrated score! –  jjmusicnotes May 23 at 14:51
Thanks, this is really helpful. I shouldn't think of it as capturing each orchestral instrument's sound exactly with a brass instrument, and dropping the orchestral part into the brass part. I need to get a better understanding of the big picture, where the different parts fit in with the music itself, and how I can assign roles to instruments that fit in with the brass band's unique timbre. –  Eric May 27 at 22:41
I do feel like there should be a significant amount of overlap between orchestral and brass band parts for trumpet and cornet, horn and Eb horn, trombone, and tuba parts, although not limited to just copying the orchestral part verbatim. There are other orchestral parts that need to be accounted for by these instruments. Do you have any comments on that? –  Eric May 27 at 22:47
Hi @Eric It sounds like you completely get the big picture about not simply transferring parts. I'm off to bed now, but will post tomorrow about effective timbral mappings if I get time (although somebody else may well post before then...) –  Bob Broadley May 27 at 23:30

Unfortunately, the answer to your question is one that you can only ultimately provide. Orchestration is an art form unto itself, and your choices are personal and unique to your sense of nuance and knowledge of the music.

For example, a particular melody or line given to a cornet will sound differently if given to the flugelhorn instead; though the same line works on both instruments. It depends contextually in the music - what you feel is important to emphasize or leave out.

Orchestration is much more than attempting to mimic other instruments or effects. Your overall goal is to preserve the integrity and character of the music, even though it is scored for a different ensemble.

There are dozens to ways to capture each of the instruments you listed, but not all of them are appropriate for the music. Sometimes it is easier to find out what you don't want.

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@BobBroadly - Thanks for the edit! –  jjmusicnotes May 23 at 14:48
No problem, and thanks for your kind comments below my answer! –  Bob Broadley May 23 at 15:09

Even though almost every brass player living hates mutes (including me), use them extensively. They are invaluable for managing timbre changes. Just remember it takes a few beats to get the mute in and remove it.If you want an oboe-ish tone, a cornet in harmon (stem-in) or a metal straight gives a reasonable substitute. (Holst used this trick with a straight in one of the Suites for Military Band.) For bassoon, a tenor trombone in metal straight gets nasally. For english horn, think cup mute.

For harp parts, consider mallet percussion (or piano, if available).

There will be a strong temptation to have the soprano playing much of the time. Resist temptation. A brass band does not have the range of pitches available that a full orchestra does. That's a limitation you accepted when you decided to transcribe for brass band. Chord voicing can help, and if you can count on an ensemble with impeccable intonation, sum and difference tones at soft dynamics can create apparent pitches you can't reasonably ask for.

This sort of project can be done and turn out well -- Elsa's Procession to the Cathedral works as a brass band or brass choir piece. But it requires careful consideration of the score and the available forces.

Consider providing alternate Baritone, Euphonium, Tenor Trombone and Tuba parts in concert-pitch bass clef. North Americans will appreciate the consideration.

Good luck!

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Nice to hear of someone arranging for Brass Band. As a young teenager (50 years ago), brass bands introduced me to classical music. These days I play recorder in an early music consort, but that's another story.

My thoughts are:

  • Violin 1, 2 and viola map roughly to solo, 2nd & 3rd cornet (and possibly tenor horn). This is necessary as they are the main body of treble sound in the brass band.
  • Soprano cornet and Flugel are excellent "color" instruments that should be used sparingly. Flugel will often pick up oboe solos, and soprano is good for the fiddly picollo, flute and clarinet parts.
  • Others have mentioned the use of mutes - there are straight mutes, bell mutes, top hats and others. Using these judiciously will provide a lot of the color otherwise missing in a brass ensemble.
  • Don't forget the Euphonium - it is a great instrument with a soaring sound that can well take on cello solo parts. In addition, it is incredibly agile - try googling Grandfathers Clock on YouTube, and listen to the last variation in particular.

I'd recommend listening to anything by Eric Ball to start to appreciate the truly magnificent sound that can be coaxed from a brass band. Journey into Freedom is arguably his best work.

Best of luck - this us a really worthwhile project.

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