I have been orchestrating the Pathetique Sonata for months. I looked on IMSLP and saw no orchestral transcription. And I figured, if I am going to orchestrate a piano sonata, this would be the sonata to orchestrate because it sounds orchestral with all those chords and octaves, even as a piano solo.

I am redoing my orchestration of the Pathetique Sonata though because I wasn't satisfied with it and also because I got very distracted from it. But unlike last time, I am finding difficulties orchestrating the melody.

Pathetique melody.png

In the red boxes is the melody I am trying to orchestrate. It should be easy because it is chords. But the hard part of it is deciding on which octaves for which instruments. I mean if I have the oboe an octave up and the flute 2 octaves up, I will reach extremes of range and probably need the piccolo. On the other hand, the flute is quiet in its low register and would be drowned out by just the other woodwinds, not to mention the strings and brass.

Here is what I have so far of the woodwinds. As you can see, I have it in concert pitch on Musescore to make writing the clarinet and horn parts easier. And as you can see, the clarinet is currently taking the lowest melody line starting in its lowest octave.

Pathetique Orchestration.png

So what should I do? Should I copy the melody not only by pitch but also by octave(which would mean writing the entire melody 8va)? Should I go my normal 1 octave between instruments? Should I have the flute be within an octave of the oboe and have the top notes played by the piccolo an octave above the flute?

  • Interesting task, I had the same idea to orchestrate no 10 op. 14 in G as a symphony or a piano concerto. ( I’m still wating for better vst instruments). Inspired by your question I’ve right now found this here: ask.metafilter.com/313599/… Commented Feb 12, 2019 at 6:33
  • Note that Beethoven purposefully used closed voicing in the low register to give a more heavy effect. It might not sound the best (i.e. too muddy?) with an orchestra.
    – Divide1918
    Commented Apr 11, 2021 at 10:22

2 Answers 2


My general inclination is to treat the orchestra (especially the winds) as a collection of solo instruments, not as a single big instrument. Take that as a warning as you consider my advice.

I might have close to the full orchestra on the forte chords, but on the piano sections, I would go for just 2 pairs of woodwinds. If I want the same pairs of woodwinds throughout, probably 2 bassoons and 2 clarinets with a solo clarinet for the second half of measure 4. If I want to vary the woodwinds (in the spirit of Webern's orchestration of Bach), I would try bassoons and clarinets, followed by bassoons and oboes, followed by clarinets and flutes, followed by all flutes/oboes/clarinets for the first half of measure 4, followed by an oboe solo for the second half of measure 4.

I'm thinking solo flute an octave over solo horn (over violas and cellos, maybe bassoons) for the first half of measure 5. (Note that horn part could be played by a valveless horn in E-flat if you want to restrict yourself to valveless horns - which is all composers up to Brahms had to work with.)

If you look at most orchestra scores, you'll see the wind instruments have lots and lots of rests. You don't need them all playing all the time.

Here's one thing you need to understand about a real (not DAW) orchestra. It's impossible to get 10 musicians to all start a note at exactly the same time, and it's even harder to get 30 musicians to all start a note at exactly the same time. The difference will be very small, so you won't realize they are not exactly synchronized, but the audible effect is that, the more instruments you have, the more gradually (over the course of a few milliseconds) a note will start, so that, with more players, your accents will be louder but less pointed. (An orchestra accent sounds like "aaaAAA!!!AAAaaa", and the more instruments playing the more drawn out. A soloist accent sounds like "DAaaa".) This is why orchestrations of Beethoven sonatas tend to feel like they have something missing. (Also, the piano of Beethoven's day had a shallower action and thinner strings, so its attack is more pointed but with less volume than today's piano, so the contrast with an orchestra was even bigger.)

  • The thing that makes me wonder if I really should have bassoons playing the melody is there being like 3 to 4 notes being played simultaneously in the bass clef section. And I remember, in my previous orchestration, I had the woodwinds and strings all playing simultaneously, the first 4 measures of the Grave section and then because the melody got so many notes in the bass clef in the sostenuto part, I had call and response between low woodwinds and low brass to free up the low woodwinds for the bass clef interludes.
    – Caters
    Commented Feb 13, 2019 at 18:34
  • I wasn't talking about the melody - I meant everything - there are only 3 or 4 notes total - so you only need 4 instruments, each playing one note. Commented Feb 13, 2019 at 19:11

It seems to me as you were fixed at the idea to keep the opening bars in the same woodwind section. In my opinion this motive and the whole phrase/sentence invites you to distribute the motives to the different sections in the orchestra:

  1. Bar: Head motive (woodwind)
  2. Bar: Response (brass)

    (etc. the higher octacvas by woodwind instruments, the solo passage by oboe or violine? ... it’s yours)

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