Notable Orchestrations from Keyboard Works

by James Chang – The more the merrier! Why play a piece alone when you can get a bunch of friends to play it with you and share in the fun? Not only is it more fun, you get a wider variety of timbres. With a wider variety of timbres, especially when carefully controlled, you get a more iridescent concoction of sounds than the original.

The practice of expanding a piece’s instrumentation goes way back. An early example of such a practice was Bach’s expansion of the first movement of his Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, to create a new Sinfonia for Cantata No. 174.  Such a practice became very popular in the late 19th and early 20th century because of developments in the Western symphony orchestra and consequently the field of orchestration.  Strings no longer had to be the principal voices because wind instruments had their timbres and ranges improved (thanks, Industrial Revolution) and brass instruments were no longer confined to the few notes that their natural instruments only allowed them.  In addition, new instruments were invented or innovated or adopted by classical musicians in the orchestra and expanded the possibilities.

The timbres available to the orchestrator expanded more and more, and people were able to experiment with different combinations that resulted in new and disparate sound-worlds, which were explored in new orchestral compositions of this time.  Orchestration became a burgeoning field, with new books on the subject being published even to this day.

This also led to a great flurry of re-instrumentations or orchestrations, especially since it was so easy to take chordal textures from those instruments and rewrite them for larger ensembles, and sometimes, the orchestrations became better known than the original piano works (of course, that depends on whom you talk to. Pianists will always insist that the original piano versions are more popular/better).

So without further ado, here is a list of some notable orchestrations.  Please note that this list is about orchestrations from pieces that were originally published for piano solo or organ, not pieces that were written on piano (as many, many composers tended to do).

I’d like to begin this list with someone who is pretty much unanimously agreed upon to be one of the best orchestrators of all time, Maurice Ravel.  We’ve previously fawned over how amazing Ravel is, but it bears repeating that he is so careful in the execution of his music that the quality shows.

Perhaps his most performed orchestration is Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

His orchestration of this collection of pieces was not the first, nor even the last, but is for sure the most famous. (THERE ARE SO MANY OF THEM, including Tushmalov (the first), Wood, Funtek, Stokowski, Ashkenazy, Cailliet, Naoumoff, and a REALLY fun one by Breiner).  His creative orchestration shows here, from the trumpet solo opening to the alto sax solo in the Old Castle movement.

But this is far from all of his piano-to-orchestra output. He liked to orchestrate his own pieces too, including

Une Barque sur l’ocean, from Miroirs, where none of the original piano figurations in the opening are intact, but the effect is still there and more glorious than ever. The swells of the seas and the glimmer of the waves are even more visceral.

Also from the same suite, Alborado del gracioso, where the large battery of percussion add to the shimmering, dancing colors of the orchestra.

Here are some more sumptuous orchestrations by Ravel:

Tombeau de Couperin, of which Ravel only orchestrated four movements (the Prelude, Rigaudon, Forlane, and Menuet).  Hungarian pianist and conductor Zoltán Kocsis orchestrated the Fugue and Toccata. I think Kocsis’ orchestrations are beautifully executed too, and deserve mention with Ravel’s.

Pavane pour une infante defunte

Valses nobles et sentimentales


The rest of this list will be alphabetical, by original composer.


BachFantasia and Fugue in C minor BWV 537 (Edward Elgar)

You can count on an organist/composer/conductor to orchestrate an organ piece well, especially the fugue!

Bach: Passacaglia in C minor BWV 582 (Ottorino Respighi)

Also originally for organ. The American conductor Leopold Stokowski (famous for Fantasia) also did one, but I don’t like it quite as much.

BalakirevIslamey (Alfredo Casella)

Balakirev’s student, Sergei Lyapunov, did one too, but Casella’s is more colorful, in my opinion

DebussyChildren’s Corner Suite (André Caplet)

Debussy: Clair de lune from Suite Bergamasque (Several)

Here are three of them by Stokowski, Caplet, and Cailliet. Which is your favorite?

Debussy: Danse (Tarantelle Styrienne) (Maurice Ravel)

Debussy: L’isle joyeuse (Bernardino Molinari)

Italian conductor Molinari gave the premiere of Respighi’s Pines of Rome

Debussy: Preludes Books I and II (Luc Brewaeys)

I chose Brewaeys only because it’s the only one I’ve heard. Others have done the whole set too.

Debussy: Pagodes from Estampes (André Caplet)

Percy Grainger did one too but only for “tuneful percussion

Griffes (self)

Much like Ravel, Charles T. Griffes revisited and orchestrated his own works. Here are some of his own orchestrations, which I find to be incredibly creative and colorful. It is unfortunate that he is not more well-known. He died prematurely right when his career started to take off.

  • Clouds (from Roman Sketches)

Rachmaninov: 3 Preludes (Lucien Cailliet)

Cailliet orchestrates three of Rachmaninov’s most famous preludes, the C# minor (Op. 3, No. 2), G major (Op. 32, No. 5), and the G minor (Op. 23, No. 5).

Rachmaninov: 5 Études-Tableaux (Ottorino Respighi)

Respighi made these orchestrations with Rachmaninov’s blessing, at the behest of Serge Koussevitzky. Rachmaninov had a secret program for each study-picture, but did not reveal them to anyone, except Respighi for the five he had selected for him. Respighi included the titles: The Fair (Op. 33, No. 6(7)), The Sea and the Seagulls (Op. 39, No. 2), Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf (Op. 39, No. 6), Funeral March (Op. 39, No. 7), and March (Op. 39, No. 9),

Ravel: Vallée des cloches (Percy Grainger)

Once again, Grainger’s “tuneful percussion” are “to the fore” again here, but they are supported by an orchestra. A beautiful rendition of Ravel’s piece, and a fitting selection for Grainger’s choice of medium.

Honorable mentions

Brahms: Piano Quartet No. 1 (Arnold Schönberg)

Strictly speaking, this is not an orchestration from just piano, but it’s so darn good.

Ravel: Mother Goose Suite, originally for easy piano duet

Vaughan WilliamsThe Lark Ascending (self)

This is a gorgeous piece. You have to listen to it.


Sorry for the lengthy post, but they’re all such good pieces! Are there any pieces that we missed? Were there any that surprised or impressed you? Let us know!

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