Archive for February 17th, 2011

Cecil Forsyth (b. 1870 – d. 1941) was an English composer and violist. He wrote mostly choral works, but he also composed a concerto for viola. Additionally, he published a famous book on orchestration that can be found in the Mahoney collection, titled Orchestration. According to the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, it is “for its time the most comprehensive treatment of the subject.” This quote, from the preface, describes how the book is set up:

“In this book an attempt is made first, to describe our modern orchestral instruments, where they sprang from, how they developed, and what they are to-day; next, to trace the types of music which have been reflected in these constructional changes and, in especial, the types most familiar since Beethoven’s time.”

The instruments that Forsyth talks about in his novel are: side drum, bass drum, tenor drum, tabor, tambourine, triangle, cymbals, gong, castanets, rattle, wind machine, anvil, kettle drums, bell, glockenspiel, celesta, dulcitone(or typopohne), xylophone, valve trumpet, bass trumpet, cornet, valve horn in F, tenor trombone, alto trombone, bass trombone, double bass trombone, tuba, saxhorns, fluegelhorns, saxophones, sarrusophones, obsolete brass-wind, flutes, bass flute, piccolo, oboe, oboe d’amore, English horn, rarely-used woodwind, bassoon, double bassoon, clarinet bass clarinet, Eb clarinet, bassett horn, alto clarinet, pedal clarinet, obsolete woodwind, cuckoo instrument, violin, viola, viola d’amore, cello, viola da gamba, double bass, harp, chromatic harp, mandolin, guitar, and dulcimer. This does not include older forms of these instruments that he mentions while detailing their history.

Forsyth’s writing in Orchestration is accessible and surprisingly humorous. The section on writing parts for viola, which he calls the “big but not quite big enough Violin,” is wonderful. He talks about how composers shouldn’t do things violists hate, such as write parts that are really high or write parts in treble clef that should really be written in alto clef. He also mentions the “bad old days when Viola players were selected merely because they were too wicked or too senile to play the Violin” in reference to a soli part in a piece that he thinks most violists probably wouldn’t be able to play.

Forsyth does offer valuable advice, complete with excerpts from scores and examples from many famous pieces. Most of the tips he gives are still useful for composers writing music today, even though the book was published almost a century ago.


Forsyth, Cecil. Orchestration. 1. London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1914. Print.

“Cecil Forsyth ORCHESTRATION.” MIDI classics. N.p., 14 Mar 1999. Web. 17 Feb 2011. <http://www.midi-classics.com/p1439.htm&gt;.

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