1. Subtle Accents


It wouldn’t be wrong to question the title of this post. The phrase could be seen as oxymoronic, with a nod to the late George Carlin, as the phrase “business ethics.” After all, a purpose of an accent in music is the emphasis of one or more notes. A generally accepted practice is to emphasize a note by having it sound a bit (or more than a bit) louder or harder than its neighbors on the page. In orchestral writing, this can be as simple as having the player, section, or the entire orchestra “hit” the note with gusto.

On further consideration, though, “emphasis” can be made by other types of contrasts. If the section in question, say the first violins, is playing softly, obviously the emphasis can be made by playing a note louder. Alternatively, if the violins are playing a passage at a medium-loud volume and they suddenly play a note very softly, by its reduction in volume alone that note would have emphasis. In the art of orchestration the composer has all of the sounds of orchestral instruments and techniques at his or her disposal, however, and they provide for an even richer palette. Some examples will help to inform more about the subtle accent.

Prokofiev Symphony 1 (“Classical”)

There are some tried and true methods for emphasis. Take the more standard convention of having a cymbal crash or timpani roll ending in a strong hit. Of course, composing an orchestral climax, including the word crescendo, and ending with a loud downbeat, emphasized by a forte bass drum note, is a valid method for highlighting a massive climax.

But here’s an example that provides another, more subtle, method. In the final movement of the Symphony number 1, Op. 25, the “Classical,” by Prokofiev, the composer has many of these large climaxes emphasized by timpani and fast upward runs in the very high winds and strings. In this example, however, there’s a softer and smaller climax or “hit” on the note that ends a six eighth-note run. (This is about 45 seconds in, measures 55-60.)

Example 1.1 Sergei Prokofiev: Symphony No. 1 “Classical” (55-60)
Herbert von Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Deutsche Grammophon

There are a few items here that are worth pointing out. First, with all the woodwinds playing the run in three octaves and the flutes doubling the first violins there’s no doubt the tune (the run) will be heard. Add to the fact that, at this moment at least, there’s very little else happening in the orchestra. Prokofiev has, for the moment, subtracted all of the other color tools at his disposal and only has the second violins and violas playing the broken chords (Alberti bass) in octaves to add to the (background) rhythm and harmony.

Then, during the run in the winds and first violins, he drops the second violins out and has the violas take over the second’s voice while bringing in the cellos to take up the viola’s lower voice in the broken chords. This passage goes by so fast that it’s doubtful anyone would notice the slight color change from second violins and violas to violas and cellos.

The reason for this change is to give the second violins the chance to accent the end of the run with a pizzicato doubling of the E that ends the run. Although it may look like a small thing in this “inner” voice, the effect is nevertheless dramatic and reinforces the downbeat that ends the run.

Prokofiev could have used the cellos on this pizzicato note. It’s within their range and he could have switched from the second violin-viola combination to the viola-cello combination a few measures later.

However, the cellos playing the E at the top of the treble clef might have been overkill, providing too much emphasis. In addition, the cellos would resonate more heavily and provide a more sustained accent. The second violins here provide a short, dry E to underline the top of the run. This is a small, but useful effect and worth pointing out.

Butterworth A Shropshire Lad

In George Butterworth’s tone poem A Shropshire Lad there’s a passage that is haunting in its beauty and seeming simplicity. In fact, it displays some creative techniques displaying color change. Most importantly for this example, the move to B minor – as the orchestra is changing from woodwinds, horns, and harp to strings only – is “accented” by a single pizzicato note in the basses.

In addition to the tune moving from the strings and rich woodwinds (that is, first and second violins in octaves joined by two flutes and two clarinets), the melody is then handed over to the oboe for one measure who, in turn, tosses it to the English horn. The first violins then sneak in with a whole note (D) when everything slows and decrescendos until the (B minor) key change.

Example 1.2 George Butterworth: A Shropshire Lad
Neville Dilkes, English Sinfonia, EMI

By the time we hear that change, Butterworth has subtracted all of the orchestra except the strings, save the two French horns. And once they hit the triple piano at the change, they are almost transparent, supporting the middle strings at the downbeat.

What emphasizes this downbeat is the pizzicato, marked pianissimo, for the double basses. The previous section and especially the previous two bars are noticeably sustained and peaceful. But when we hear the change, on the beat, the basses provide the small accent, a slight percussive effect emphasizing a change to a new key and new tonal center. Additionally, the writing is now constrained to the lower half of the orchestral range with a two-octave tessitura. A few other changes, deserving of the small accent, are the simpler four-part writing as well as the change from the thicker four-note harmonies (major and minor seventh chords) of the previous passage to more traditional triadic harmonies.

Bartók Concerto for Orchestra

While we are on the subject of color and passing a melody from one instrument to another, there’s a passage in the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra that perfectly emphasizes accentuation in this subtle, simple, but effective manner.

The passage is about three-and-a-half minutes into the first movement (measures 58-63). The composer is emphasizing the E-flat–A tritone, with the winds sustaining the E-flat in several octaves. As the passage continues the range of the E-flats becomes smaller and lower, higher instruments dropping out with the passage of each measure.

Example 1.3 Béla Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra, Movement 1 (58-63)
Leonard Slatkin, Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, RCA

In the upper strings there are extremely high E-flats supported by the divided second violins. The entire lower string section has an E-flat–A up and down run in each measure as an ostinato. As the passage progresses the high E-flat chromatically runs down to the A, occurring in the following measure. Finally, the first violins play the sixteenth note E-flats, slowing to the sul G passage in broad sixteenth notes.

What’s of interest here is the toss that the violins do when they finally get to the A. The note moves to the trumpets, who have been absent for the past dozen or so measures. And, rather than simply double the violins (in octaves) as an eighth note, they sustain it for two beats. This change of color is conspicuous for many reasons, but in a subtle yet functional fashion Bartok has stayed in the E-flats-and-As mode, but introduced the new color as though it systemically has moved from the strings to the brass.

Mahler Symphony 1

One final example provides a combination of color change with emphasis by subtraction. This example shows Mahler exhibiting a color-subtraction in the fourth movement of his Symphony number 1 (measures 15-20)

Example 1.4 Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 1, Movement 4 (15-20)
Leonard Bernstein, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Deutsche Grammophon

This rapid passage has most of the winds playing a chromatic descending triplet, sustaining the final note for four beats. It’s in two octaves and played fortissimo. The upper strings are playing moderately frenetic (another set of words rarely used in conjunction) triplets for a few bars, ending with a chromatic run in the extreme range of the violins doubled with both flutes and piccolos going to the top of their ranges. Also marked fortissimo, there’s no way that high C is going to be missed.

Notice, though, that the piccolos, flutes, and (also very high) violas hit the top note only to cut it short (dropping out) on an eighth-note, similar to the Bartok example above. The color change is in the violins who shift to a tremolo, marked triple forte on their high Cs.

A very subtle, but depending on the conductor and/or the timpanist, noticeable change is the previously sustained C in the timpani. Mahler asks the performer to decrescendo through this passage, ending with a piano notation on the final note (the eighth-note) of the roll. It is an interesting choice: the rest of the orchestra’s playing at full volume. Nevertheless, it can work because the timpani’s sound is so distinct that it can be discerned through all of the other voices. In this example, it’s more a case of its gradual diminishment until the listener is aware of it primarily by its absence.

What the composer has done is to make the timpani the sustained bass of the section and of the orchestra. It’s not a very typical choice for the bass, but Mahler uses it here to functional effect. Hence, the final note, the end of the sustained bass emphasizes the shift in tonal color to the shimmering high Cs in the violins.

Adding them up

Perhaps a better phrase to end this post is “Subtracting them up.” This post has examined a few of the methods some composers have employed to emphasize an element in their works without focusing on more typical usage (a cymbal crash, a brass fanfare, or a woodwind trill). These examples are a few citations of innumerable interesting techniques used by many creative composers and orchestrators.


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