7. Blind Dates and Other Pairings 1


Stories, especially those made for contemporary media, often have unlikely combinations for their protagonists or, more accurately in popular media, co-stars. They may be a man and a woman with separate agendas. Or, in many buddy stories, they may be the typical strange bedfellows: odd combinations like Stan and Laurel, Nick and Nora, Abbot and Costello, or Thelma and Louise. These pairings create a synergy that is more than the sum of the parts.

Orchestrators have known this for centuries. They use interesting combinations of different sounds to color their music. Sometimes this is strictly driven by the creative need to produce new sounds. Other times it’s driven by necessity, such as an orchestra that has a unique or limited array of instruments previously committed to perform a world premiere of a piece. Both instances offer the composer an opportunity to be extra creative.

Blind Dates

Let’s say your orchestra had only one horn, but you wanted a horn trio. What would you do? Felix Mendelssohn solved this problem by having the horn on the melody and putting two bassoons underneath. Problem solved. Don’t believe me? Listen to Example 1.

Example 1. Mendelssohn: Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 61, Number 7. Nocturne. Opening
James Levine, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Deutsche Grammophon

This is a good place to start the exploration of what combinations of instruments produce certain sounds. A familiarity with these combinations is required to exploit the range of tools available to the orchestrator and composer.

On the upbeat to the first full measure Mendelssohn has an E major triad consisting of the horn on top (the fifth) with a B and below that are the two bassoons with the G-sharp and E (third and root). Because the timbre of the horn is unique and in this example is not overwhelmed by other instruments, the horn melody stands out. In addition, the horn gets rather high with its G-sharp in the next few measures. In this register the horn has a brassy sound, but it can be mellow when played dolce and piano as marked. The two bassoons, in tight harmony under the lead horn, play a supportive role and give the feeling of a trio of horns playing the parts.

It may not be a traditional horn trio of the third movements of many symphonies, but it can make the listener believe that the group is playing a horn trio. Mendelssohn wants to build on the theme when he repeats it beginning in the eighth measure. To accomplish this he has the clarinet that has been and continues to sustain the dominant of the key. Here, though, he has the V7 on the third beat of the measure unlike the opening where the chord was the tonic. When the V7 resolves to I on the downbeat of measure nine, he adds the second horn, playing the tonic in the low register. And, because he now has the second horn and the clarinet providing the background sustained sounds, he moves the cellos and basses down to their lower registers, filling out the sound and refreshing the sparser background of the opening.

Remember that an instrument’s articulation contributes greatly to its unique sound. So here with the Mendelssohn, the bassoons play the same rhythms as the horn, but with the horn on top and the bassoons tightly harmonized, the sound is a blend. The next example (Example 2) has bassoons under clarinets, both playing the same rhythm, but the sound is quite different. On just one hearing, it is obvious that the sound is from two clarinets and two bassoons. This example is from the beginning of the second movement of Brahms third symphony.

Example 2. Brahms: Symphony 3, Op. 90, Movement 2. Opening
George Szell, Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, Sony

As is typical with most second movements of symphonies, the tempo is Andante. The only instruments playing are the two clarinets and the two bassoons. Then Brahms adds the horns and flutes to the reedy sound of the clarinets and bassoons. The orchestral color sounds new and fresh coming from the soft F major ending of the first movement, which ended with the entire orchestra sustaining the chord. The contrast helps to motivate the listener to pay attention and anticipate the new sounds, new key, and new color that Brahms is presenting as he takes the listener into the slow movement.

Other Pairings

Example 3. Ravel: Introduction and Allegro. Opening
Gerard Schwarz, Nancy Allen, Ransom Wilson, David Schifrin, Tokyo String Quartet, EMI

Example 3 presents a very short example of the solo flute and solo clarinet in thirds at the opening of the Ravel Introduction and Allegro. The unique sounds of these two woodwinds in this register make them both remarkably clear. One more item to notice in this example is the three string parts (violin, viola and cello) are playing this melody line in three octaves. They are transparent enough that the half-notes sustained in the flute and clarinet bind the sounds together. Note that this is a chamber piece written for string quartet, flute, clarinet and featuring the harp.

Voicing the orchestra with the low instruments playing the bass of a chord in octaves, possibly with a fifth somewhere in there to cement the tonal center of the chord is an old and well-worn tradition. By the time we get to the nineteenth century with the Wagnerians taking chromaticism down one path, the French in another, and the English revisiting their older musical modes, many traditions were being discarded or at the very least updated. Throw in the Russians and an array of other nationalities and by the end of the century, music would never be the same.

For example, a few bars after Example 3, the melody is played by the viola and cello, but with the cello on top and the viola playing the third below. The cello in the high register tends to sound quite brilliant and it’s a sound that the viola, being so much smaller, often cannot produce. See Example 4 for the brief passage beginning at measure 6 in the score.

Example 4. Ravel: Introduction and Allegro. Measures 6 through 9
Gerard Schwarz, Nancy Allen, Ransom Wilson, David Schifrin, Tokyo String Quartet, EMI

This work has many insightful features for the orchestrator. Let’s stay with it for one more interesting example (Example 5) of some pairings not often seen or heard. At measure 61 – we’re now in the Allegro section of the work – the piece slows momentarily during a two-measure ritard. (Not noted in the score excerpt.) The A clarinet begins a sustained D-flat concert tone. This is the lowest note playable on the A clarinet and one that is not playable on the standard B-flat clarinet. Given the tonal center moving around a pentatonic scale, this D-flat serves as both the root and the fifth of the D-flat and G-flat tonal areas. It also functions, as sustained notes often do, to glue the diverse score elements together.

Example 5. Ravel: Introduction and Allegro. Measures 61 through 69
Gerard Schwarz, Nancy Allen, Ransom Wilson, David Schifrin, Tokyo String Quartet, EMI

The melody is played in octaves by the flute and the viola, a relatively rare pairing. The violins have triplets that provide some background movement. It’s the harp, though, the soloist, that echoes the same “chords” in quintuplets as the other strings but who also supports the melody. If you examine the notes played on the downbeats (as harmonics) in the harp, you’ll see that they mostly play the same note that the viola is playing. One last feature about the harp part is the irregularity of five notes on one beat. This adds rhythmic excitement to the harmonically somewhat static passage.

For another approach to a melody played in octaves with the flute on top but staying with the same composer, let’s look at Ravel’s Bolero when the trumpet and flute have the same melody an octave apart (Example 6). The trumpet is muted and playing the melody at mezzo-piano, two levels of volume louder than the flute part marked pianissimo. Until this point in the piece this theme has been played solo by flute (in its lowest range), clarinet, bassoon, E-flat clarinet, and oboe d’amore. This is the first time Ravel has two voices play the melody. However, in the next iteration, it’s played by solo tenor saxophone and probably the additional voice is not intended to build the piece. Ravel does that nicely enough with the variety of rhythmic sound clusters he has with the pizzicato strings, changing each time the melody is introduced.

Example 6. Ravel: Bolero. Measures 93 through 102, trumpet and flute solos
Charles Dutoit, Montreal Symphony Orchestra, London

It would appear then that this pairing of the muted trumpet and flute is intended to add color and variety to the orchestra sound. With the flute singing an octave above the trumpet, it leaves room for the trumpet’s slightly biting muted sound to be clearly heard, but the softly playing flute in its middle register eases off the stridency of the mute in the trumpet. With the combination of the two it could be seen as Ravel’s showing his comfort with orchestral subtlety, here sounding somewhat like a pipe organ. He’s playing the same melody again and again, but with each introduction, the timbre is colored by the instrumental sound. Here, it’s the woodwind and brass. Next it will be the saxophone’s turn. One other point: This is the first time the first violins have played in the piece. The opening has only violas and cellos. Along the way Ravel adds double basses and the second violins, also divided in half. With this introduction, the second violins are tacit and the first violins have their introduction divisi with triple and quadruple stopped pizzicatos.

Ravel has the ability to make color where many lesser composers might just have shades of gray, especially when reiterating the same melodies. Ravel is constantly changing the harmonies in subtle ways as well as the subtly enhancing the poignant theme.

Blind Dates and Other Pairings Take-away

We have examined composers’ works ranging from the teenage Felix Mendelssohn beginning work on the music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the 1820s to Johannes Brahms Symphony 3 of 1877 and to Maurice Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro of 1905 and finally to Ravel’s Bolero introduced in 1928.

The focus has been on the sounds the composers achieve by combining instruments. Mendelssohn found a way to make one horn sound like three by giving it the lead and putting two bassoons below it. Brahms, on the other hand, wrote what could be seen as a brief chorale for four voices. He scored it for two clarinets and two bassoons, and produced exactly that: An andante chorale for two clarinets and two bassoons.

By the time we moved to the twentieth century works we saw a new method for combining instruments with subtlety that was not a goal for the earlier composers. The chamber work, Introduction and Allegro, showed individual contributions from each voice of a string quartet and two winds. Finally, we revisited Maurice Ravel’s best known work Bolero conceived as an experiment in introducing melody without development, but layering the reintroductions with stunning originality and color variation.

Next time we’ll continue this pursuit and look at some works of other composers including Stravinsky and Holst.


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