10. What would Ravel do? Part 1


Often a good rule of thumb – especially in an educational situation – is to ask, “What would (fill in the blank) do?” That blank could be a professor, tutor, mentor or another expert in the field. Often though, these experts are not available to ask. Fortunately, musicians have some options, figuratively speaking, when it comes to asking just such a question.

In Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition we are presented with an exciting and colorful suite for piano. It is so rich in texture and style that it’s difficult not to reflect how the movements would sound played by an orchestra.

The original piano work was written in 1874, but was not published until after the composer’s death in 1881. Since its original publication in 1886, many well-known musicians have made arrangements and orchestrations of the suite. The most famous is the one written by Maurice Ravel. Others who have produced works based on Pictures at an Exhibition include Lucien Cailliet, Leopold Stokowski, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Duke Ellington, Andrés Segovia, Ralph Burns, Vladimir Horowitz, and Leonard Slatkin.

Knowing that he’d have the resources of a world-class orchestra for its premiere, Ravel scored the work for large ensemble. His score calls for 3 flutes, 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons, alto saxophone, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, a variety of percussion including celeste and xylophone, 2 harps, and strings. Examining the original piano work and seeing the choices Ravel made provide insight into his creative process.

Promenade 1

I’ve read various accounts of Mussorgsky possibly being overweight and/or possessing a limp. This is supposedly the rationale behind the promenades written in irregular measures, vacillating between 5/4 and 6/4. One can imagine the composer shuffling through the exhibit of hundreds of Viktor Hartmann works at the Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg in 1874.

The first orchestration of the piano suite, which had its premiere in 1891, was by composer and conductor Mikhail Tushmalov, a student of Rimsky-Korsakov. The Ravel orchestration, on a commission by Serge Koussevitzky, was completed in 1922. Tushmalov’s orchestration omitted movements 1 (Gnomus), 3 (Tuileries), and 4 (Bydlo) as well as all but the first promenade. The Ravel stays much truer to the original, although it does omit the promenade between movement 6 (Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle) and movement 7 (Limoges) as well as a few very minor details.

Example 1. Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures an at Exhibition, Promenade 1
Byron Janis, Mercury Living Presence

Examining the process of orchestration will shed some light on the creative requirements. Imagine being handed the piano piece in Example 1. These are the first few bars of the first Promenade movement in Pictures at an Exhibition. The first two measures contain a single melody constrained within the treble staff. The next two measures repeat the same melody with added harmony.

Here, the orchestrator might ask: What would the composer do? Is there one thing or are there multiple things that the composer would have done if he were not limited to two hands on the piano?

Asking these questions, borders on the art of arranging. It may even border on sacrilege depending on your view of a composition. Is it set in stone? Or, can the orchestrator take liberties with the original work? Conductors surely have their say in how a piece is performed. And, in addition to all the real-time modifications a conductor makes during a performance, he or she has been known to change proactively phrasing, bowing, and even instrumentation itself.

Given the familiarity that many listeners have with the Ravel version, it might be difficult to hear any other orchestration. Before reviewing Ravel’s version from the early 1920s, take a look at the Tushmalov orchestration. It opens with the clarinets and violins along with the bassoons and violas and cellos in octaves. This is a consistent and traditional approach. It was orchestrated a half-century before the Ravel, at a time when brass world was still shifting to valves. And if the instruments had mostly completed the transition, the instrumentalists had not. The composer/orchestrator could rarely be sure that the performance of a difficult, chromatic trumpet or horn part would sound as effortless as he or she might have wished.

When writing for the piano there is no way to double a melody at the unison. This can, of course, be done on the harp, most organs, and some other keyboard instruments. What this means for the composer is that, other than writing forte, there are few other options available when a melody like the one in the first two measures arises. Therefore, the natural tendency when writing for piano is to write a melody in one or more octaves. It makes for a louder sound with richer overtones.

In orchestral writing, this is not the case. In fact, the majority of the orchestra can play the melody almost as written by Mussorgsky. It would be playable on nearly every instrument save the bassoon, horn, trombone, and double bass. Yet, rarely in orchestra writing does a composer put all the instruments in unison. It’s much more common to double, triple, or quadruple octaves in melodies.

Example 2. Modest Mussorgsky, Orch. Mikhail Tushmalov: Pictures an at Exhibition, Promenade 1
Marc Andrae, Munich Philharmonic, BASF

The Tushmalov orchestration (Example 2) has the clarinets and violins playing in unison as written with the bassoons and violas and cellos at the octave below. This is a more traditional approach. In the ensuing two measures when the tune is harmonized, Tushmalov adds one oboe, playing the melody along with one clarinet and the first violins. The harmonies are played by the second oboe, second clarinet, bassoons, the entire horn section and the remainder of the strings. This produces a thick and pedestrian sound and is in keeping with a number of other orchestra works written the latter half of the nineteenth century. (One composer who comes to mind easily is Dvorak. His orchestral writing generally looks block-like, similar to the Tushmalov.) This style of writing produces a rich string sound as one would expect from the strings playing throughout much of the piece. In a large professional orchestra there might be forty or fifty musicians playing the opening two bars and 90% of those are strings. It’s a functional approach, but nothing unexpected.

Ravel’s Promenade 1

For the opening two measures in Ravel’s interpretation we have a solo trumpet. Mussorgsky provides the oddly appealing melody, but it was Ravel’s creativity that chose the solo trumpet to introduce it. Given the other events of the time, it’s not as surprising as it may at first seem to contemporary ears. This is ten years after Stravinsky pushed the envelop for many performers with The Rite of Spring. Bassoon and horn come immediately to mind, but I’m sure I’m forgetting many of the other performing challenges. At this time, too, many portions of the orchestra were being challenged in their previously staid and static comfort. Jazz was also spreading rapidly around the world. It is also a couple of years before Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue made its premiere. And its premiere was given by a jazz band enhanced with strings, not by a traditional concert orchestra.

Example 3. Modest Mussorgsky, Orch. Maurice Ravel: Pictures an at Exhibition, Promenade 1
Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic, CBS

After the opening eleven-beat melody is played, the solo trumpet is duly joined by most of the remainder of the brass. Ravel chooses not to bring in any other sections of the orchestra. To remain true to the Mussorgsky, he keeps the melody in place, simply adding one horn to join the trumpet and support the theme. It’s a high part for the horn, even without asking the player to hit the horn’s highest note on the second half of the eighth-note phrases. This would throw the ensemble into an imbalance due to the difficulty of producing the high concert F on the horn. Note that the fourth part plays (mostly) the melody at the lower octave. Notice too that the third trombone and tuba are duplicating the left hand of the original piano part. This produces Mussorgsky’s piano version almost verbatim: The melody in the first trumpet and first horn, the harmony in the second and third horns and trumpets, with the fourth horn duplicating the melody an octave under the first.

While this should startle no one, seeing it in print is a reminder of the simplicity of Ravel’s straightforward approach, at least, once he decided to employ the trumpets and horns. It’s a testament to the adage “less is more.” Reviewing the Tushmalov it is easy to see how a traditional orchestrator might take a similarly traditional approach and double all these voices in the strings. Instead, Ravel opens the work with a solo trumpet followed by a brass choir, nothing more.

What would you do?

Returning to the question I asked above: What would you do if someone handed you this piano part and said “Score this for orchestra”? Would you take a traditional approach a la Tushmalov? Would you use a fuller brass section? How about having all the horns and trombones on the melody?

Although it’s only four bars, it provides an intellectual challenge: How do you retain the majesty of Mussorgsky’s piano work, while enhancing it with sound of an orchestra?

This well-known orchestration by one of the masters of the genre will serve as a useful tool to examine what to listen for in this work as well as how to achieve that sound. We will return to this work in the next few posts.


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