11. What would Ravel do? Part 2


In the last post we looked at the opening of the first Promenade in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. We heard examples of the movement as orchestrated by Mikhail Tushmalov, the first orchestration of the work, and by Maurice Ravel, probably the best-known orchestration. We only examined the first few measures, reviewing several of the infinite variety of options available to an orchestrator. In this post we’ll continue with the Promenade and begin the second piece in the suite, Gnomus.

Before digging into the innovative and interesting color Ravel adds to the piece, a review of the parts that are not completely unexpected will prove useful. Let’s start with measure nine and the introduction of the strings. Ravel takes the original piano work and assigns the melody to the first violins, doubled an octave lower by the seconds. In between the two violin sections, the sustained E-flat is given to the violas and, finally, the low strings have the bass line. The only thing surprising about this measure is that it’s the first time the strings have played. But there’s a rational balance to having the strings enter as an ensemble after the opening brass soli.

In addition, the woodwinds – also as yet unheard – are introduced surreptitiously beginning in measure 10. Without paying attention, a listener may not even be aware of their presence because they are primarily playing a support role. Ravel only gives us pairs of oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, all doubling the reasonably similar ranges of string voices. Both Mussorgsky and Ravel are building to measure thirteen, at which point we have most of the musicians joining together.

Example 1. Modest Mussorgsky, Orch. Maurice Ravel: Pictures an at Exhibition, Promenade 1 (Measures 9-13)
Antal Dorati, Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, Mercury Living Presence

To get there, Ravel returns to the string-only ensemble in measure 11, but when the large crescendo occurs in measure 12, he adds the contrabassoon to one bassoon, and one horn doubles the violas sustaining the G4. Obviously, there’s no way to crescendo a sustained note on the piano, so adding the horn to the violas, provides a perfect way to add to the intensity of the crescendo and to the overall volume.

When we arrive at measure 13, Ravel introduces most of the orchestra to us. (Not all, however. There’s still been no percussion nor harp.) Unlike the woodwind introduction in measure 10, here we have the woodwind entry and brass re-entry singing full voice. The melody in measure 13 is sung in three octaves by the upper winds (piccolo, oboe, clarinet, and trumpet), first violins, and viola. From this measure forward Ravel takes the Mussorgsky piano work and highlights the duplicated, almost antiphonal, measures and parts of measures. These parts can be two beats, three beats or some combination of them.

Although these effects are interesting, given the irregular combination of motifs and subgroups of motifs it’s not too much of a surprise that a twentieth century composer during the time of Stravinsky and Schoenberg would choose to deconstruct portions of this odd melody. For students of orchestration, these unusual combinations of instruments from the woodwinds, brass, and strings are always useful resources when an interesting pairing is indicated.

Many orchestrators know that a sustained tone with a neutral sound can assist a busy orchestration to coalesce, to sound more homogeneous. It acts as a kind of glue to bring together the activity of diverse sections. Therefore, note that in the piano work Mussorgsky has a sustained tone in measures 9, 11, and 12. Ravel infers that Mussorgsky would make sure the note is sustained for the duration of the bar if the piano had a way of adding that voice.

Example 2. Modest Mussorgsky, Orch. Maurice Ravel: Pictures an at Exhibition, Promenade 1 (15-19)
Eiji Oue, Minnesota Orchestra, Reference Recordings

Ravel takes another, even larger, liberty in measures 17 and 19. To the two horns playing in measure 17 and to the four horns playing in measure 19 on the last eight-note of the descending violin melody runs he adds a small fanfare. If you’ve never noted it, once you hear it you’ll never miss it again. It’s simply two sixteenth notes of the sustained tone, but it emphasizes the F sustained through the passage, juxtaposes smartly with the chromatic bits in measure 16, and stresses the end of the descending three-beat run.

If there’s a secondary climax in this movement (i.e., before the final bar-and-a-half) it is probably in measures 20 and 21, immediately following the second of the horn fanfares. It is the place where the highest tones are in the movement. Ravel has all three flutes, on G7 (four line G), opting not to have them play the high B-flat. (Then again, three flutes in that register can probably be heard through a concrete wall!) What is also noteworthy is that the rest of the orchestra, playing the melody, are doing so in and near the treble staff. It’s just the flutes on those high tones by themselves.

Example 3. Modest Mussorgsky, Orch. Maurice Ravel: Pictures an at Exhibition, Promenade 1 (19-21)
Antal Dorati, Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, Mercury Living Presence

Lastly in this same passage, Ravel finally introduces most of the lower brass. Remember, we only heard from the 3rd trombone and tuba in the opening brass sections. Here at the end, the first trombone is introduced in measure 20 where it joins the first trumpet for those “responding” beats five and six of measure 20. And on the same two beats of the next measure the brass section (with all three trumpets) enter from measure 21 through the beginning of measure 23 in a passage that is for the brass (and all the bassoons thrown in to support the bottom).

Ultimately for the final one-and-a-half measures, the remainder of the orchestra joins and the piece comes to an end. The remainder of the orchestra here is defined as all three flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, two trombones and tuba. With all of those resources in the winds, Ravel doesn’t feel the need to have the strings duplicating all of those voices. Note that he has the first and second violins divided into six groups doubled in two octaves. Dividing a string section into three parts diminishes their sound and making it rather transparent. This has the effect of supporting the winds without overpowering them. The sound is most notably one of a brass band with support from the woodwinds and strings.

I would recommend that you listen to the entire movement with and without the score to discern the nuances in these different combinations of instruments. And remember, once those horn sixteenth notes are in your listening repertoire you’ll probably never miss it again.


The first actual movement (excluding the Promenades) in Pictures at an Exhibition is entitled Gnomus. It’s easy to look at the piano version and think that the orchestration will just fall into place based on the ranges of the phrases on the piano. To some degree that is correct, but as we have seen before, orchestration is about subtlety. In fact, because Ravel has an entire orchestra at his disposal he repeats phrases that are not indicated in the every edition of the piano work.

Example 4. Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures an at Exhibition, Gnomus (Measures 1-6)
Sviatoslav Richter, Philips

Look at the opening few measures in Example 4. Mussorgsky has a rapid eighth-note pattern that requires downward leaps of sixths and second, a jump up a seventh, and then more downward seconds and sixths. This pattern is followed by a sustained bass note. It’s important to note here that, whereas downward leaps are about the same as upward leaps for a pianist, this is not the case with wind instruments. To create a sound the wind player (reed and brass) maintain a certain measure of tautness on one or two reeds or with the lips. In general it’s easier to control going from a looseness to a more taut environment than it is to do the reverse. This is not to say that it can’t be done, just that it’s more challenging for the performer.

Keeping this in mind, as you look through the Ravel score of Gnomus you’ll note that this irregular, rapid, and disjointed passage of six eight-notes is only given to the brass in one place in the movement.

So, let’s return to the first few measures and see what Ravel did. He has the two clarinets, one bassoon, violas, and half of the cellos playing the right-hand passage. The left hand passage is played by the bass clarinet, second bassoon, contrabassoon, the other half of the cellos and the contrabasses. When examining the score may appear logical to orchestrate this opening passage in the same way as Ravel, but if you hadn’t yet heard the orchestra part or seen the score, you might consider putting it just in the lower strings. This would work, but it would produce a “muddier” sound. On the other hand, the clarinets (and bass clarinet) are able to be quite agile in this register as are the bassoons. Sometimes, a composer with split the strings with half arco and half playing pizzicato. This would clarify the attack of each note, but the passage is so rapid that it might be impossible to get a few dozen string players to pluck their strings as cleanly as would be needed.

Example 5. Modest Mussorgsky, Orch. Maurice Ravel: Pictures an at Exhibition, Gnomus (Measures 1-6)
Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic, CBS

Later in the movement, Ravel utilizes the xylophone to highlight some points, but he does not use it for this passage. Probably a good call because the xylophone can sound a little comedic when the part moves around rapidly. What Ravel decides to do is to modify the extended tone when the lower winds and strings get to the second measure. The string part is written as an eighth-note on the downbeat and the woodwinds are written as a quartet-note, but marked staccato. The sustained tone is handed off to two horns, playing in their low register. In the next passage, a measure later, two more horns play the same note, but the color is changed because Ravel has these horns muted. It is a dramatically different tone, especially coming from the same instruments in the same register.

What would you do?

I’d recommend that you listen to the movement in preparation for the next post when we’ll review the rest of the piece. Please feel free to leave a comment or to suggest other items of note in this work.


2 thoughts on “11. What would Ravel do? Part 2

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