12. What would Ravel do? Part 3


All instruments have a specific “character” thanks to their technology: construction, materials, mode of articulation, and other features. These technologies guide the performer in how to achieve a kind of sound, but they also logically follow from the construction itself. A subtle example might be a violist playing sul ponticello (near the bridge), producing a more metallic sound. A gross example, might be a harp glissando marked lasciare suonare (let sound), sustaining all the notes of the current scale.

In the last post we listened to and examined the beginning of the Gnomus movement in Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (Example 1). As discussed, the rapid disjointed passage in measures 1 and 4 that returns throughout the piece is not atypical for the piano, but can be a challenge for woodwinds and brass. These instruments, especially when played by less than world-class musicians, can be difficult to control when attempting to rapidly descend large leaps.

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

As expected, then, Ravel puts the passage in the clarinets and bassoons, joined by the lower strings. It’s easy to see that, beginning in measure 7, there is an issue with the range of the clarinets. The lowest note playable on the B-flat clarinet is the low D (small D), a seventh below middle C. Hence, the mixture of parts playing the awkward melody.

One could easily see how many orchestrators might overdo the use of percussion in this movement. Yet at the end of this short phrase, Ravel wisely holds back all of the resources he has available in the percussion section and only accents the two B-flat quarter notes in measure 10 with the bass drum and cymbal.

Of note in this passage is the indication from one of the early editions of the piano score that the first three measures are marked fortissimo and sempre vivo, whereas the second three measures are marked piano and meno vivo. Mussorgsky returns the fortissimo markings in the next phrase, the one that ends with the fermata on the rest at the end of measure 10. In truth it’s only to be expected. Most musicians know that, when a passage is repeated, something about the performance should be modified for a number of reasons. It adds interest, shows attention to detail, contributes to the passage’s balance, and keeps the listener’s ear perked up for what other changes might be coming next.

So it should not be a surprise that the sustained tone in measures two and three are played by two horns in octaves, similar to the piano work. But in the next phrase, in measures five and six, the same passages is played by muted horns. The tone is considerably different.

When the passage returns after the fermata, it is only played once (with the horns open) and an additional staccato B-flat is added up another octave on the third beat of measure 17. In the next passage (Example 2, the one with the hint of a waltz, i.e. staccato on the first beat and a sustained tone on the second), beginning on measure 19, Ravel chooses to have a muted tuba supply the bass line. It’s supported with a pizzicato downbeat in the contrabasses and a staccato note by the contrabassoon.

Example 2. Modest Mussorgsky, Orch. Maurice Ravel: Pictures an at Exhibition, Gnomus (Measures 19-26)
Antal Dorati, Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, Mercury Living Presence

For the first four measures (19-22) of this section, the trios of flutes and oboes play the chords. They are supported by pizzicato violins on the downbeat notes. In the second playing (measures 23-26), the oboes are replaced by the clarinets and bassoons. Of color interest, the xylophone is added just on those downbeats to help suggest the ominous gnome, perhaps a reference to bones a la Saint-Saens’s Fossiles from his Carnival of the Animals. Ravel also puts the first trumpet, muted, on the G-flat below middle C to provide the sustained G-flat from the tuba voice in measures 22 and 26. At this bottom end of its normal range the trumpet barely has the sound of a bright brass instrument. Instead, it hints at the muted lower horns in measure five. In a similar way the tuba “hands-off” the note to the trumpet, just as the lower woodwinds and lower strings did earlier.

It’s in the repeat of this passage when Ravel begins to make the music much more frightening (Example 3). Beginning in measure 29, he adds string portamentos, distributed by section, in two measure phrases: an octave up and then an octave back down. The instruction is to play sur la touche, that is, with the bow over the fingerboard, making the sound less bright. In addition, he now has the clarinet play the bass line, supported by the bass violins. The melody such as it is now is performed solo by the celeste. Note that the entire passage is marked piano or pianissimo.

Example 3. Modest Mussorgsky, Orch. Maurice Ravel: Pictures an at Exhibition, Gnomus (Measures 29-36)
Eiji Oue, Minnesota Orchestra, Reference Recordings

In the next phrase the work becomes more involved when many of the woodwinds join in the leaps up followed by some seconds and then more leaps in a melody reminiscent of the Promenade transmogrified almost beyond recognition. The harmonies of thirds beginning in measure 50. It begins with the lower woodwinds on the low E-flat. This note is supplemented by the timpani and doubled in the harp. Note how the harpist will play two notes (a string tuned to D-sharp and a string tuned to E-flat) so that initial low pitch gets the accentuation Ravel thinks it needs. In measure 64, note that now the entire horn section plays the rapid, disjointed eight-note pattern. This is difficult to play cleanly at the rapid tempo (vivo) indicated. On the repeat in measure 68, the trumpet is added. (I’ve never found a recording of this to be 100% clean. That was possibly Ravel’s intent, making the music sound “grittier.”)

Returning to the strings beginning in measure 70 (Example 4), the descending chromatic half-notes, indicated for the left hand for the piano, are played by the bass clarinet, bassoons, and contrabassoon. Added to this mix are the lower strings, duplicating those pitches, but moving downward by portamentos. Again, this adds that slightly blurred sound to the articulation of this descending chromatic scale.

Example 4. Modest Mussorgsky, Orch. Maurice Ravel: Pictures an at Exhibition, Gnomus (Measures 70-75)
Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic, CBS

To provide an even more stark change of color, when the phrase is repeated (beginning with measure 76), the upper woodwinds and strings have the descending scalar passage (now with the upper string portamento). This time, however, the disjointed melody is played fortissimo in octaves only by the third trombone and tuba. (These two performers normally would sit adjacent to one another in an orchestra concert.)

The final portion is particularly interesting because of the dark colors Ravel assigns to the parts. He has the first trill in measure 82, played by the bass clarinet and the string basses. The upward run ensues in the bass clarinet and now in the cellos, but marked glissando. In the following measure (84), the contrabasses are now joined on the trill with the bassoon. And, now the descending run on the third beat of measure 85, the cellos play the passage glissando. When they finish their run, the flutes have the melody, their articulation reinforced by the harp, xylophone, horn and pizzicato upper strings.

As the passage is repeated, the melody is tossed from the flutes to the clarinets, to the flutes, and again to the clarinets. Finally, in measure 98 (Example 5) at the end of the final third-beat runs, the horns and basses trill on the tritone, A-natural, rather high for the basses, joined in the next measure by the cellos.

Example 5. Modest Mussorgsky, Orch. Maurice Ravel: Pictures an at Exhibition, Gnomus (Measures 98-103)
Eiji Oue, Minnesota Orchestra, Reference Recordings

In the original piano score, the A-natural trill lasts for two measures. Following the trills the piano plays an A-flat minor chord on the downbeat of the bar and then a slightly longer­ A-flat minor chord with an F-flat added. The voicings are exactly the same. Also, it’s important to remember that because of their overtones, dissonance is generally greatest with two of the same instruments. In other words, a clarinet and a violin playing a minor second will be less dissonant than two clarinets playing the same notes. The orchestrator in Ravel knew this and scores all of the dissonances to be shared in each section.

Ravel uses these two short passages to change timbre and intensity. The first set is played by all the woodwinds, emphasized with triple- and quadruple-stopped upper strings. All of this is articulated with the addition of the xylophone on the top of the melodic line (as brief as it is) with the harp on the downbeat only and the pizzicato cellos on the second beat.

For the repeat of this duplicate passage, Ravel changes the sound by bringing in all the brass, muted. (To be accurate the horns have stopped bells.) The only addition to the brass choir is the ratchet played for the duration of the two measures.

One of the key results of this is the sonic alteration that the orchestra makes between the two chords played mostly with a woodwind sound, supported by strings and percussion, and the muted, yet quite loud, brass sound. It’s academically interesting to note that Ravel’s scoring for the brass is quite traditional. He omits the doubling of the A-flat in the lower brass on the first chord, adding the third trombone only on the second chord when it enters with the C-flat and the first and second trombones play the E-flat and F-flat. This is duplicated an octave higher by the three trumpets. For the bottom of the trumpet chord we simply have to look to the first horn part, playing the A-flat with the chord duplicated below it.

For the final chaotic runs the upper woodwinds and upper strings play the upward run. The descending run is played by the lower woodwinds and lower strings. These two parts are joined by the snare drum, mainly to articulate the rapid passage. Ravel brings in most of the remainder of the orchestra for the final staccato chord, the brass now open.

What would you do?

One of the infinite questions that could be asked is “What would Mussorgsky have done?” if he had a way of sustaining a chord behind the final bidirectional runs. One could speculate that he might have had some syncopated chords or maybe a sustained pedal tone. And while we are speculating, we might wonder what or even why Ravel chose not to add any brass to these final few measures. Of course, this is simply that, speculation, and all we – that is, those of us learning the craft of orchestration – can do is to analyze what was done, not what might have been.

For composers who want to learn more about orchestration, I’d recommend listening as much as possible. Somewhere in almost any work of orchestral music there may be an orchestrational technique that is a sound you want to capture. The more resources you learn, remember, and have access to, the larger will be your available set of tools for your work.

As I discussed at the opening, it would not be unusual to select many of the same orchestral colors as Ravel selected for this arrangement. What points to the interest in Ravel’s orchestration are the subtleties in his selection and arrangement of the parts.


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