13. Got Rhythm?


A string player I know, working on an arrangement of a folk-pop song for string quartet, was struggling to get the “right sound.” The biggest problem she faced was a translation of the energetic beat and metallic string sound of a rhythmic guitar into a similarly dynamic sound for two violins, viola and cello. After suggesting a few techniques, I began thinking about this challenge in general: How is rhythm determined? What gets us to tap our feet? What about music with great energy, but not necessarily a rhythmic regularity? Is there a universal approach to creating rhythm?

Provocative questions all, stirring a sudden interest to review some of the masters and how they tackled the establishment of rhythm in the (relatively staid) symphony orchestra. I’ll review some of those techniques here, but keep in mind that these barely touch the surface of this rich topic.

It’s wise to keep in mind the fact that a fundamental facet of the establishment of rhythm is choosing a melody that has an innate sense of energy. Maybe it’s a personal bias, but I immediately think about those irregular eighth note downbows in “The Augurs of Spring” section of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

Coming to mind too are Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm, Fascinating Rhythm, and Liza. If you’re familiar with these songs, you can understand the logic to the rhythmic energy in the first two. You might, however, ask about the last one. Well, it was once pointed out to me that Gershwin starts out the melody with half notes, moves to quarter notes, and then to eighth notes for the final bit of the tune. It not only establishes the rhythm, it also propels it forward.

There are a few composers I consider giants of orchestration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Among those are Debussy, Ravel, Tchaikovsky, and Bartok. Discussing their orchestrations separate from their compositions is difficult. Yet, I think there are benefits to be derived from looking at some of their composition and orchestration techniques in this light.

Melody, Harmony and Rhythm

At some fundamental level, melody, harmony and rhythm are the three elements of music. Almost any composition can be viewed and broken down into these three key parts. Of course, a melody can contain implied harmony and rhythm. Similarly, the words can be rearranged to determine other chunks of a piece. Yet, composers incorporate all three of these pieces when putting a work together. Let’s look at some ways these ideas are highlighted by the greats.

One of the most notable things one sees upon the first view or hearing to the overture to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Ballet is the fact that the cellos and basses are tacit. The first we hear of these lower strings is when they come in on the downbeat of the first measure of Act I, Scene I. This purposeful lack of lower strings tells the astute audience from the first measure that Tchaikovsky limiting his orchestral palette to provide a new sound or color. This may be viewed Tchaikovsky taking a risk, but in such a master’s hand it’s simply Tchaikovsky using the orchestra in a less than traditional manner.

For many today’s contemporary composers, especially of pop, jazz and other variations of popular music, the first few things to do when beginning an arrangement include writing out the chord changes, maybe sketching some of the bass line, the modulations, the melody, and possibly countermelodies. It’s been traditional to look to the bass violins for the foundations of the orchestra, at least for the bass note of the harmony.

Of course this is not a hard and fast rule. Tuba, trombones, horns, bassoon, contrabassoon, bass clarinet, and even harp can be used for the “bottom” of an orchestral chord. In fact, in the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E Minor (Op. 64), the job of supplying “the bass” for the introduction of the second theme in the first movement is given to the soloist (Example 1).

Example 1. Felix Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64 (Measures 129-141)
Cho-Liang Lin, violin, Michael Tilson Thomas, Philharmonia Orchestra, CBS

And to keep the sweet and light sound of the winds undisturbed by heavier sounds for the time being, he hands the sustained G off in measure 139 from the solo violin to the second clarinet. I’ve indicated this by an arrow in Example 1. (Remember, when an A clarinet is playing a B-flat it’s sounding a G.)

A key to producing a rhythmically successful work is to articulate a clear rhythm at the beginning. This can work at almost any tempo. Note how Chopin introduces a bum-bum-ba-bum rhythm at the opening of the B-flat minor funeral march in the third movement of his second piano sonata in Example 2. Just those first few beats are all we need to know where the rhythm is.

Example 2. Frederic Chopin: Piano Sonata No. 2, Op. 35, Movement 3 (Measures 1-4)
Ivo Pogorelich, Deutsche Grammophon

The composer is setting up the rhythm so there is no confusion about when to put one’s foot down, to tap one’s toes.

A straight-forward and even simpler method of setting up a basic rhythm can be heard in the opening of the last movement of Mozart’s 25th piano concerto in C (K. 503). In Example 3 you can hear the even eighth note pattern. I’d like to suggest that you listen only before looking at the score. Seeing the score first may affect your interpretation.

Example 3. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 25 in C, K. 503, Movement 3 (Measures 1-7)
Leon Fleisher, piano, George Szell, Cleveland Orchestra, CBS

Beginning on the second half of the bar, the tune let’s us know exactly where the downbeat is. However, as it progresses it is also confusing to the ear. The downward jump from the tonic to the dominant only enhances the feeling that the piece begins on the downbeat of the measure. In fact, it’s not until the cadence at the end of the tune that we hit a downbeat that tells us with some clarity that “here’s the start of a measure.” If the melody had begun with two eighth note Gs and moved to two eighth note Cs, it would be clear that the piece begins on the second half of the bar. Mozart wants to trick us into thinking it’s the opposite, even with the lower strings adding to the syncopated feel and offbeat rhythm. Yet in reality they are confirming the downbeats – the most stressed notes – of each measure. It’s a cool little trick Mozart pulls on us and so simple in its deviousness. He adds the second violins to the energy in sixteenth notes and with the rest of the strings we just have I, IV, V and I.

Nutcracker Ballet Overture

Let’s return to the Nutcracker Overture. In this movement, Tchaikovsky divides the first violins, second violins, and violas in two and he treats them as though they were six different voices (Example 4). At the opening he has the melody in the top (A) Violin 1 section and harmonizes it in the Violin I B section, the Violin II A section, and the Viola A section. It’s interesting to note that he adds the second Violin II section just to supplement the voicing in part of bar 2. He does the same with the second Viola section immediately following. These notes could have been played by the second Violin II section, but the fullness and roundness of tone offered by the violas would have been lost.

Example 4. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Nutcracker Ballet, Overture, Op. 71 (Measures 1-10)
Semyon Bychkov, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Philips

Another passage that presents an interesting way to cement rhythm begins in measure 40 (Example 5). The oboes enter soli and sustain a G while the strings accent the upbeats with “stress” chords that resolve on the downbeats. The dissonance-resolution and the upbeat-downbeat combine to assist the ear in knowing that, although the upbeats are accented, it’s the downbeats that clarify themselves. A few measures later, beginning in measure 45, the melody is in the Violin I A section soli with the remainder of the strings playing upbeats pizzicato above and below the melody. It’s a perfect formula for rhythmic synchronicity: the sustained notes of the melody on the beat contrasted with the clearly articulated, staccato sound of the pizzicato strings off the beat.

Example 5. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Nutcracker Ballet, Overture, Op. 71 (Measures 40-48)
Semyon Bychkov, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Philips

Using the rest of the string section as a backdrop to the sustained Violin I A melody is an idea that works perfectly in this setting. It enhances the rhythmic pattern set forth with nothing other than the bowed first violins playing their short chromatic pattern. Just to make sure we hear it, Tchaikovsky doubles it in the Violin I B part pizzicato an octave above the bowed strings.

Example 6. Richard Wagner, Das Rheingold Prelude (Measures 129-138)
James Levine, Metropolitan Orchestra

For a final example in this post let’s move from the light and delicate subtleties of the Tchaikovsky to the over-the-top, hall-filling sound of opera by Richard Wagner. Although it’s an extreme case, it’s a great example of the traditional way to show the rhythm of moving water: Give your strings and winds runs and arpeggios to emulate the ebb and flow and the life of a moving and powerful river. At the same time, Wagner is introducing us (and has been for the past three or four minutes) to the E-flat sound of the organic river where the Rheingold is kept, protected by the Rhinemaidens.

After more than a hundred measures of the E-flat chord, Wagner introduces the woodwinds and strings to upward E-flat scales in these ultimate 8 measures of the prelude, before the first Rhinemaiden (Woglinde) sings. Note that each of the 8 horns has a separate part. Wagner scored Das Rheingold for a robust Romantic orchestra: 3 flutes, 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 8 horns, 3 trumpets, bass trumpet, 3 trombones, bass trombone, and tuba. With forces like these it’s no mystery why singing his work requires so much stamina. I can’t imagine trying to sing over an orchestra of this size.

Rhythm Take-away

So much of popular music in contemporary media and even historically (especially for dancing), is to employ the percussion. Given that much of the array of percussion instruments are unpitched, it makes sense to use them for rhythm. And, given that they can’t quite contribute to melody and harmony the way most of the other sections of the orchestra do, that is one of their primary functions.

For the composer, one of the best ways to establish rhythm is to pick the right tune. But another is to focus on where to lay down the accompaniment. Using a combination of rock solid downbeats and an upbeat response is a useful way to start.

In the previous few posts we were examining Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. We took a break this week to think about orchestra music, melody, and rhythm. We’ll return to the Ravel soon. It still holds interesting and educational items. At the same time, I think taking a break from just one pursuit is appropriate for this venue. Please let me know if you agree.


4 thoughts on “13. Got Rhythm?

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