17. What would Ravel do? Part 5

Basics, voicing

In this post we’re continuing our exploration of the Ravel orchestration of Mussorgsky’s creative and unique piano work, Pictures at an Exhibition. Last time we listened to the third movement, (the second Promenade) and fourth movement, the Old Castle (Il vecchio castello).

This time we’ll look at the fifth movement, the third Promenade – all eight measures of it! – and the ensuing movement entitled Tuileries.

Third Promenade

We heard the opening Promenade a few weeks ago. It’s a bold statement of someone walking around an exhibition of paintings. The first painting was called Gnomus and was fast, disjointed, raucous and a little scary. The second Promenade returned us to moving between paintings and was much shorter than the first. This third Promenade is just eight bars. It introduces a bit of mystery into the walk to the next painting with its contrapuntal writing and uncertain tonal center.

The 12 measure piano work is in octaves in both hands through the sixth measure. This, along with the marking in several editions of forte, makes it clear that the previous movement, 4. Il vecchio castello, is past. The sweetness and sadness of a troubadour serenading a maiden in an old castle is history. We’re ambling (with our limp) to the next painting. Unlike the previous Promenade, which was replete with the subtleties of woodwind writing and voicing, this one similarly to the initial Promenade: with solo trumpet. Yet, if we were expecting a repeat of the first we’re now in for a surprise: after just a couple of notes the second voice enters with the left hand down in the contra octave of the piano. Mussorgsky surprised us with this new voice. Apparently, Ravel does feels no need at this time to add another surprise. He puts this voice in the lower strings, bass clarinet, bassoons, and contrabassoon.

When the melody is switched to the bass voice in measure three, we hear for the first time since the third movement, the trombone. This is joined with tuba, bassoons, and lower strings. On the third beat of measure three Mussorgsky has four-note chords playing the counter melody in the right hand in a voice seemingly designed for oboes, flutes, clarinets, and upper strings. To anchor these voices Ravel adds a couple of horns (Example 1).

Example 1. Modest Mussorgsky, Orch. Maurice Ravel. Pictures at an Exhibition. 5. Promenade (Measures 1 through 4)
Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic, CBS

This all shifts in both Mussorgsky and Ravel in the second half of the piece. The top octave of the right hand melody, now without fill, is played by practically all the upper woodwinds and the bottom octave is played again by the solo trumpet. Throughout these two measures, the left hand is played in octaves by the lower woodwinds and the lower strings. In fact, if you listen to the piano work with the orchestra in mind, these now-open voicings by Ravel seem to be exactly what Mussorgsky wanted for the work.

In the penultimate measure, both composers seem to want a new sound. Mussorgsky gets it by having both hands play the melody in octaves above and below middle C. For his part, Ravel gets it by – after an entire movement with octaves – putting all of his players on the same notes, in one line C: The bassoons and all the strings except the contrabasses (Example 2).

Example 2. Modest Mussorgsky, Orch. Maurice Ravel. Pictures at an Exhibition. 5. Promenade (Measures 5 through 8)
Antal Dorati, Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, Mercury Living Presence

And finally, in the last measure Mussorgsky again wants a new, smaller sound with the last three notes (and exact repeat of the previous three notes), by having them played alone with no octaves. Ravel, with the full orchestra at his disposal, does introduce a new sound, one that has not been heard yet at all in the work. The three notes are played by two horns exactly where they were written by Mussorgsky. The violas and cellos play them too, pizzicato. He adds the same three notes in the harp. They are written to be played in octaves, but the lower octave notes are played as harmonics so they too will sound as written. The combined staccato sounds of the harp, violas and cellos add just the edge to the sound of the horns to make these last seconds of the work an introduction to the following movement.


It’s my understanding that the painting upon which this movement is based has been lost and contemporary accounts give it a story about children at play in the Tuileries gardens in Paris. Mussorgsky’s piano work clearly lends itself to this interpretation and it appears that Ravel decided to create a light and playful orchestration. Perhaps the opening two notes, the falling minor third, is the sound of one child teasing another.

Both works emphasize the heavy accents on the first and third beats of the measure, sustaining the quarter notes, which are then slurred to the unaccented beats two and four. These notes are brief and written as eighth notes. In Ravel’s score they are marked staccato, just in case the player or the conductor missed this point.

Example 3.Modest Mussorgsky, Orch. Maurice Ravel. Pictures at an Exhibition. 6. Tuileries (Measures 1 through 5)
Neeme Jarvi, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Chandos

Listen to Example 3 and note how Ravel brings in the flute to play the rapid passages, but leaves the accented quarter note-unaccented eighth notes pattern to the oboe, supported by two clarinets and two bassoons. In fact, it’s not until the fifth measure that we hear anything other than woodwinds when the violas help to accent the first and third measures with pizzicato chords. He adds the second violins in the next measure. The climax builds in the next two measures with the addition of two horns supporting the woodwind chords as well as the addition of the harp and the cellos.

Finally, in measure ten the climax is reached – after most of the instruments have marked crescendos – at a fortissimo (Example 4). To enhance the flutes, oboes and very high clarinets on the concert E, Ravel drops all the other instruments out, save for the second violins playing that same E pizzicato. This serves as an additional emphasis on that downbeat.

Example 4. Modest Mussorgsky, Orch. Maurice Ravel. Pictures at an Exhibition. 6. Tuileries (Measures 9 through 13)
Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic, CBS

The two flutes, two oboes, and one clarinet have the sixteenth note downward run for the first two beats of measure ten, but for the second half of the measure only the flutes and one clarinet have the eighth-note melody. The job of playing the sixteenth note upward run is given to the second clarinet. In most of the performances I’ve heard there is generally a diminuendo here. With a similar interpretation on the upward run in measure thirteen.

Just as we assume the children need to take a break from play (and possibly teasing too), Mussorgsky gives us a musical break beginning in measure 14 (Example 5). Ravel stayed true to the piano work here, at least the first time through, introducing bowed strings, playing on the fingerboards (sur la touche) with a portamento from the B-sharp to the F-sharp. This passage stays very light even as Ravel has the downward arpeggio played by the flute, clarinet and harp. I’ll emphasize again the self-restraint used by Ravel: with the tonal range of a full orchestra, he simply scores this for first and divided second violins.

Example 5. Modest Mussorgsky, Orch. Maurice Ravel. Pictures at an Exhibition. 6. Tuileries (Measures 14 through 20)
Eiji Oue, Minnesota Symphony, Reference Recordings

Note how Ravel interprets the accented-unaccented rhythm in measure 17. The second violins and violas play this long-short pattern while the cellos play the bottom of these chords, still pizzicato.

Moving away from the oboe sound when this middle section melody returns in measure 18, note that unlike Mussorgsky, Ravel doubles it at the octave by the flute and then turns over the playful, wandering sixteenth notes to the clarinet while the chords are played (normally, i.e., not sur la touche) by the violins, violas and cellos.

After this B section we return to scoring almost exactly as it was in measure 8, but now the first violins are added to the top voice.

And finally the four beat sixteenth-note run in measure 26 is given to the bassoon and split between the cellos and violas. Other than the melody in the flutes, clarinets and violins in octaves (just as in the Mussorgsky), the sixteenth-note run is the only other voice.

Example 6. Modest Mussorgsky, Orch. Maurice Ravel. Pictures at an Exhibition. 6. Tuileries (Measures 25 through 30)
Antal Dorati, Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, Mercury Living Presence

In the penultimate measure, Ravel returns to the clarinets for the runs on the first and second halves, adding the second violins on the three final eighth notes, pizzicato, in the measure. As the clarinet hits the one note that is not in Mussorgsky’s piano chord, the upper strings and harp have the chord played pianissimo and pizzicato.

Although many of Ravel’s ideas appear simple and perhaps expected, it would be wise to review the way he scores with so few instruments. Remember this entire movement has no trumpets, no trombones, and no contrabasses. Perhaps the most striking is the use of the triangle in measure 27 – on the pianissimo downbeat accompanying the pizzicato cellos. There are so many other instruments that might be included for a setting with children at play in a park, but Ravel opts to keep it simple, relying on the tuneful source material and understatement of his own work.

Final thoughts

Again, Ravel has used the same simplicity to take these two movements for piano and make them as bright, delicate and fresh as possible for strings and woodwinds. In some way, this may be his was of preparing us for the ensuing movement, Bydlo, where we hear the oxen and their cart draw nearer, creating quite a ruckus, and then depart on their journey.

I’m unsure of the topic of next week’s post, however. Maybe we need another detour for a change of pace. Please let me know your thoughts.


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