18. Triple time 1

Basics, voicing


Triple time? Waltz time? Oom-pah-pah.

I found myself listening to and enjoying a song in triple meter the other day and wondered about the how and why of the rhythm.

What is it about something in three? Clearly, there’s generally a downbeat on one (the Oom) and some variation of offbeats on two or three or both (the pah-pah). Sometimes there’s a little syncopation. Sometimes there’s just the accented beat on three, the pickup to the next downbeat (the next one). Think of a shuffle beat.

Inevitably, I started pondering about and listening to waltzes and waltz-like pieces. I’m going to share some of my thoughts in this post.

One, two, three

I’ll state the obvious: There’s a unique quality about triple time that makes it so different from any sort of rhythm with two or four beats in a grouping. As humans with two arms and especially two legs we move in two: Left, Right, Left, Right. In the dance, these two muscular parts of our anatomy cause swing, merengue, lindy hop, reggae, west coast swing, salsa, disco, and boogie-woogie to incorporate duple time, quadruple time, or some combination.

But it’s difficult to march to triple time. On the other hand, we’ve created dances to make moving to this rhythm sensible. These range from formal historical dances to formal and less formal more modern ones. What they all have in common is that triple rhythm, that is: Oom-pah-pah (the one-two-three and not one-two, one-two).

(Before I begin, a preemptive apology to all those horn and viola players for whom these pieces will bring up hours of boring rehearsals and performances playing pah-pah.)

Nutcracker, Waltz of the Flowers

Let’s first examine the Waltz of the Flowers from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Ballet (Example 1). The first four measures are played by the lower strings. The double basses are playing the tonic pizzicato on the downbeats. This is doubled up an octave arco by the cellos. On beats two and three the cellos play the tonic and fifth with the violas playing the third. Putting the two sections in close harmony in this manner provides a homogeneous sound. It’s a simple, but effective way to orchestrate the waltz-like rhythm.

At the fifth measure the horns enter with the melody (reminiscent of a third movement horn trio from late eighteenth and early nineteenth century symphonies). After the horns have their soli, Tchaikovsky moves from quarter notes for his thematic ideas to eighth notes as the clarinet enters on the second beat of measure 44.

Example 1. Pyotr Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker Ballet, Op. 71. Waltz of the Flowers (Measures 33 through 56)
Ernest Ansermet, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, London

There’s an important point to listen to here. Like any of the greats, Tchaikovsky was always looking for ways to change the sound, to mix things up, for the audience. With the relatively rapid movements of the clarinet and the continuing dry oom-pah-pah, Tchaikovsky feels there’s a need to find a way to cement the rhythm and melody together. He brings in the second violins to play the second and third beats and has the cellos sustain the bottom of the chord (the same pitch as the pizzicato basses). It may seem minor but those sustained cello notes hold interest, add to the tonal center, and add contrast to the flowing clarinet line.

Finally, on the last two measures before returning to the horn melody, Tchaikovsky adds the first violins with the seconds and violas in octaves. Note that this is an augmented sixth chord (the B-flat in the low strings resolving down to A and the viola and second violin G-sharp resolving up to A). The composer decided that the third of the chord needs the support of the first violins so he brings them in just for the two measures to resolve to the third (C-sharp) of the dominant chord in measure 52. This was a wise decision for at least two reasons. First, the voice leading in the second violins from G to G-sharp to A is needed because the violas are moving from G to G-sharp to G-natural (the seven of the V7). And second, the third of the chord in the first violins gives the augmented sixth chord more substance, providing a perfect little climax to the section with the solo clarinet run down to the concert A as the horns enter in bar 53. Note the hand-off there: The clarinet ends its run on the same pitch upon which the first horn enters. These may seem like small details, but every note you write should be a note that you write for a reason. This seems to have been true for the masters.

Symphonie Fantastique, A Ball

I chose the previous selection from the Waltz of the Flowers because of its simplicity. In this selection from Berlioz we have another iconoclastic composer and orchestrator providing the same initial rhythmic material, but Berlioz starts throwing curves quickly and shaking things up a bit in terms of both the kinds of melodies, the orchestration, and rhythmic variations.

One other note about scoring before we dig into the details: Many waltz-like pieces have the harp associated with them. As a percussive string instrument it can serve as a supplier of harmony, melody and rhythm – and these come in one not-so-little piece of machinery. Plus, it adds a certain je ne sais quoi to almost anything!

Berlioz, coming from an earlier tradition, still often dedicates the cellos to doubling the basses at the octave. This is evident in this example. After deciding that the violins are the perfect choice to play the fluid, graceful tune, it was a reasonable choice to have the violas on the root and the second violins on the third and fifth of the chord for starters. It’s of interest to see how he soon gives the pah-pah strings more notes with double stops once the melody begins to move up and get more excited. To add to the complexity, when he repeats the melody in measure 47, it’s now harmonized with the relative minor of F-sharp. It’s the beginning of the descending bass line to bring the tune to the large rallentando at measure 50. The portamento in the violins adds some texture (and possibly a little sadness) to the line.

Example 2. Hector Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14, 2. A Ball (Measures 36 through 67)
Charles Munch, Boston Symphony Orchestra, RCA

Once the main theme has finished, Berlioz introduces new material, new texture, and a new instrument. For starters, he’s given a repeated sixteenth note pattern to second violins and the violas. The cellos and basses, now pizzicato, begin to play the A major arpeggio up a couple of octaves, as the first harp enters, doubling the lower string notes in its sixteenths. Once this pattern is established, Berlioz introduces the middle melody (the B section) in the first violins. The tune is more open in contrast to the A section, with generally longer tones.

When the melody is repeated Berlioz adds the second harp so that the sixteenth notes played by the first are harmonized. In addition the second harp part adds weight to the downbeats of these measures while the first harp emphasizes the upbeats.

It’s valuable to put yourself in the place of a harpist when writing for one. Let’s look at the measures when the harps play (55 through 65). In case you’ve forgotten, the concert harp is pitched in C-flat. In other words, when all the pedals are up and you run your finger over the strings you’ll hear a C-flat scale. Move the seven pedals to the middle position and it becomes a C scale. Move them to the bottom position and you have a C-sharp scale.

So, in this passage both harps have some pedaling to do. Going into the first measure the harp would be tuned to A major. The E pedal might be moved to E-sharp at the end of measure 56 and then moved back to E-natural after the E-sharp in 58. A similar movement would be required from B-natural to B-sharp and back to B-natural in measures 58 and 59. Both harps would also have to deal with the D-sharp to D-natural in measures 64 and 65.

Writing for harp is not rocket science, but it is important to think about the limitations of the instrument. Providing the harpist(s) with the music ahead of time is always a smart idea. A harpist knows all the tricks and will figure out the best way to pedal a piece. You can count on them to make it work, but be understanding.

Example 3. Hector Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14, 2. A Ball (Measures 67 through 78)
Charles Munch, Boston Symphony Orchestra, RCA

Note the staccato scales in the flutes and clarinets in measure 67 and 68 (Example 3). This little break from all that string playing is a brief, yet refreshing change to the listener. Just to emphasize the key, Berlioz brings in the staccato horn on the V before adding the second horn for the upper third of the tonic on measure 69.

Then we have a new beat that’s not at all like the previous waltz beat. Of course, the rhythmic beat stays the same, but all we have here are the emphasized downbeats, appoggiaturas that immediately resolve to the chord of the rest of the measure. It’s a brilliant way to start the transition back to the main theme, but with a more drawn-out passage that builds the excitement until we get to the main theme itself.

Example 4. Hector Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14, 2. A Ball (Measures 93 through 106)
Charles Munch, Boston Symphony Orchestra, RCA

Before we leave the Berlioz, I want to play one additional example related to the harp. A little later in the same movement, the melody returns in the first violins and the other parts of the orchestra work simply: Winds play the chord on the third beat of the measure and strings play the chord on the downbeat of the measure (Example 4). The only part of the orchestra playing on the second beat is the “harp section.” Consider these two plucked instruments holding their own against the forces of fifty or more musicians.

The harp has several unusual qualities. It can add depth and force as well as sweetness to the overall emotion of a piece. Its peculiar sound can be quite evocative as well. With intelligence and forethought, the harp can be a welcome additional tool for the composer.

The Banks of Green Willow

While staying focused on the harp, you may remember a wonderfully simple and beautiful passage from The Banks of Green Willow by that early twentieth century British composer George Butterworth. After the complexity of the orchestrations of the waltz-like rhythms of the earlier examples, it’s a refreshing change to hear how simple this triple rhythm can be orchestrated (Example 5).

Example 5. George Butterworth: The Banks of Green Willow (Measures 116 through 132)
Neville Dilkes, English Sinfonia, London

About two-thirds of the way through this Idyll – as Butterworth called it – for small orchestra, Butterworth removes everything except a solo flute and the harp. The piece is in 3/4 and harpist plays eighth note arpeggios, upward, to accompany the modal/natural minor folk melody. After the oboe has the line with some very light accompaniment by the strings, they die away, leaving only the flute and the harp. The two soloists continue for about 8 measures at which time the strings enter, just first violins and violas, both divisi and muted. The passage is quite simple, but when you have a familiar sounding melody with this oboe prologue, the triple meter is evident without any oom-pah-pah at all.

A feature of this short passage is the way Butterworth removes the other parts at the end of the oboe solo. The second violins are playing divisi, as are the cellos, so by the time the flute enters, even in a traditional, large orchestra, each line might have an average of a half-dozen players on it. In a small orchestra, there may be only two or three players on each line. This creates an extremely light and almost transparent sound.

Similarly, when the strings reenter in measure 128, their parts are the divided first violins and the divided violas. They literally sneak into our awareness late in the measure. One reason is the top violin line is the same note articulated by both the flute and the harp and the bottom voice in the violas is articulated by the harp too. In many film and television scores, strings will sneak in when the composer wants to change the mood in a subtle fashion. This is a valuable technique to keep in mind when a dramatic shift from “all’s well” to “begin to fear” is about to happen in a scene.

Triple Meter

We’ve only scratched the surface on this triple meter thing. I’d like to continue with more examples of it next time.

Oom-Pah-Pah! Footnote

The idea of the film industry patting itself on the back for work well done, in concept, is commendable. The reality becomes mired when working out how to do it: The devil is in the details. How to nominate films? How many films to nominate? Who gets to nominate? Does commercial success have anything to do with getting nominated? Should it?

Five or six years ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences expanded the number of film nominations for best picture from five to up to ten. The limit of five caused some films deemed classics to be overlooked and others to be awarded Oscars – causing many to scratch their heads. For example, Singin’ in the Rain, Rebel Without a Cause, Some Like It Hot, Psycho, Easy Rider, Full Metal Jacket, Do the Right Thing, The Player, The Usual Suspects, Glory, Touch of Evil, Sophie’s Choice and Blade Runner were not nominated for best picture of the year.

Almost done. More specifically, though, the nominations for best picture of 1968 included Funny Girl, Rachel, Rachel, Romeo and Juliet, and The Lion in Winter. Other notable films released but not nominated that year included 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rosemary’s Baby, Planet of the Apes, Bullitt, and The Thomas Crown Affair. The Academy Award for the best film, best director, best art direction, best sound, and best musical adaptation score for films released in 1968 was Oliver!

Oliver! Really?

I was listening to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade the other day and thinking about the opening section with those viola and cello arpeggios in 6/4. The music had me slowly tapping my toes and I began to notice how this was so unlike a waltz. The waltz idea caused me to remember a song from Oliver! entitled “Oom-Pah-Pah!”

I was not amused.


2 thoughts on “18. Triple time 1

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