19. Triple time 2

Basics, voicing

In the previous post we listened to and examined music in triple meter. We began with the Tchaikovsky “Waltz of the Flowers” from the Nutcracker Ballet. Remember that its rhythm starts in the low strings. The basses have a pizzicato on the first beat of the measure, the “one,” and the cellos double that note, bowed, an octave higher. And then the cellos and violas have the chord on the second and third beats, “two” and “three.” It’s simple and economical in its use of orchestral resources, effective, but offers nothing of exceptional interest.

In this post we’ll listen to some examples that are a little less basic and some that provide other variations on triple time. For starters, consider that each measure’s downbeat is its most important, but in triple meter either two or three provide a rhythmic guidepost to solidify the beat. The first and emphasized-second beats give a slight syncopated feel to the triple rhythm, whereas the first and emphasized-third beat offer a “shuffle” style rhythm. A good example is The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas with its only rhythm sounding on beats one and three (Example 1).

Example 1. Paul Dukas: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Measures 66-92)
Neville Marriner, Philips

Beginning with its downbeats with bass clarinet, contrabassoon, and low horn chords, all accented with the large timpani for the first half-dozen measures. During this passage the other two horns double the clarinets playing their chords on three. Once the melody enters in the bassoon, the strings take over the same basic structure, all playing pizzicato. It’s an interesting contrast to the ONE-two-three of the “Waltz of the Flowers.”

Here are some examples that are less interested solely in the third beat of the measure. As I said, in many ways the accented one and also the accented two is a sufficient when it comes to nailing down the triple meter, especially with the ensuing beat having no or little emphasis followed by the next accented one.

Dvorak Waltz for Strings 

Listen to Example 2, the second movement of Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings in E. Dvorak is so confident that he’s presented a compelling case for the rhythm of this waltz he does not even include the double basses. The rhythm is simply the cellos on one with the second violins and violas on two.

Example 2. Antonin Dvorak. Serenade for Strings in E, Op. 22, Movement 2 (Measures 1-17)
Neville Marriner, Orchestra of the Academy of St. Martin in the Field, Philips

It doesn’t hurt, of course, that the melody is doing something on the third beat of each measure. Note that a quarter note or two eighth notes are present on the third beat of every measure. Nevertheless, the beat is created and sustained by emphasis on one, the downbeat, and two, the first upbeat.

Once the beat is established, Dvorak feels free to add to the sustained harmonic texture of the piece. At the repeat, beginning in measure 10, the emphasis is still on one and two, but now it is sustained as half notes. This maintains the rhythmic energy while adding to the fabric of the writing. The key for Dvorak was to start by getting the rhythm established from the beginning. Another aspect of the piece that helps set up the rhythm is simply the pickup to the first measure: the octave leap beginning on the G-sharp (a fifth above middle C) on the pickup measure.

In some cases a composer may feel that the triple rhythm is sufficiently discernible that the downbeat itself is unnecessary. In popular music this can sometimes be heard in contemporary techno and heavy metal music (in duple time) where drummers or drum machines can make offbeats the norm. Another example in the pop music world would be old 1970s and 1980s disco music with a heavy emphasis on 2 and 4.

Tchaikovsky Waltz

But, returning to the symphonic world, listen to the music of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony Number 5 in Example 3. The third movement is a waltz. (The guy certainly knew how to write tunes!) There are some interesting composition/orchestration items here, but let’s start with the topic at hand. Tchaikovsky is quite confident that the listener will know where to tap his or her toes in this movement, so much so in fact, that the only sound happening on the initial downbeat is the melody in the first violins.

At the outset the tune is just in the first violins, the remainder of the strings – including the double basses – are playing the chord pizzicato on the second beat of each measure. To round out the triple rhythm, though, Tchaikovsky feels that it’s necessary to make sure the listener is clear on where the beat is by adding the bassoons and horns on the third beat of the measure. With all of those string pizzicatos on the second beat of these measures it’s a good choice to add those very light winds on the third.

Example 3. Pyotr Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5, Op. 64, Movement 3 (Measures 1-43)
Lorin Maazel, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, CBS

Once the theme is settled into its groove, it returns in the twelfth measure played by the violins in octaves while the violas and cellos are playing a countermelody with colorful runs. The horns have the task of clearly keeping the emphasis on beats two and three. What’s of interest also is the double basses now playing their pizzicato notes on one and two. Even with the winds filling in with both additional countermelodies and with sustained harmonies, the bass’s octave notes on one and two are perfectly heard.

Before the melody is played the third time, a similar melody based on the same rhythms is played by the clarinets. At this point, beginning in measure 28, the low strings begin to play octaves on all three beats of the measure for a few bars while the first violins have octave leaps downward. Behind them the horns play (stopped) on the downbeats. As this melody progresses the entire string section’s accompaniment is playing pizzicato, now only playing on one and two.

At the end of the clarinet soli, they have one measure to themselves with an upward run to the return of the main melody, which they play with an added bassoon. To support this new sound, the strings are now playing with bows. The first violins have a small arpeggio of eighth notes playing from the “and” of one to the beat on three, while the rest of the string section has a rather typical triple rhythm with an emphasis on one.

Sad Waltz

In a slow triple meter a composer may want to make the rhythm evocative and maybe even a little mysterious, yet he or she still needs to place the beat in such a way that the listener knows it’s there. Consider the Sibelius Valse Triste in Example 4.

Example 4. Jean Sibelius: Valse Triste, Op. 44, No. 1 (Measures 1-16)
Vladimir Ashkenazy, Boston Symphony Orchestra, London

In this short piece, Sibelius begins with the string basses playing the downbeats pizzicato by themselves for the first two measures. (They are notated as dotted half notes. Because of the size of the instrument and the thickness of its strings, the double bass players will play the note with vibrato to assist in its sustained, but simultaneously pizzicato notes.) They are then joined pizzicato on beat two by the second violins and violas. Once that rhythm is established (after four bars), these two sections begin support rhythms bowed on beats two and three. After two bars of this pattern, the first violins and the cellos enter with the “sad” melody in octaves, as the second violins, violas, and basses continue their supporting role.

Soprano Waltz

One final example for this post from Puccini’s La bohéme is the soprano aria in the second act, known as “Musetta’s Waltz” (Example 5). The piece is well-known and always performed in a rubato fashion. Nevertheless, it is a rather typical waltz. The lower strings have the downbeat pizzicato with the second violins and violas playing the chord, bowed, on two. The flute and clarinet runs on the latter portion of the third beat of the first two measures mostly emphasize the descending melody sung by the Musetta, the soprano. This melody is played by the first violins with a little support by the harp for the first three measures. (Remember that a harp harmonic sounds an octave higher than written.)

Example 5. Giacomo Puccini: La bohème, Act 2, Quando me’n vo’ (Measures 1-15)
Thomas Beecham, Victoria De Los Angeles (soprano), RCA Victor Orchestra, RCA

Once a bit of a rhythm is established, the horns and pizzicato upper strings are briefly brought in to play on the third beat of the measure. However, with the leeway given to the soprano, supported by the conductor, the orchestra is primarily there as an accompaniment. It’s still a score worth studying. Puccini’s lush harmonies and orchestral writing made his sound almost unique during his long career in the late nineteenth and first part of the twentieth century.

More 3/4

Next time we’ll examine more of these triple meter pieces. We’ll listen to works by Fauré, Glazunov and Mahler, among others. And if time permits we’ll listen to and take a look at the 800-pound gorilla in the waltz business. Please let me know if you have any questions.


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