21. Triple time 4

Basics, voicing

Many of those uninterested in classical music, might yet be familiar with Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, a group of violin concertos. There are other pieces of music written as an homage to the seasons. Haydn wrote an oratorio entitled The Seasons. Lully wrote a ballet of the same name. It provides the composer with a broad canvas for music about beautiful, peaceful summer days, storms, rain, winds, and fall leaves, among other of nature’s productions.

Glazunov Waltz

The Seasons is a score by Alexander Glazunov written as a ballet for choreographer Marius Petipa first performed in 1900. In the third tableau “Summer” Glazunov has a waltz of flowers (Valse des Bluets et Pavots) scored for a fairly standard orchestra. As we saw in other examples, the need to nail down triple rhythm starts in bar one. Glazunov uses the timpani for the opening measures. (As did Dukas in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Mahler in his second Symphony in my previous post.) And he has the horns play four-note chords on two and three. Note too that the cellos and second bassoon double on the I and V for the first four measures, but when the melody enters in the woodwinds, the bassoon drops out along with the timpani. Of course, the double basses are there throughout to make sure the dancers and the audience know exactly where the downbeat is. See Example 21.1.

Example 21.1 Alexander Glazunov: The Seasons, Tableau 3, Valse des Bluets et Pavots (Measures 1-35)
Neeme Järvi, The Scottish National Orchestra, Chandos

It’s of interest to hear a strong countermelody when the melody is repeated beginning in measure 21. In the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony we listened to last time, the violas and cellos have an interesting counter melody, but Tchaikovsky is not overly concerned with making sure we hear it. It adds to the texture and supplements the main theme, but it’s not “in your face.”

Glazunov, by contrast, wants the listener to know that there is a countermelody. He too has scored it for violas and cellos, but with two differences. First, the violins playing pianissimo trills in octaves that barely can be heard, as it appears, was the composers intent. The big addition to this countermelody scoring is the first horn playing in the same, rather high register along with the violas and cellos. This alternate melody part becomes a scalar line when the first and second violins reintroduce the melody in measure 29. Just to shake things up, Glazunov removes the horn from this linear idea, but puts a bassoon on it. It’s a nice touch and adds to the richness of the texture.

One last tidbit to note in this passage regarding the countermelody from measure 29 onward. Glazunov puts the sustained harmony parts (the second flute, oboes and second clarinet) in the upper registers to get them away from the scalar second melody. This is a rational way to provide the space needed for the first bassoon, violas, and cellos to have their line heard.

The 800-pound Gorilla

The father and son team of Johann Strauss wrote hundreds of waltzes. Although some are rarely heard, most have that ring of familiarity to them. This is a sign that these guys, like Tchaikovsky, could write the tunes that people enjoy hearing.

Johann Strauss I was born in 1804 and began a mini-dynasty of predominantly dance music composers. The Strausses composed waltzes, marches, polkas, and works for the stage, the most well-known of which is Die Fledermaus.

In this post we’re just going to listen to and examine the opening sections of The Blue Danube. This is one of those pieces that everyone knows but rarely listens to. Strauss’s composition is substantial and actually comprises more than half-a-dozen individual waltz melodies, all of which are familiar. In fact, the work is so lengthy that Strauss seems to want to highlight it with a similarly lengthy introduction, one that makes sure we know that a waltz is going to be arriving.

Listen to the opening section (Example 21.2). It’s about a minute long and perhaps surprisingly it’s in 6/8, not 3/4.

Example 21.2 Johann Strauss II: The Blue Danube (Measures 1-23)

The violins have the tonic triad in a pianissimo tremolo. Then a solo horn introduces the same triad as three distinct eighth notes on the second beat of the measure. The horn hits the downbeat of the next measure with the same tone. The upper woodwinds follow on the second beat of the measure and the first beat of the next with staccato chords. This pattern is reproduced with some variations (adding violas, adding cellos, and adding bassoon) including bringing in the rest of the horns. Note that as the composer brings us to the first climax the upper wind chords are sustained for the entire beat. And, ultimately, in measure 13 the rest of the brass, both bassoons, and the timpani enter on the D-minor chord. After getting to this high point, Strauss continues with the horn and a solo cello in a similar pattern to the opening. He also has the double basses and the lower winds sustain the chords as the timpani begins to play the staccato woodwind tones.

As we get to the end of this section, we wind up on an E-major chord to prepare for the return to the key of A in the next section. It almost feels like we’re ready to start the piece, but Strauss has other plans for his audience.

Listen to Example 21.3. Based on the passage that just ended, it feels like we should be arriving at the waltz. Instead, Strauss introduces a new “two-and-three” pattern in the flute, piccolo, clarinet, and the first violins. Our ears know that we’re not there yet. But how? For one, you know you’re not there when you have a timpani roll with lyrical things happening. In addition there is the pattern in the cellos that accent one and three in each measure.

Example 21.3 Johann Strauss II: The Blue Danube, (Measures 23-43)

And finally, just as we feel we should be set to go, we suddenly have the piccolo playing on two and three, followed by a big nothing on one, just silence. Then we have four eighth notes in the oboe and first violins entering softly with a sustained two-bar pattern that is supported by light winds and pizzicato strings playing “two-three-one.” As we get to the next short passage, the first violins, doubled at the octave by the flute have on the beat eighth notes that each the arpeggios on two-three-one as the other strings and the bassoon sustain the harmony. This end with just the low pizzicato strings and the bassoon playing the final three notes, taking the listener to the Dominant.

In Example 21.4 we ultimately arrive at the waltz, the tune widely known. The build-up has taken (in this recording) more than 1½ minutes with starts and stops along the way. Nevertheless, the conductor starts the waltz out slowly and increases the tempo over those first 25 or so measures. An additional liberty taken by this and other conductors is to have the strings and horns play the “two” on the “and of one.” Yes, the parts are marked for the beats to be on two and three, but this recording has the players play on the upbeat of one, almost like an appoggiatura to the two.

Example 21.4 Johann Strauss II: The Blue Danube, (Measures 45-82)

Strauss plays the melody in the bassoon, the horn, the first violins, and the cellos. It should be remembered that Strauss’s orchestra was to some degree the equivalent of the big bands of the 1930s and 1940s. They would be on the road quite a bit. It’s probable that Strauss did not take a full orchestra with him and relied on pick-up players in the towns where they played. This might account for some of the straight-ahead scoring. If you look at arrangements of some big band charts you might find that the third and fourth trumpet and trombone parts are marked as optional.

So Strauss, after 16 measures, gives the horn a break and brings in trumpet and trombone to play the melody (or be featured at least). Note that the conductor also speeds up to a moderate waltz pace and stays with it for the next four or five measures. Then Strauss’s writing gives the conductor something unanticipated to the audience with which to work.

Note the writing in measure 69. The winds and strings have the melody in octaves. But see the third note of the bar. It’s written as an eighth note, not a quarter note like every other. In some scores the composer might simply write that third beat with a staccato. Here, Strauss wants the listener to be able to hear the silence. It gives the orchestra a Luftpause effect without actually writing one. The conductor is handed the perfect equipment to pause for the brief moment and for the audience to anticipate the newly regular and closing music for the end of the opening section of the waltz. It’s a pretty cool trick and one that most listeners enjoy too.

Before closing I’d just like to point out the basic rhythmic scoring. Beginning in measure 62 and continuing, the bass is provided by the tuba, timpani and string basses. The offbeats (two and three) are played by the horns, trumpets, second violins, and violas. It’s simple but effective writing. Plus, the winds and first violins play the three-one staccato/grace-note pattern too. This adds to the drive of the passage also. (I have heard conductors add snare drum and bass drum to this passage. To some, these dance pieces are not considered as doctrinaire as the works of more “serious” composers of the age.)

If you’re a fledgling orchestrator and looking for examples of rhythm that will simply work in your limited rehearsal time, this is a fine specimen. Keep it in mind.


It would be as impossible to list pieces in triple meter just as it would be to list pieces in duple meter. (This requires a belief that one could even compare impossibilities.) Regardless, there are some additional waltzes that are of interest for their own unique features would include Bernstein’s Paris Waltz from Candide, the Viennese Waltz from Britten’s Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge, and even Copland’s “Saturday Night Waltz” from Rodeo ballet.

I would recommend that you review the full scores to the triple meter pieces we’ve listened to in the past four posts. Please add comments or let me know if you have questions.


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