22. Successful, Albeit Temporary, Unions


In the last four posts we listened to and examined the scoring in symphonic works, all in triple meter. This post looks at the scoring (and even the writing) of melodies for interesting and in some cases less frequently heard pairings. The combination of instruments that a composer chooses to sing a tune is integral to how well the audience hears it, recognizes it and remembers it.

We often think that simply putting a forte indication in the line(s) that have the melody is enough to get it heard. In some cases this may be sufficient, but it may belie a certain lack of subtlety. To create an interesting and textured orchestration it is incumbent upon the composer to understand the sounds instruments produce and how to write them.

Double Reeds and Strings in the November Woods

Arnold Bax wrote several of his tone poems during the decade of World War I. November Woods depicts a stormy woodland, followed by a peaceful sylvan landscape, and then a return of the storm. We’re going to listen to some wonderful pairings Bax creates.

To begin, listen to Example 1. Bax pairs a solo oboe and solo cello in the upper reaches of its register. Note that they are playing in unison, not at the octave. The cello in this register is difficult to play in tune, but for an orchestral soloist (first chair) it should not be problematic. The solos by the two instruments are clear and evident. The oboe, by its nature, produces a nasal sound that can be piercing. The cello in the extremely high register would generally not be overpowered. However, to ensure the sound is evident to any listener, Bax eliminates most of the remainder of the orchestra. The second violins are playing divisi. In addition, the second violins, the violas and cello sections are all marked pianissimo. The first violins also marked pianissimo have sustained tones too, with just a few, quick passing tones.

Example 1. Arnold Bax: November Woods (Measures 106-116)
Bryden Thomson, Ulster Orchestra, Chandos

Note a few other items of interest. The low D in the oboe part in measure 112 is getting down in a range that can be difficult to play softly. It’s possible that the composer, to be kind to the performer perhaps, may have indicated the crescendo-descrescendo during the two triplets in the second half of measure 112. (Or it may have been some editor with whom the composer never interacted!) The little solo for the bass clarinet in the following measure shows how the woody sound of this relatively rarely heard instrument can add interest in a solo.

In the next example (Example 2) we have several interesting items. First, as we’ve been focusing on melodic pairings, let’s look at the melody that begins in measure 120. It’s played in unison by the English horn, the bassoon and the violas. Towards the end of the passage, Bax gives the bassoon a job to sustain the harmony and brings in the second and third flutes to take up where the bassoon left off in the melody.

Example 2. Arnold Bax: November Woods (Measures 117-130)
Bryden Thomson, Ulster Orchestra, Chandos

Also, see how the composer sets up the background for these soloists. The first flute has the high repeating descending passage in every other measure while the second harpist has an ascending run in the alternate measures. Neither of these snippets starts on the downbeat. The celeste has the measure’s downbeats in the alternate measures, but its primary function is to play the high answer to the flutes in those measures. During all of this the first harp has the downbeats on one, but offbeats in the remainder of each measure. It’s a rhythmic passage with the effect being one of time standing still.

High Horn, Extreme Oboe, and Alto Flute in the Woods

The set of tools available to the composer in the late nineteenth century were significantly more robust than those of a century before. For one, the orchestras were larger and the halls themselves were both larger and better illuminated. Technology also made possible the invention of new instruments. In this next piece we’ll listen to some of these.

Example 3. Maurice Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé (Measures 11-21)
Charles Dutoit, Montreal Symphony Orchestra, London

Ravel eases the audience into the nearly hour-long piece, but after a few seconds of the score he introduces some of the characters in the wooded scene (Example 3). The flute has a short solo in its most recognizable register and as soon as the flutist ends on a high G, the horn takes up the fluidity of the tune on a G two octaves lower. Of interest in the horn part is high range in the second measure of this three-measure solo. It’s not a part an orchestrator would trust to any but a concert performer. This is made especially true by the part being marked as pianissimo. Also, note the choir enters on this difficult measure for the horn.

Adding to the tension of the passage by the difficult horn notes, is the introduction of the solo oboe at the extreme top of its range. These high notes are asked to be played at a piano. These are both parts an orchestrator would only write confidently for a professional orchestra.

Before moving on there’s one more piece of plumbing that Ravel introduces here in measure 19: The alto flute. It’s pitched in the key of G and, as a transposing instrument, it’s played just like the normal (soprano) flute. Ravel has it doubled in unison with the first bassoon. The two sounds together give the combined solo a familiar, but slightly haunting, sound. It’s not a common instrument so a composer or orchestrator should confirm that a G flute is available before the first rehearsal.

Oboe & Viola or Flute & Violin

Next we’re going to review some lovely writing of a archetypical Rachmaninoff melody. One of the tunes in the third movement of his second concerto for piano is introduced by the solo oboe and the violas, not a pairing heard terribly often. Just as the piano ends a solo passage, the basses and cellos join the pianist with the same note played pizzicato. In Example 4, you hear the melody enter on the second beat of the measure in unison with the oboe and violas while the horns are providing the harmony as well as a little bit of offbeat rhythm. The lower strings continue with pizzicato notes on the downbeat of most ensuing measures.

Example 4. Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto Number 2, Movement 3 (Measures 104-123)
Earl Wild, Jascha Horenstein, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Chandos

Listen to the way the melody is located above and is also intertwined with the horn chords. The oboe-viola line remains clear, distinct, and refreshing after the solo piano. To support the solo line, as it climbs to its highest point in measure 118, the horn chords similarly rise to the occasion. It is notable to look at the two melody lines in measure 106: The range of the melody drops too low for the oboe and is played solely by the violas. This can be noticeable and unsettling to the listener. In this case, it is not. Judiciously used, this option can be functional and contribute to the overall sound of the line. Yes, Rachmaninoff could have used a bassoon or English horn, but neither would have contributed its own unique sound to the violas in the same way the oboe does. In the next post, we’ll listen to several examples where instruments are playing a line when the composer drops a subset out to a stunning effect.

One last thing to hear, or perhaps not to hear: All the violins are tacit during this entire passage. The melody could easily be given to the firsts and/or seconds, but to change the voicing and maintain a fresh sound, Rachmaninoff has taken them off the table for this passage.

Before wrapping this up, let’s listen to a similar passage later in the movement (Example 5). Rachmaninoff changes the timbre and the key, but it is otherwise much the same as the earlier passage from Example 4, it begins just as the piano ends a solo segment and the lower strings enter with the downbeats of each measure, played pizzicato, as above.

Example 5. Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto Number 2, Movement 3 (Measures 306-325)
Earl Wild, Jascha Horenstein, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Chandos

The scoring of this part is a bit more standard than the oboe-viola combination earlier. Regardless, it still is not your grandfather’s orchestration. See how the melody is carried by the first violins and the flute in unison. It’s difficult to describe exactly specifically how the flute adds to the melody, but you can hear its reedy richness in this, its lowest register.

Whereas the horns had the job of providing the harmony in Example 4, that task has been given to the clarinets and one bassoon, doubled (in unison) by the second violins and violas. Again we can see how Rachmaninoff supports the upper range of the melody in measure 320 as the clarinets, bassoon, and the middle strings also move to their highest point. Note too that the woodwinds are marked piano and the strings are marked mezzo-forte, while the solo in the flutes and first violins crescendos to a forte.

Key Combinations

In general, these are some examples of less often heard pairings in the orchestral repertoire of this period. Each of these pieces in its entirety is fodder for anyone wanting to learn more about orchestration and scoring. Your continued study will improve your technique.

In the next post we’ll listen to and do some research into jolly astronomy. Stay tuned. Please let me know if you have questions.


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