24. What would Ravel do? Part 6

Basics, voicing

The fourth painting encountered by the art enthusiast in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is entitled Bydlo (Polish for “cattle”). Although the original piano version begins with a fortissimo marking, most if not all of the various orchestrations of the work begin and end softly, building to a climax and then diminishing to an even softer level.

As much as one might enjoy the orchestration of this movement, there are not nearly as many surprises from Ravel’s orchestration as some other movements in the work. This is probably not because of any lack of originality on his part, in fact the orchestrator has at least one hand tied behind his back due to the original material: Except for the center section of the movement, Mussorgsky wrote both left and right hands of the piano in bass clef.

As a composer, orchestrator or arranger, when you are limited to music below middle C, your options for creativity in the concert hall are limited. It is a challenge to constrain a melody and especially its harmony to the relatively few instruments that play at the lower ranges of the orchestra. Bass clarinet, bassoon, contrabassoon, horn, trombone, tuba, harp, cello and string bass are among the relatively few options.

Choosing one or more voices to play melody is not a difficulty. In fact, the performers of these instruments have a melody part so infrequently that most will welcome it. The problem for the orchestrator is in situating the harmony in voices that will be heard and sound clearly in a large concert hall. This is problematic for the original piano work and no less so for the orchestration.

Listen to Example 1, the first few measures of the piano work. The right hand has the melody in a range one might assume would sing out in the cellos, perhaps doubled in the bassoons and the horns. The left hand is full of relatively dense chords for this range of the instrument.

Example 1. Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition, Bydlo (Measures 1-20)
Byron Janis, Mercury Living Presence

Ravel chooses to have the low strings divisi with the top cellos and the low basses playing the octaves of the left-hand piano part, with the other divided low string sections filling in the chords. To flesh out the low strings, the bassoons and the contrabassoon double them. In the two sections where the harmonies move to major (A and E) the harp assists on the bass notes. Maintaining clarity in this section of the work is a challenge for the conductor.

For those unfamiliar with writing for the harp note that the harp is written in 7 flats (A-flat minor), not 5 sharps like the other concert pitched instruments. The harp is actually tuned to C-flat, the relative major of A-flat minor. Each diatonic string has a pedal that can make that note (across octaves) a half-step or a whole-step higher. So, in this piece writing it in 7 flats makes for a simpler part for the harpist to play. As with all other instruments, this brief explanation just barely scratches the surface. If you’re interested in any specific instrument, speak to a player. He or she would probably welcome any questions as most performers are passionate about their instrument.

Example 2. Modest Mussorgsky, Orch. Maurice Ravel: Pictures an at Exhibition, Bydlo (Measures 1-20)
Antal Dorati, Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, Mercury Living Presence

One of the basic tools the orchestrator has in her or his tool kit is the ability to write for more than one instrument or even one or more sections. After all, the conductor is playing the entire orchestra whereas the pianist is playing just one instrument. Mussorgsky’s musical version of this painting, often interpreted to be an ox cart coming near the observer and then lumbering away, builds through the first half of the piece. We’ve just listened to and examined the opening sections, now let’s see how Ravel builds to the climax, when the ox cart arrives.

In the score, Ravel has a note that I’ve omitted from this example. The score instructs the cellos and basses to remove their mutes one by one from measure ten until they are all removed by measure 21. (“Otez les Sourdines une à une jusqu’à [Measure 39].”) I point this out because, as a composer or orchestrator, there’s nothing wrong with putting an instruction in text form. This is frequently done when a special effect is requested by the composer, especially in contemporary music. Just remember that when writing for a live orchestra it will take away from rehearsal time.

In Example 3 we can see that Ravel finally brings in the strings in bar 21, but in a measured manner. In the piano work, the right hand part has chords on the down beats only, but Ravel chooses to provide complete chords on every eighth note in each measure. Remember that dividing a string section means fewer players on each part and generally less volume. So, Ravel only brings in the second violins in measure 21 and they are divided in four parts. Even in a large orchestra that would mean no more than three or so players on each. To broaden the sound the oboes, clarinets, and harp fill the part by playing the full chord on each quarter note. Because Ravel doesn’t want us to lose track of the descending thirds of the melody, Ravel adds one bassoon to double the fourth (bottom) second violin part.

Example 3. Modest Mussorgsky, Orch. Maurice Ravel: Pictures an at Exhibition, Bydlo (Measures 21-42)
Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic, CBS

After this tune is heard once, Ravel adds the first violins divided in three parts up one octave. In addition the divisi a 4 in the seconds is now a divisi a 3, the upper half of the violas fill in the former lowest octave melody line. He also adds one clarinet to the line. The oboe chords and now doubled at the octave by the flutes. The point of all these machinations is to make the slow building sound as gradual as possible.

Once the melody line has turned to mostly quarter notes beginning in measure 29, all the woodwinds and strings are playing chords on the beat. It’s telling that Ravel holds back any brass involvement until this point in the movement, sneaking in one, then two then four horns, but only briefly. He briefly removes all but one, then bringing in all four to add to the final crescendo beginning in measure 35 with the sustained half note and then on the downbeats for the next two measures until the climax in measure 38 where all but the percussion and tuba are marked triple forte.

Once we’ve arrived (or rather the ox cart has arrived), the score has all the woodwinds except bassoon, all four horns, and all but the lower strings playing the opening melody in a rich, full-bodied manner. The violins are marked sul G, adding to the roundness of the sound.

After the melody is over we quickly hear the ox cart moving away and return to orchestration that is very similar to the opening. Similar to adding instruments for the crescendo, Ravel removes them for the reverse effect, with the final notes played only by half the double basses and the harp.

The diminishing of the number of performers (reminiscent of the Haydn “Farewell” Symphony) is certainly evocative of the ox cart moving away, but Ravel does add some interesting touches. In Example 4, listen to how the harp and bassoons shift to quarter notes in measures 54 to 57 with the basses temporarily shifting to pizzicato. However, when a brief snippet of the tune returns in measure 57 (hinting that the ox cart is becoming just a memory), it’s played by a muted horn, not the tuba. The timbre of the horn complements the previously played tuba part, but the nasal quality diminishes the richer tones that an open horn would provide. This adds to the ox cart sound’s decrescendo.

Example 4. Modest Mussorgsky, Orch. Maurice Ravel: Pictures an at Exhibition, Bydlo (Measures 51-64)
Eiji Oue, Minnesota Orchestra, Reference Recordings

Once this final snippet ends, the harp returns to quarter notes for a few measures, after which the bass clarinet has a brief sustained note. While all this is continuing, the low strings are playing their eighth note harmonies in the lower ranges, adding a muddied effect that the composer Mussorgsky wanted for this movement. I’ve omitted another note from the orchestrator that from measure 51 the strings are instructed to insert their mutes one by one until measure 59.

It’s a small touch, but note the final three measures. In 62, the basses play their eighth notes arco. In the penultimate bar half the basses have the third intervals as quarter notes, but with the harp added at the unison. It’s a very minor shift, but one that can be felt, adding to the dying sound of the ox cart. And finally in the last bar, half the basses play the same notes, marked triple piano, pizzicato. We get a sense that the cart is gone and that it cannot be seen or possibly heard. For those few notes it is just a memory.


In the ensuing Promenade the orchestrator is presented with a somewhat similar dilemma as he or she had at the opening of Bydlo: there are a limited number of instruments that can play in this extreme range. Consider the piano part for the first two measures. It includes two 3 Line As. If you consider the heaviness of the previous movement achieving its triple forte from most of the performers of the orchestra, Mussorgsky understandably writes this promenade with an intelligent delicacy, at least to begin.

Example 5. Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition, Promenade
Byron Janis, Mercury Living Presence

Ravel chooses three flutes and two clarinets for the first two measures. The parts are voiced identically to the piano part. At the end of this first iteration, he brings in two bassoons for the bottom of the range. This makes sense as the flutes begin to lose their brightness in their lower range and he drops out the third part.

Example 6. Modest Mussorgsky, Orch. Maurice Ravel: Pictures an at Exhibition, Promenade
Eiji Oue, Minnesota Orchestra, Reference Recordings

The bassoon entrance at this point is relatively difficult to notice – as designed by the orchestrator – so that the nine beats of the melody sound virtually seamless. After a brief pause, the original piano part drops an octave or so and Ravel follows this with the upper parts now in the oboes and the lower in the bassoons, a quartet of double reeds. And similar to the opening passage, a few other voices enter at the end of the two measures: the bass clarinet and the first clarinet. The bass clarinet here is to support and enhance the low bassoon part. It’s educational to note that Ravel scores the first bassoon part above the clarinet so that the top two voices as well as the very bottom are all double reeds. The clarinets are there simply to fill in the chords, not to add a new texture, just as the bassoons did in the previous passage.

Once we get to the fifth measure the melody becomes briefly a single line played in octaves by the bassoons, contrabassoon, cellos and double basses. The melody also becomes a tad sinister with its descending leaps of a tritone just as the horns enter in octaves, also playing an upward leap of a tritone. As the upper strings enter in measure 7 the two lines continue their overlapping melodic and rhythmic patterns, but with 30 or 40 or more players on the melody now it’s obvious where the audience’s focus is.

Mussorgsky must have had a mischievous streak in him for these last two measures. It’s as though he’s giving us a brief preview of the next movement. Perhaps our collective eyes have focused on the next painting before we’ve arrived in front of it.

I don’t want to belabor these last two measures, but Ravel has employed some useful techniques to evoke what he thought were Mussorgsky’s intentions. In the piano work (Example 5) there are short quarter notes on the second and third beats, octave As, followed by four handfuls of sixteenth notes, a brief rest and then a couple more As.

First, look at the cello and bass parts. The string basses have the low A with the cellos an octave higher. One bassoon is doubling the cello note, but then the cellos play the A using a harmonic, making the sound thinner. On the next downbeat two oboes and one clarinet play the chords as written in the piano work. To supplement the sound, Ravel duplicates the parts in the harp. Of most interest is the triangle, the piccolo playing the first and third (upper) sixteenth notes at the octave, and the viola pizzicato on the first of the sixteenths. It’s an extraordinary sound that prepares the audience for the next movement (“Chicks” or possibly “Ballad of the Unhatched Chicks”). Before I close however, note that the piano work has As on the downbeat of the final measure and an A on the third beat. Ravel does this by asking the cellos and basses to play the downbeat as harmonics and on the third beat, the harp has As in octaves, but they too are harmonics. They will sound an octave higher.

This deconstruction of just two measures might be a bit obsessive, but that’s what orchestration is about: Deciding and then writing down exactly what’s to be played in which section and how. The orchestrator chooses these details for each note that gets written. It is a far cry from a songwriter putting together a lead sheet writing down a melody and chord names.

For the orchestrator every decision must be considered and a satisfactory part must be notated. Using the tools and techniques available is the work of the orchestrator. Take advantage of the tools. Make it interesting, but not just for the sake of interest. Use the melody, stress, relaxation, mood, and texture of the work to determine the ultimate sounds desired. Then you just have to write it down.

It all sounds so simple.

Let me know if you have any questions and feel free to comment.


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