31. Careful Writing 1


Examples discussed in this article:

The July post (Number 29) presented examples in Béla Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin ballet. These examples highlighted some of the ways the composer divides up sections of the orchestra, using two or more of the same instrument for different purposes and different melodic lines. As was stated in the post, it was not the way composers generally did things in previous eras.

Beginning with this post there will be a series of articles about the variety of ways composers specify what they desire from the orchestra. That previous post focused on the woodwinds and the brass. This post will continue the theme with some passages of exceptionally divided strings.

Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss

This work is deservedly known for its stunning opening, the music of which is played at crucial points in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Those interested in orchestration will find many interesting and educational passages in the rest of the work beyond the opening measures.

The orchestra envisioned by Strauss would contain first and second violin sections (each with 8 Desks of two players each), a viola section (with 6 Desks), a cellos section (with 6 Desks) and a contrabass section with 4 Desks. As you can see in Example 31.1, the Desks and their respective parts are specified in the score.

Example 31.1 Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra (50 – 58)
Lorin Maazel, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, RCA

Before examining the parts themselves, first review the instrumentation. The composer has designated that the top first violin line is to be played by Desks 1, 2, and 3. Because the part is divided, however, there will be three players on the top line and three on the lower one. For the time being Desks 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 are tacit.

Below the first violins you can see that the first four Desks of the second violins are similarly divided and four second violin performers will perform each of the two lines.

The viola part is here divided into the first Desk (in unison after the first bar) and the next three Desks, also divided. The first Desk is a doubling of the first violin melody down an octave while Desks 2, 3 and 4 double the second violins, also down one octave.

When we look at the cellos we see parts for Desks 1, 2, 3 & 4, and 5 & 6. See the sixteenth note pattern. If you do the math, you’ll see that each of those lines is only played by one performer. The first chair player duplicates the melody as played by the first Desk violas. The remainder of the cello parts support the harmonization reflected in the second violins and violas. The basses double the lowest of the cello lines.

Depending on the recording it’s possible that a listener may not notice this variety of parts performed by the strings. Regardless, Strauss makes clear to the conductor and the performers exactly what he wants. The combination of many players splitting the lines on one music stand at each Desk provides the audience with a temporary re-formation of the orchestra. This gives Strauss the ability to pair one cello with one or two violas and a handful of violins, rather than simply splitting each section and giving the part to half of the players.

In this example it’s illuminating to notice that the composer is writing for these instruments in their most comfortable ranges. I only mention this because you will often see doublings when a part is especially tricky or at the extremes of the instrument’s range. Strauss is here using the typical sonic capabilities of the strings. But he is constantly shifting the variety of chamber orchestras that he temporarily creates, combines and dissolves.

As this passage continues he brings in more of the strings and adds some important wind parts. The climax of this passage is in measure 64 in Example 31.2. (If you want to see the detail, it is recommended that you open the score image – available at the top of the page – in a separate window to view while listening to the example.)

Example 31.2 Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra (62 – 74)
Lorin Maazel, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, RCA

In general more instruments will naturally make for a larger sound. In the previous example notice how the composer was adding more instruments to the various lines and that pattern continues in this example. You can see for yourself how he divides the melody and its harmony through several octaves, all except the contrabasses, at middle C or above. With three octaves of melody and harmony from these divided strings Strauss pulls a coup in the emphasis of this climactic passage.

As you can read in the example, he brings in the horns at this climax. The top horn gets close to the high end of its range. The rest of the horns enrich the harmony, fill out the sound and give the brilliance of the extremely high strings a roundness that washes over the passage.

Also of interest is the way he accents the downbeats of measures 71 and 72 with a stopped horn and a double reed for the first one and two double reeds for the second one. Each of these dissonances resolves on the ensuing beat played by the woodwinds but not the brass. It’s always a tribute to the art of orchestration when a composer chooses an innovative way to use the multitude of sounds available in an orchestra. This passage exemplifies one interesting way to create a sound. Note too that he adds these wind dissonances to the soli by three desks of violas only, not the fuller section of strings of the previous few measures. Those two downbeats – of measures 71 and 72 – are emphases the composer wants the listener to know.

Example 31.3 Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra (313 – 322)
Lorin Maazel, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, RCA

Later in the piece is a passage where Strauss again splits up his sections. In Example 31.3 he does this with the brass. There’s a lot of activity in this passage. The flutes and first violins (doubled an octave lower by the seconds) have eighth note triplets of triads that shift tonalities on each beat. The B-flat clarinets and violas combine to play ascending and descending sextuplet scales alternating on each beat. The English horn and cellos play a similar pattern, but with eighth note triplets of triads. And, through all of this the oboes, the E-flat clarinet and bassoons play fluid sustained harmonies, shifting with each quarter note.

What I’d like to focus on now is the variety of lines that the brass have amongst all of this other activity. First, two horns and one trumpet have a descending half note chromatic scale starting on two line G. The low horns and trombones have ascending quarter notes for two measures and before they get too high, the scale drops a fifth and recommences its upward movement. This continues for another few measures and then it drops again before starting its last upward climb. It is in this final ascent that the top two horns rise to their highest note, the high C in measure 321. To emphasize this note (and, as this is a difficult note for the instrumentalist to play in control, to give the players a bit of wiggle room), the composer brings in the trumpets to sustain the note, potentially covering for any unwanted sounds from the horns.

Example 31.4 Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra (313 – 322)
Lorin Maazel, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, RCA

Example 31.4 plays the same passage, but shows just the brass section. One of the unique features employed by Strauss in this passage is his disregard for sections in the brass. Some of the brass performers sustain the bass. Some have descending half notes. Others have trilled accents while some trombones and some horns have ascending quarter notes. If this were simply a brass passage it’s possible the piece would have a different set of dynamics. It seems odd to see the two top horns playing up to their ultimate note, marked sempre fortissimo while a good portion of the remainder of the brass has marked diminuendos, especially the trombones that accompany the horns for most of the ascent. One would expect to see crescendos.

Horn Fun

I remember reading that Strauss’s father was a horn player. I’m not a musicologist, but it may be an acknowledgement of his father’s influence that he wrote many works featuring the horn. In fact, for this next example of careful notation, we’ll stay with Strauss, but move to another of his tone poems, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. In one of the climactic sections before the first march that features the violas, Strauss has been shifting between the upward runs and the two-sixteenth-note-one-eighth-note falling melodic motif. In the example he has the four horns hit diminished chords, sustain them for a beat, and then chromatically move via sixteenth notes up a diminished fifth to hit and sustain the chord. Against this soli pattern, Strauss has the upper strings playing sixteenth notes, moving up and down concurrently, and offset by an eighth note. The remainder of the orchestra sustains the chords with the basses and bassoons sustaining a pedal tone. (To the casual observer or the pop music performer, it could be referred to as a “D7, flat 9 chord” that resolves to a G in measure 154. However, I don’t want to get into arguments pro or con on the different ideas of music harmony here.)

Example 31.5 Richard Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks (134 – 154)
Antal Dorati, Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, Mercury Living Presence

What Strauss accomplishes here is the way he has the horns brightly singing out right in the middle of the orchestra. There are sustained parts both above and below the tessitura of the horns for these two measures, yet the horns can clearly be heard. The trick lies in two functions, primarily it’s the first two horns playing high in their range. The other trick is to keep the busy string writing above the range of the horns.

There are two additional items worth pointing out. First, notice that in measures 144 and 145, the bassoons and lower strings are marked 3/4 while the remainder of the orchestra is still in 6/8. These sections play dotted eighth note-sixteenth note patterns against the triple rhythms in the rest of the ensemble. The effect is to create an ambiguous rhythmic pattern such that the beat is slightly obscured and slightly messy. This adds to the seeming chaos the “merry prankster” fosters. (It has a brief resemblance to the 2 against 3 pattern used by Ferde Grofé in the “On the Trail” movement of the Grand Canyon Suite, in which he implies a donkey loping along a trail.) The other item is the manner in which the composer subtracts from the orchestra to notate a diminuendo in addition to writing it. At the end of measure 153 the English horn, clarinets and bassoons join the strings on their descending run down to a G. In his scoring, Strauss has the bassoons drop out at two places in the descent one of which is along with the English horn, while the violas and some bassoons similarly end their runs before the G. Finally, the clarinets, violins and cellos complete the run to the G. This may appear to be a small matter, but the effect is worthy of note. To cap things off, the basses join the rest of the ensemble with a pizzicato G on the second downbeat of the measure.

It’s a passage of a great deal of activity, but it’s a good reference for dividing the orchestra in new and unique ways. These are the kinds of techniques composers and orchestrators should always keep in their tool kits.

Bringing in a Ringer

Two posts from the “Triple Time” series in April, 2014, Triple time 2 and Triple time 3, had examples from Jean Sibelius’s Valse Triste. The focus of that series was on the creation and usage of triple meter. In this example from the same piece the exploration focuses on the last measures of the score. Before playing that example, however, I’d like to note that in some ways it’s a retrograde of the end of the final movement of the Haydn Farewell Symphony, an example discussed in Post number 30.

Example 31.6 Joseph Haydn: Symphony Number 45, Last Movement (2535)
Charles Mackerras, Orchestra of Saint Luke’s, Telarc

Haydn had his orchestra members stop playing before the end of the piece, whereas Sibelius has his players stop as an ensemble and then four solo violins play the closing bars. These four violinists perform a brief (miniscule?) quartet at the end of the piece. It is a simple cadence to close the work.

The orchestra has been sustaining chords over a moving bass line, all centered around G minor. After a luftpause the clarinets double the cellos in a line reminiscent of one of the melodies moving from dominant to tonic. But then, just to close the piece, he has four solo violins play a G minor chord in close harmony, followed by a C diminished chord (still over the pedal G) and then returning to the same G minor chord. This is preceded by the orchestra diminishing in volume, but when the violin quartet enters, it’s pianissimo followed by three diminuendos.

Example 31.7 Jean Sibelius: Valse Triste (186202)
Vladimir Ashkenazy, Boston Symphony Orchestra, London

The simple cadence is in a minor key. It’s not that there’s anything too extraordinary from an orchestrational view, but it introduces an idea that says, “Hey, anything’s possible. Think outside the box.” Well, it really doesn’t say that, but it could!

Note the horns sustaining octave Ds (in concert pitch) beginning in measure 195. They are not easy to separate from the same note played by the first violins, but the timbre of the horn has a special power. It can serve as the glue that binds other sections of the orchestra together. Sibelius has scored this passage with limited resources and a great deal of transparency. If this were played without the horns, it would probably sound like simply a bunch of strings with a solo clarinet. It’s the horns that flesh out the sound and yokes the clarinet to the strings.

Also, the last four contrabass notes are marked pizzicato, but are written as dotted half notes. This would appear strange if the notes were for the violins, but the cello and the bass can sustain a pizzicato note for a bit of time. Written as a longer note the performer will naturally add vibrato to the sound.

In the next post we will continue this review of detailed scoring.

Matthew Yasner


3 thoughts on “31. Careful Writing 1

  1. There was an article in today’s New York Times about the use of the taxi horns in Gershwin’s An American in Paris. Researchers have found a 1929 recording that uses four taxi horns tuned differently than those in newer recordings, from Toscanini in the 1940s and later.

    I mention this because your comment has to do with interpretation. Without having access to the original Sibelius manuscript nor the ability to speak to the composer, it’s only conjecture. In general the higher strings (violins and violas) have a short, dry sound when playing pizzicato. Their sound would be mostly indistinguishable were their parts written as eighth notes or quarter notes.

    Because of the size of the body and the thicker strings, pizzicato parts for cellos and basses have more resonance. You can speak with a cellist or bassist (or watch one performing) and he or she will generally play a pizzicato with a bit of vibrato unless it’s specifically marked otherwise.

    Only rarely though will you see pizzicato notes written as half (or longer) notes. The few times I’ve seen it, it’s been for these lower instruments. Given the dotted half notes in this score in response to your question, the composer seems to want the basses to sustain their notes. If he had wanted them to sound for a shorter time, he probably would have written them as quarter notes.

    As an aside but still related to the passage, the other relatively rare quality of this passage is that the basses are not doubled at the octave the way most orchestral music of the nineteenth century and earlier was so often. The piece was written in 1903, but the composer’s work is mostly rooted in the nineteenth century.

    In this recording, the sound of the basses is present but not easy to hear. There may have been a discussion between the concertmaster and the bass section lead as to how to interpret the passage.

    The result here, however, is that the listener will probably not be able to hear a difference. The section might play it differently and a careful listener might hear the difference if the part were marked “staccato,” “sec” or “secco.” Or, if they were eighth notes and possibly marked “non vibrato.”

    The basses in the published score used here are written as dotted half notes to be played pizzicato. One might assume that it’s such in the original manuscript. However, the performance would probably not have sounded discernably different, though, if the four notes were written as quarter notes. It’s the way the musicians–including the conductor, concertmaster and section head–interpret the score.

  2. A stringed bass playing a pizz half-note (or whole note) means the sound is sustained more than if written as an eighth or quarter note. If the bass pizz notes in Valse Triste were written as quarter notes I would assume that the composer meant the sound to be stopped. Am I correct?

    1. David, hi. I must apologize for only today finding the note you left at my site — nearly a year ago!

      To respond to your comment, your assumption is correct. Naturally a violin pizz. is very dry. However, as you move down in the strings a pizz. can be played with a more sustained sound. In fact, cellists and bassists will often use vibrato when playing a pizzicato note that is not marked staccato.

      As a composer it’s always useful to include a guideline for something that is not the norm. So, for example, if a bass part has a section marked pizz. with both eighth notes and quarter notes, it might not be necessary to explain what you wanted, but a notation over the quarter notes could not hurt.

      Once again, mea culpa. Thanks for your comment. Regards, Matthew

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