33. Careful Writng 3

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Examples discussed in this article:

In the previous post we began the examination of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia On A Theme By Thomas Tallis, a piece written solely for strings: a string quartet, full string orchestra and a smaller string ensemble. The particular focus was on the detailed notation by the composer.

Example 33.1 shows an antiphonal section where the larger orchestra, designated in the score as Orchestra I, plays an opening passage with a crescendo to a brief climax, echoed by the smaller orchestra (Orchestra II) playing muted with modal block chords under a snippet of the original. As the composer moves into this measure, an F-sharp major chord is played by the cellos and violas at a triple piano. Just after this measure begins, the larger orchestra’s violins enter with eighth notes (one F-sharp followed by three C-sharps). The score is marked for the violins to enter piano and, in the space of the three eighth notes, crescendo to forte. The lower strings have a similar passage, but playing octave F-sharps beginning at a forte and with a crescendo to the fortissimo climax, rapidly diminishing to triple piano.


Example 33.1 Ralph Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (51 – 60)
Adrian Boult, London Philharmonic Orchestra, EMI

If you will recall the opening chord of the piece, it consists of the root and the first 5 or 6 overtone notes of the chord. Moving up the sonic range, the composer omits the next octave and has the upper strings play the tetrad of the chord in the upper treble range. Unlike that opening chord, the composer here intertwines the voices of the string quartet and Orchestra I when it hits the D minor chord in measure 52, putting the first violins on the high (three line) D with the top viola an octave lower. In this chord, however, there is nothing “stuffed” in between them. It’s as though the composer wants to emphasize the chord in its lower register, with just the high violin note floating above.

In the writing for Orchestra II, answering the forte of measure 52, the harmony is block-like, as though a mechanical hand were playing a root, a third and a fifth on a keyboard. This is carefully notated, a clear distinction between the writing for it and Orchestra I.

In the next part, when Orchestra I again enters with its C-sharp octaves, followed by F-sharp octaves, the structure of the climax chord in measure 57 is nearly the same as the previous one. The dramatic difference is in the harmonies themselves. The first climax is on a multilayered D minor chord whereas the second is an E-flat chord.

It has been said that the composer thought of the two orchestras as the equivalents of the great and the swell manuals of a pipe organ. It’s easy to imagine this throughout the piece. Of course, the timbre between a large ensemble playing forte or louder and a small one playing muted at a pianissimo, helps in creating the distinction between the two ensembles, even when listening only without seeing the ensembles on a stage.

Example 33.2 presents the same portion of the piece, beginning where the previous example ended. The first and obvious item to note is the interwoven scoring of the E-flat chord in Orchestra I. All of the upper strings contain every note of the E-flat major chord in the octave from G below middle C (small G) to G above (one line G). The sound is full and lacks for nothing with the doubling of the third at the octave and the full sound of the octaves of the root in the cellos and basses.


Example 33.2 Ralph Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (61 – 70)
Adrian Boult, London Philharmonic Orchestra, EMI

If our ears had not been already comfortable with the modal influences of the work, we might have a problem with the movement from E-flat major to A minor. In this harmonic world, though, the movement, though a little foreign, is not unusual. In a performance of the work, hearing the large orchestra hand off the sound from the E-flat major to the A minor is, if you’ll pardon the expression, a little mystical. I expect that was the impression for which the composer was aiming.

This effect of the hand-off is what I find most unusual about this passage. After the violas and cellos arrive on the E major chord at the 4/4 measure and settle there, the composer notates that they hit the chord for one full beat and sustain it until the next downbeat. This kind of writing makes it easier for the section leaders to know when to stop a sound. As a composer or orchestrator, when there is this kind of exposure, it’s not a bad idea to carefully notate what you want.

The hand-off on the downbeat of this measure (number 66) has been highlighted in the example. Even though the chord is the same between the two ensembles, the sound is anything but. Orchestra I is scored for violas and cellos only in the range of a tenth. Orchestra II, though, is virtually an example of four-part writing in a basic harmony class. After the opening chord, the top parts all move down while the bass moves in the contrary (upward) direction.

Note, too, the effective use of the notation senza espr., that is, without expression, as evidenced by the lack of vibrato. The sound produced here, if you’re not listening carefully, can mimic that of horns.

This antiphonal passage displays the unique and surprising elements created by the composer for this ingenious work.

After some more glorious writing, the entire ensemble comes to a crescendo at measure 89, hits an E major chord and the individual members of the string quartet are showcased, beginning with the first violin. A few measures later we come to the passage in Example 33.3, with the entrance of the solo viola.


Example 33.3 Ralph Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (95 – 110)
Adrian Boult, London Philharmonic Orchestra, EMI

Vaughan Williams wisely chooses to bring in the viola while the first violin is playing a sustained two line A, making the entrance clear and unambiguous. At this point in the fantasy the parts with which the composer began have morphed into a variety of familiar motifs. The viola enters on a downbeat, but the notes are the parts that have been heard on the lead-in to a downbeat. It should not be a surprise for the audience, though, to hear these rhythms shifted, parts reharmonized, or melodies rearranged.

In that light I recommend reviewing the solo part writing here for several reasons. All of the soloists play in their typical ranges, their sounds are good examples of the sound quality these strings produce naturally. Another feature of interest is the way Vaughan Williams moves the voices above and below one another. For example, see how, when the second violin enters in measure 101, the first violin and the viola are both playing below it.

The brief interlude begun by Orchestra II and then performed by the forces of both Orchestras, forms a bridge between the variety of motifs in the string quartet to the upward scalar lines that are more apparent afterwards. Note too how Vaughan Williams gets so much mileage out of the few bars from 105 to 109. The first two are the small ensemble playing in a range of one or two octaves. But when the full ensemble enters in measure 107, the range is from the cellos playing in the great octave (doubled by the basses playing in the contra octave) to the first violins in the two line octave. Between these extremes the orchestra is rich with harmonies. Lastly, see how this all takes place in just a few seconds, from the piano entrance on the third beat of measure 107, to the climax at the downbeat of 108, and to finish at a pianissimo as the solo cello enters in 109. It’s impressive and creative writing.

There is much to learn about composition and writing for strings in this work. It is a suggested piece for anyone learning about orchestration. There is one last item that I’d like to point out in Example 33.4. In last week’s post (Number 32) there’s an example in the Elgar Enigma Variations that shows the first violins playing an echo of the melody in a ghostly manner. I’m reminded of this by the passage in this example.


Example 33.4 Ralph Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (213 – 222)
Adrian Boult, London Philharmonic Orchestra, EMI

This is from late in the piece. The lower strings have a reprise of the descending block chords for a few measures. Following this is the entrance of the part that had been highlighted by Orchestra II, but is now played by all the strings except the first violins. At the entrance of the ensemble in measure 216, the activity is in the middle strings (second violins, violas and cellos). They have the rhythmic passage. It’s the basses and first violins that enter sustaining a G. But note that only half of the first violins enter on one line G. They are joined in the next measure by the other half, playing two line G. Then, on the last millisecond of the measure, both halves of the section jump an octave as an appoggiatura, entering on the downbeat of measure 218. The effect is to sneak them in to the activity in the remainder of the strings and, now that they are established with the top in three line territory, they take over the melodic line.

This line descends slowly for a couple of measures. And when they arrive at the two line G on the downbeat of measure 220, the basses accent this with a pizzicato G as the violas and cellos sustain the open fifth G – D. It is at this point when Vaughan Williams brings the first and second violins together so that the seconds are playing in the middle of the divisi firsts. Earlier I took note of the voicing of the strings with the parts intertwined. Although they are not sustained here, the writing shows how effective the two sections playing together can be when they are enmeshed in this kind of closed harmony.

Elgar’s Enigma

Sometimes a composer will orchestrate a moment that he or she may notate more precisely than is the composer’s norm. One such moment in the Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme for Orchestra (“Enigma”), Op. 36 (often simply referred to as the Enigma Variations) that exhibits this kind of attention to detail is in Example 33.5. Of course, Elgar generally was quite particular in his notations, but this passage appears to go above and beyond his common practice.

Composed at the very end of the nineteenth century, the Enigma, and Elgar in general, may not come immediately to mind when considering innovative orchestration. Yet in his time it was one of the things for which he was known. The entire piece explores ways to use a traditional orchestra to great advantage and creativity.


Example 33.5 Edward Elgar: Variations on an Original Theme for Orchestra (“Enigma”), Variation XII (19 – 27)
Andre Previn, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Philips

Note the melody beginning in measure 20 with the first violins (sul G), the violas and the cellos playing in unison. This provides the rich and robust legato sound expected from the forces of perhaps 40 instrumentalists. To provide rhythm and harmony, Elgar gives the basses and bassoon downbeats on one and three. The clarinets, bassoon and horns have the offbeats on two and four. The melody with its infrequently used descending intervals sounds uniquely like Elgar. For these three measures, it’s business as usual for the remainder of the orchestra.

In the next measure, look at the way the composer brings in the upper winds. The first clarinet is sustaining the E-flat (concert) with the strings. On the second beat the first oboe and the second clarinet join with them on the tune. On the third beat both flutes and the second oboe combine with all the others on the B-flat, C, B-flat, C eighth note phrase. This climax is enhanced by the entrance of the bassoons, contrabassoon, the horns and the second violins.

The genius here is that in a matter of three beats Elgar has surreptitiously brought in most of the orchestra and the ear barely notices. The audience is still mostly cognizant of the string sound.

Now see how most of the orchestra is almost as quickly removed: The flutes, oboes and the second clarinet hit the A on the downbeat of measure 24 and after a beat and a half they are done. The first clarinet continues for another beat and then that player drops out.

In a similar fashion, the second violins and the horns begin to be omitted and are gone by the downbeat of measure 25. Surprisingly, the first violins hit the downbeat of measure 25, but then they are done, too. And, again, in just 4 or 5 beats we’ve gone from orchestral climax to just the melody in the lower strings and the sustained harmonies in the bassoons and contrabasses.

Given this elaborately subtle diminishment, by the next measure (number 26) we hear only the cellos on the melody. When we arrive at the sustained (fermata) G at measure 27, there is naught but pianissimo cellos.

Listen to the passage again and hear how this crescendo-decrescendo is written directly into the score. Elgar notates a passage that will provide an audience with the sounds he wants regardless of the conductor’s attention to detail – or lack thereof.

This is a perfect example of carefully writing what the composer wants his audience to hear.

This discussion will continue with a new variety of pieces next time.

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