35. Careful Writing 5

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Examples discussed in this article:

Subtlety can be overrated. I remember seeing a score by a young composer who had indicated some bowing in the string parts. He had an entire string section enter at a piano on a dotted half note followed by an eighth note. He put a tenuto over the first note and marked it with a crescendo, ending on the eighth note at a forte. The section lead would probably bow this as an upbow ending on a downbow on the eighth note. This composer, however, bowed it in reverse so that the longer note with the crescendo was a downbow and the eighth note was an upbow.

When I asked him why he wanted it bowed this way, he told me that the string section, working to crescendo on the upbow would add more tension to the crescendo.

Hmm. I explained that the crescendo might have a little more “psychological tension,” but it may also have a little less “crescendo.”

Clearly this is an esoteric and ephemeral argument. The point is that sometimes you can notate a score with so much subtlety that it may not be worth the trouble. This sort of difficult or “creative” writing can sometimes cost more in the long run. The balance between careful writing and obsessive writing is a gray area. It’s important to maintain a focus on the benefits and limitations in each situation. These may not necessarily be with your technique, but may be with your agent, producer, budget, space, or recording engineer. And this is without considering the quality of the performers and the amount of rehearsal time.

Debussy’s Jeux

Just a cursory look at orchestra scores by Debussy will show the amount of care he took in his notation. The first example in this post is from his 1912 ballet entitled Jeux (“Games”). Example 35.1 is from early in Jeux when, according to the ballet’s score, a tennis ball falls onto the stage. If you’re not familiar with Jeux, it’s a trove of insight into the compositional and orchestrational abilities of a mature creative force.


Example 35.1 Claude Debussy: Jeux (1 – 13)
Bernard Haitink, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Philips

One of his techniques used here is to create short motifs and to use them in a variety of situations. The prime motif in this example is the one heard in measure 63, played by an oboe and a clarinet. Debussy introduced this motif just a few measures previously, when it was the first half of a two-measure phrase that ended with an ascending sixteenth note run. Beginning in measure 63, he uses just the one-measure motif and repeats it for seven measures until the tennis ball appears at measure 70.

This one phrase can be used and reused to an advantage as can be heard in the example. Here are some things to listen for. (Detailed images of the example scores can be opened in a new window by clicking on the gallery at the top of this page.)

  • For the first four measures the motif is played by different woodwinds, but the oboe and English horn are constants. The final three measures add a clarinet to the flute, oboe and English horn.
  • The first four measures have sustained chords in the bassoons and horns, unlike the final three measure that display a variety of string figures leading up to the climax in measure 70. As seen in the score there are trills in the upper strings. However, with the sets of grace notes between the trills and the thirty-second note triplets at the end of each measure, the block of sound like a “busy sostenuto.” To add clarity to the “busy-ness” Debussy splits the strings with half playing the same notes pizzicato and the other half playing them as tremolos.
  • The clarification is important in light of the slightly irregular rhythms of the first four measures. Note how the second violins and the cellos change their rhythms between the first and second measure and between the third and fourth measures. An assurance that the downbeats are solid is given to the pizzicato bass violins joined by the tambourine of the downbeats on the second and fourth measures. With the cymbal accenting the second beat and the triplets on the third, it’s difficult not to know that this is in triple meter.
  • Taken individually these seven measures are straightforward, but may appear dense. As a whole these seven measures are the perfect lead-up to the climax in measure 70. Speaking of which, it’s an ideal accent as well as a real-world solution to a potential problem when a composer needs to write a “hit.” In this case, the stage manager may not get the ball to enter exactly on a specific beat. This may be why Debussy gives him or her three beats for its entry. Pizzicato string basses enter along with a grace noted chord in the bassoons on one. The horns and pizzicato middle strings enter on a chord on two. And, the flute and two piccolos have triple grace notes along with a grace noted chord in the upper strings on three. To emphasize the third beat, the cymbals join the other upper instruments entering on three.
  • After a climax extended for a few measures, the winds descend from the high piccolos, down via thirty-second notes and a thirty-second note sextuplet to the oboe entrance on the downbeat of measure 74. That downbeat is solidified by the accent of the tambourine.
  • Measure 73 is a good example for those looking for a novel technique that provides a similar, but not identical phrase. Note that the descending violins do not double the piccolos and flutes. Yet, they contribute to the climax-ending descent from the three line As. This is one key component of Debussy’s technique. He finds ways to make sounds that provide feeling for a specific sound, without necessarily notating them explicitly.

Debussy’s Khamma

For the next example, I’ve chosen another work by Debussy, a lesser known ballet entitled Khamma, Légende dansé. In this work, the composer writes out some additional sounds in just such a specific manner.


Example 35.2 Claude Debussy: Khamma, Légende dansé (191 197)
Jean Martinon,  Orchestre National De L’O.R.T.F., EMI

In so doing Debussy creates unusual combinations. Here are some item to listen for in Example 35.2:

  • The English horn melody for the first three measures is duplicated in unison by the very high bass clarinet. This unusual combination is one that will cause most listeners to question exactly what instruments are creating the sound they are hearing. Once the bass clarinet gets up to its extreme in measure 194, the line continues in the English horn, but doubled by the clarinet and a few octaves of the divided strings.
  • Of note in this piece is the way Debussy makes use of the piano. In these measures it contributes accents to the sound made by the contrabasses, which play the same notes divided with half pizzicato and the other half arco.
  • Debussy’s view of harmonizing here is often to use outer voices on a chromatic or mostly chromatic line with the stuffing, the inner voices, providing some more traditional chords, but without the traditional chord changes. The latter measures of Example 35.2 show how he does this with some winds moving in and out of the lines for color.

Holst’s Venus

And speaking of color, Example 35.3 is from Gustav Holst’s Venus, the Bringer of Peace. This is the second movement from his suite The Planets. We looked at the writing at the opening and the odd combination of instruments late last year in a post entitled Blind Dates and Other Pairings 2. For this example we open with a chord whose lowest note is middle D-flat. The closed harmony of the chord is spread among all of the many woodwinds (four flutes, three oboes, English horn, three clarinets, and bass clarinet) and three horns. The violins are all playing the top note in unison, joined for most of the chord by the violas down a third.


Example 35.3 Gustav Holst: Venus, The Planets (30 48)
Adrian Boult, London Philharmonic Orchestra, EMI

As we’ve previously noted, the chord ends for some instruments before it does for others. In this case the clarinets, horns and violas end the chord on three of the second measure (measure 31 in the score) while the remainder of the players sustain the chord until the downbeat of the next measure. This generally has the effect of throwing the ear off just a little as the sound changes, but rather than by addition of new voices, it changes by subtraction.

At this point in the work, the four double-reeds have pianissimo off-beat four-note chords behind a solo violin introducing a new modal melodic line. After several bars of the solo violin, the melody repeats with the violins in unison, but upon the repeat the off-beat chords are played piano in the horns.

As the violins split into octaves at measure 42, all the horns – save one – are removed. The double reeds reenter playing the same chord, doubled with three soprano clarinets and the one horn on the bottom of the chord. It’s of interest that the horn acts as the bottom of the three clarinets, rather than the bass clarinet. It’s probable that the bass clarinet sound on that bottom note (concert middle D-flat) would stand out too much because it’s above the instrument’s register break. Hence, with the horns, having just finished playing the chords in the background, one of them would sound less “out front” than the bass clarinet. And it’s been mentioned many times that the horn is great used as a blending instrument.

By this time (measure 42) in the score the entire set of players are notated to play mezzo-forte. The passage continues until four flutes enter as the growing number of background performers hold their chord and the flutes take up the off-beat rhythm.

What is most unusual about this passage – and this movement in general – is the way Holst has these blocks of winds playing rich chords behind a single solo voice. There is nothing else playing downbeats or rhythm, no other sound at all. Looking at this example, just from an orchestrational viewpoint, Holst is taking risks by opting out of many sounds at his disposal. However, his melodies and harmonies appear to hold our interest more than enough to pull it off.

More of Debussy’s Jeux

Before continuing with another example from the Holst, I’d like to play an example in the Debussy Jeux that we examined earlier. Example 35.4 is from much later in the work and it’s noteworthy for the various layers Debussy writes to provide his unique sound.


Example 35.4 Claude Debussy: Jeux (565 – 578)
Bernard Haitink, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Philips

Here are some items to focus on for their creativity.

  • After the piece presents an expansion of the previous material as well as new motifs, late in the work we finally arrive at a waltz. And Monsieur Debussy makes the most of it. In this example the major melody is played here by English horn, horn and half of the cellos. This is a meaty sonic area for all three instruments, the octave up from middle C. In addition to the melody’s eighth notes, it has a somewhat standard waltz rhythm where a measure has two eighth notes and a thirty-second note on the upbeat to the next measure.
  • There are two other extended (melodic) lines. One is played by the lower strings and bass clarinet consisting of just dotted quarter notes, but ascending in thirds. The other is played by the bassoons with an extended five note for two and one half beats followed by a note on the final half beat. These two combine to provide the “one” and the “and” to the immediately ensuing downbeat. This pattern is harmonized for all three bassoons.
  • Given the composer’s unique gift of making sonic texture, if we listen carefully there are additional gems in this passage. In the first two measures of each four-bar phrase, note the two piccolos playing figures on the downbeats and the flutes following on three and one. This same pattern is repeated by the oboes and clarinets in the next two measures.
  • The first violins have triplets on the last beat of each measure followed by an eighth note on the downbeat of the next. As part of the overall rhythmic pattern the second violins have two sixteenth notes on the second beat of each measure. And to complete the upper strings, note the viola’s pizzicato notes on the third beat of each measure.
  • The two harps have chords on each measure’s downbeats along with the triangle while the tambourine doubles the second violin rhythm on the second beat with the cymbal playing on the third beat.
  • On the subject of the harp, note the last two measures in which the harps play in this example, measures 576 and 578. These opposing glissandos add rhythm and harmonic texture to the second of each of the two bar phrases that comprise the last of this example. Again, Debussy is adding depth and complexity to the sonic pallet, employing these harps more as rhythmic than as harmonic sound.

Returning to Holst’s Venus

A little later in the Venus section of The Planets we come across some transparent and delicate scoring. Note that the horn plays the same notes as the opening of the work and the block chord pattern is played in a descending pattern by the first violins and ascending one by the seconds. Both are notated to be played muted by only 4 desks.


Example 35.5 Gustav Holst: Venus, The Planets (92 109)
Adrian Boult, London Philharmonic Orchestra, EMI

  • One solo flute plays a slightly expanded pattern of the half note, two quarter note, half note “melody.” In the extensively scored passage in the Debussy above, these notes would probably not be heard. Here, though, with no other sounds from the orchestra, the essentially solo parts in the strings and the solo flute become the entire ensemble.
  • Once the flute is removed and we hear the upper strings sustain the E-flat minor chord as measure 97 begins, one solo cello plays an upward arpeggio, running into the higher range of the cello, the range with which cello soloists are quite familiar.
  • The flutes and upper double reeds enter as the cello ends the solo on measure 99. As above, some instruments are removed while others sustain the chord. In this case it’s the double reeds that are removed with the second violins on the downbeat of measure 100. This leaves the first violins to play the modal line that was introduced in the earlier example. Again the only sound supporting the first violins is from a quartet of flutes.

These examples might seem to be so divergent in their creativity and direction that they would appear to be an odd combination. The Debussy examples appear to be overly fussy with large amounts of sounds and a variety of textures. The Holst, on the other hand, is seemingly simple and puerile in its transparency, stripped of all the busy-ness to be found in the Debussy.

However, all three of these works were written within a year or two of one another, about 100 years ago. At the exact same time, Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring had its world premiere. The period just before World War I was an opulent one as composers experimented with new sounds and new technology. Each was looking to his own past and creating a future based on what he knew and what he imagined.

Beautiful and Simple, a Mozart Aria

There are yet some times when straightforward and simple work just because they are that. With much less fanfare and no busy-ness at all, let’s look at a simple piano part in Example 35.6.

35.6 Mozart - Marriage of Figaro - Act III. Dove Sono aria PianoExample 35.6 Wolfgang Mozart: Dove sono i bei momenti, Le Nozze di Figaro (1 18) (Piano reduction)

One could not imagine anything much more “vanilla” than this piano part. In fact, it is a simple piano arrangement almost verbatim of the aria Dove sono I bei momenti from the third act of Wolfgang Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro.

Now that you’ve seen the piano reduction, please examine and hear the orchestra score in Example 35.7. Lucia Popp is the soloist.


Example 35.7 Wolfgang Mozart: Dove sono i bei momenti, Le Nozze di Figaro (1 18)
Lucia Popp, Neville Marriner, Orchestra of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Philips

There’s absolutely nothing sexy about this orchestration. With this slow tempo Mozart simply gave the low strings the “oom” and the upper strings the “pah.” For good measure he throws in some figures in the oboe, bassoon and later horns. It’s about as simple as you can get. But, throw in a soprano asking, “Where are the beautiful moments?” and this score lacks for nothing.

Careful Writing: Final thoughts

Creativity is often “of a time” and probably “of a place” too. Mozart, writing in 1786 could never have imagined the richness of an orchestra with quadruple woodwinds. Nor could he have imagined a bass clarinet. And the idea that he could have 4 desks of the first violins and 4 desks of the seconds play a part of a score with another three or four desks tacitly sitting by, might have also been unimaginable.

Gustav Holst and Claude Debussy had just such arsenals at their disposal. But, regardless of their instrumentation, the creativity of these composers comes across because they write melodies, harmonies, and rhythms that combine to touch us with their genius, not the amount of players in their ensembles.

Next time we return to Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition and Ravel’s orchestration of it.

Matthew Yasner

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