36. What Would Ravel Do? 7


Examples discussed in this article:

September’s posts were focused on the variety of ways composers have created and notated novel sounds in their orchestral works. Pieces by Debussy, Holst, Stravinsky, Vaughan Williams, Strauss and others were the fodder for these examinations. Techniques such as breaking up a line and distributing it among several instruments, pairing two or three diverse timbres on a melody and using inner voices to add interesting texture to a sound canvas have been highlighted as their writers explored ways to make their creations unique.

Beginning this week we’re going to recommence the series of posts that began early this year examining the Ravel orchestration of Modest Mussorgky’s colorful piano suite Pictures At An Exhibition, from the 1870s. For the astute music listener, the ability to review the creative piano work and then see the novel orchestration by Ravel is a rare treat. It is also useful to ask oneself: If I were presented with this piano piece (or even a short passage from it), how would I orchestrate it?

“The Ballet of Unhatched Chicks in their Shells”

The sonic canvases created by Mussorgsky as a composer seem to be equal in every way to those canvases in the actual exhibition of his friend Viktor Hartmann, the inspiration for the piano suite. In this balletic movement of chicks bouncing around inside their shells, attempting to break out, Mussorgsky creates a rapid, busy and sometimes dissonant piano work. It embodies all the youthful energy of enthusiastic chicks. Although the title helps cement the image, even without it Mussorgsky presents a rush of activity that’s light, but frenetic: the sound of chicks yearning to be free. (Too much?)

Listen to Example 36.1 for the opening of the movement. If you’ve never heard the original piano piece you’re in for a treat.

Example 36.1 Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition – 5. The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks in their Shells (1 – 22)
Byron Janis, Mercury Living Presence

The first four measures are noteworthy for their two line octave chords with grace notes on the down beats and their left hand playing one line chords on the up beats. The next four measures have the left hand playing an ascending eighth note scalar line, now with the grace noted off beats in the right hand.

Examining a little more closely, we see that the second down beat of the second and tenth measures have both hands playing together. In fact, in these two repeated four measure passages, these are the only places where this occurs. We’ll keep this in mind when we see what Ravel does with this passage.

When the Mussorgsky piano piece gets to measure 13, he takes apart the earlier scalar passage, providing two ascending passages of two measures each. The next four measure passage introduces ascending thirds in the left hand with right hand grace noted down beats that jump around towards the end. In this pianist’s interpretation, each measure seems to be its own phrase.

Finally we have the sustained three line D-flat half note. If it hadn’t been obvious before, it should be now: Mussorgsky heard this work as being more than just a piece for piano. Once struck, the D-flat cannot do anything but resonate. Among other techniques, a wind or string instrument can get louder or softer or simply maintain the volume after attacking a note.

Now that we’ve seen the various parts of these 15 seconds of music, listen to Example 36.2 to hear how Ravel decided to orchestrate it.

Example 36.2 Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition – 5. The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks in their Shells, (Maurice Ravel, orch.) (1 – 22)
Antal Dorati, Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, Mercury Living Presence

By now you may have an idea of what you would do if you were orchestrating this passage. One idea might be to use a combination of arco and pizzicato strings. The arco strings would be necessary for the grace notes and the pizzicato would provide the accented staccato notes.

Another alternative might be to use the brass for these same effects. They can play short, sharp notes and can be quite agile. However, they might not be a light as one might imagine chicks to be. Although the sound might be an interesting one, an orchestrator should maintain a focus on what the material is trying to convey.

The upper woodwinds provide the option that Ravel chose. They fulfill several of the requirements. First, there’s the nasal sound of the oboes in harmony. Although it’s not the sound of chicks (in or out of their shells) it does provide a kind of avian sonority that the ear associates with geese or ducks so, at the least, we’re in an avian area.

Note that he does not give the first oboe (playing the “melody” line from the piano work) the grace notes. He doubles the melody with the first flute and has it play the grace notes. The flute may arguably be a little more agile than the oboe so in one sense this is reasonable. But, to add intensity to these bars, he has the oboes playing on each eighth note, jumping down an octave or so on each off beat and back up on the down beats. This makes the part more difficult for the performer and adding the grace note might make the sound a little muddy. (Oboists would probably disagree with me…) So, to make the grace notes as pristine as possible, he has the one flute add them.

Among the rapidly moving chords there’s one repeated note in both hands and that’s an F. Ravel gives the first clarinet the F, jumping in octaves along with the oboes, completing each chord. He also has the harp duplicate the chords on the downbeats with a simple F on the off beats. This makes sense, as the there’s no reason to duplicate the chords on the off beats.

He does not forget about the strings altogether. He employs the pizzicato violas to double the F played by the clarinet on the opening down beat.

Remember that we earlier saw the piano accent the second beat of the second measure? See what Ravel does with that beat. He has all of the violins playing a pizzicato chord. He has the harp play the chord in both hands and then resting on the final eighth note of the bar. To further accent the beat, he brings in the second clarinet and the bassoon to play just that note staccato. And, lest we forget the percussionist who plays a single cymbal hit on it also.

Taken as a part of a larger grouping, this accent on the second beat of measure 2 serves as a pick-up to the down beat of the next measure, again accented by the pizzicato F in the violas. Before continuing, I recommend that you listen to these opening bars of the piano and then the same passage in Ravel’s orchestration. Now that we’ve dissected the two scores your listening analysis may provide more information than earlier.

For the next two measures, Ravel tosses the work over to the double reeds and the pizzicato violas. This time the oboes have the grace notes, but are just playing the off beats while the bassoon and violas play the ascending line. And in the next two measures (i.e., measures 7 and 8 – the second half of this four measure passage), the second oboe and the pizzicato second violins continue the line begun by the bassoon and violas. The off beats now are played by the first oboe and the melody with the grace notes played first by the clarinet and then by the first flute. The second flute is used to complete the harmony.

Measures 8 through 12 are an exact repeat of the first four measures.

When we examined the piano work, it was noted that measures 13 through 16 were more like two groups of two measures with ascending eighth note runs beginning each group. It is therefore interesting to see that Ravel splits each of the two groups in half with symmetry between the two.

In measures 13 and 15 the bassoon and viola begin the ascending scale. In measures 14 and 16 the scale is continued by the oboe and second violin. Similarly, the oboes have the grace note off beats in 13 and 15 while the clarinets have them in 14 and 16. And in the final four bar passage Ravel has the two flutes on the down beat chords in measures 17 and 19. These are doubled at the unison by the harp. In this register, the harp notes have virtually no resonance after their initial attack. The harp is employed here to accent the very high flutes.

In the second and fourth measures of this passage (measures 18 and 20), the oboes have the grace note down beats. It’s easy to see how Ravel is adding to the sonic texture by doubling the oboes and clarinets in measure 20. This richer sound is demanded by the drop in the placement of the chords. Notably, Ravel moves the pizzicato upward thirds in measures 19 and 20 to the first violins and the horn, the latter of which is getting up to the higher end of its range by the C (high G for the horn).

Above we mentioned the pianist’s inability to sustain the D-flat. See that Ravel has this note played in unison by the flute, oboe and clarinet. But, just as the pianist performs the final grace noted C quite softly, Ravel has only the flute play the note.

This is a great example of how a master can take a simple piano passage and give it variety, texture, sonority and interest pretty much without changing a note. These techniques can be used in an infinite number of situations. Taking a simple two or four measure passage and splitting it by orchestrating it in halves or fourths is a perfect opportunity to subtly or not so subtly shift sonic textures.

Moving on

I’ve spent a lot of time detailing the opening section of this brief piece because there is a lot to learn about orchestration. Ravel takes a charming but seemingly straightforward piano work and makes it into a work that sounds like it was composed for the orchestra. We’ll go more quickly through the rest of the piece as I simply point out items of interest.

Example 36.3 is the middle section of the movement. Listen to the piece played on the piano and again think about how you might score it.

Example 36.3 Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition – 5. The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks in their Shells (23 – 38)
Byron Janis, Mercury Living Presence

Mussorgsky naturally changes texture here for what is termed the “Trio” section. For the first half, we have this “Alberti bass” pattern and sustained note in the left hand while the right is playing trills. The second half has a similar right hand, although with an ostinato of the off beat Fs while the right hand has this rather insistent “weak eighth note – accented (grace note) eighth note – sharp eighth note” pattern that starts on the “and” of two.

Now that the passage in the piano work has been examined, listen to Example 36.4

Example 36.4 Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition – 5. The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks in their Shells, (Maurice Ravel, orch.) (23 – 38)
Eiji Oue, Minnesota Orchestra, Reference Recordings

The first thing you notice is that there are grace noted eighth notes on the first beat of each measure. Although not explicit in the piano piece, the grace noted accents can be implied by the grace notes in the piano before each trill.

The divided first violins play the trills for almost the entire section. With the bassoon playing the leaps, accented by the pizzicato lower strings, the transparent continuity is held together by the sustained and muted horn. Just as the 8 measure phrase ends, the clarinets do the honors for the trills, momentarily giving the texture a break from the high violins.

In a fashion consistent with Ravel, the repeat sounds quite different. Here are a few things to listen for.

  • The flutes now have four sixteenth notes followed by a staccato eighth note.
  • The oboe and clarinet have alternating grace noted eighth notes on the second beat of each measure.
  • One horn has an ostinato pattern of repeated Fs while another horn plays the bass line along with the harp.
  • The celeste accents the down beats of the violins trills.
  • The divided second violins have four note pizzicatos on the second beat of each measure.
  • The snare drum plays one sound on the down beats and another on the up beats.

Individually there’s not much remarkable in these parts, but put them together and this repeat of the opening eight measures is not quite a repeat, it’s more of a new composition.

The second eight measure phrase from the piano work, with its insistent eight notes starts simply and similarly to the opening eight measures. There are a few new sounds, however. First, we have the addition of the piccolo, playing in its middle-low register. Clearly the flute could be used for this part, but we’ve just heard sixteen measures of flute. Ravel wanted a new sound and the low piccolo fits the bill.

To help accent each down beat Ravel has the harp playing harmonics on the F (Remember that harmonics sound an octave higher.) and the violas have a harmonic on their low F that sounds a couple of octaves higher, sustaining the notes repeated by the piccolo and harp.

When we get to the end of the section, Ravel again introduces new sounds in the repeat.

  • Double tonguing by the flute.
  • The piccolo, sounding higher than any other instrument, accenting the attack by the flute.
  • The first oboe sustaining a high F with the leaping octaves played by the second oboe.
  • The horns again playing the ostinato pattern with the “Alberti bass.”
  • The discrete use of the cymbal, snare drum and triangle.
  • And finally we get the first violins earning their keep, playing the melody for the first time in the movement. All of this is over a background of pizzicato strings.

As before, none of these items is in itself unique. Put them together and there’s a subtlety and intricacy that in lesser hands might come off as clumsy and possibly overbearing. Instead, Ravel gives the listener a clarity that captures these chicks just about to peck their way out of those shells.


As he has done in a few other places in Pictures At An Exhibition, the orchestrator takes some liberties. In this passage Ravel chooses to omit one of the two sustained D figures. If you listen to Example 36.5 you’ll hear the closing of the movement, a repeat of the opening. Note how measures 75 and 77 are almost identical. Ravel chose to omit one of them in the orchestration.

Example 36.5 Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition – 5. The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks in their Shells (67 – 80)
Byron Janis, Mercury Living Presence

Now listen to Ravel’s reworking of the passage in Example 36.6. The passage is scored just as it was in the opening: Measures 67 through 74 are repeats of measures 13 through 20.

The interesting part is the last four bars. They are not the same as the opening and Ravel creates something novel here. Clearly, he needed an ending for an orchestra, some scoring that would make this finale sound new and not like the repeat of the opening.

Example 36.6 Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition – 5. The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks in their Shells, (Maurice Ravel, orch.) (67 – 78)
Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic, CBS

Here are the elements the final sustained note.

  • All the woodwinds have the D-flat with a grace note (in just two octaves).
  • The oboes are in octaves.
  • The bassoon is up quite high. In fact, it’s playing the same D-flat – a minor ninth above middle C – that the solo bassoon has at the opening of Stravinsky’s The Right of Spring.
  • The horn, which did not get up to the D-flat (concert) in the earlier passage, now hits and sustains that high note.
  • All of this, unlike the first time has a first violin pizzicato D-flat accenting the downbeat.

These all contribute to making this quick, diminutive gem into a piece of art. For the final staccato chord, Ravel gives the top (the third) to the piccolo with the flutes underneath in closed harmony. Then the oboes and pizzicato first violins have the rest of the chord. Note the way he keeps it as light as possible by employing the divided first violins on the last beat, the third F – A.


It might seem obsessive to examine this little work that takes just over a minute to perform. But there’s so much invention and attention in the detail of the work that it’s worth the time.

Ravel took this short piece that is seemingly quite repetitive and made it into a showcase of writing for woodwinds. I think it’s worthy of repeated study.

Matthew Yasner


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