39. What Would Ravel Do? 10


Examples discussed in this article:

This site has been examining the Maurice Ravel’s orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky’s piano suite Pictures At An Exhibition. The previous post ended with the final measures of the seventh movement entitled Limoges, Le Marché. In this post we’ll look at the ensuing movement. As previously mentioned, some conductors will go immediately into the next movement (considering the final double bar as having an attacca notification) and some will leave a short break before the next movement, number 8. Catacombs.

Hypogean Sounds

The movement actually consists of two parts, with weighty, sustained minor and sometimes dissonant chords alternating between loud and soft, suggesting the echos one might hear in the crypts beneath a massive medieval cathedral.

Example 39.1 Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition
8. Catacombs (1 – 11)
Byron Janis, Mercury Living Presence

Listen to the first ten measures of the solo piano work in Example 39.1. It seems obvious that Mussorgsky heard more sound than a solo piano could play. In fact, the straightforward, nearly chromatic descent from D to F-sharp in the left hand is not terribly apparent in the performance, but it’s hard to miss when reviewing the score.

In addition, there are inner voices in the right hand that get lost with the heavy and yet difficult (impossible?) to perform in a truly sustained manner.

Ravel’s orchestration takes a relatively straightforward approach to the work. For these opening measures he eschews all but the lowest strings, the contrabasses, and even those only for a few measures. His approach is to use his lower brass, specifically horns, trombones and tuba. To enhance the richness of the sound he adds bassoons and contrabassoon. That’s all he chooses from the available sound palette. Let’s take a closer look at how he deploys these select few instruments. Listen to Example 39.2.

Example 39.2 Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition (Maurice Ravel, orch.) –
8. Catacombs (1 – 11)
Eiji Oue, Minnesota Orchestra, Reference Recordings

Before we start to deconstruct the work, however, we should recall the high range of the previous movement with virtually all of its notes staying above middle C. Here we have a kind of opposite limitation. The work only rarely gets above middle C and then just barely and briefly to near the top of the treble clef. Ravel stays with two main timbres for this passage: The large, brassy sound of trombone and tuba harmonies and the softer, mellower sounds of the horn section.

The writing takes advantage of one of the things a piano cannot do: crescendo on a note once it’s been attacked. The bassoons and horns have both crescendos and diminuendos in this passage and a good conductor will exploit them, but in a balanced and nuanced manner. Although it is not many measures, it does play for more minutes than some of the more recent movements.

While the pianist would use the sostenuto pedal to get these chords sounding in a legato fashion, Ravel uses the “hand-off” approach. Note how he has the horns and trombones each sustain a chord for a measure. The chord does not end until the down beat of the ensuing measure with the entrance of the antiphonal section.

Noteworthy too are both the use of the very low pitches from the horns and the close harmonies of the trombones with the tuba sounding much lower. The final measure in this example has the chord played “stopped” in the horns. It may be difficult to hear on the recording, but in a hushed concert hall it is a refreshing, new and even surprising sound, especially after the previous sustained trombone chords.

In an earlier post I discussed the next passage and its evocative scoring, reminiscent (to me, at least) of a passage in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, specifically the Siegfried funeral music. (See post 30. Evocative Sounds.) Please listen to the piano work in Example 39.3.

Example 39.3 Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition
8. Catacombs (12 – 30)
Byron Janis, Mercury Living Presence

With those more consonant sounds still ringing in your ears, please listen now to Example 39.4 to hear how Ravel scored this passage.

Example 39.4 Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition (Maurice Ravel, orch.) –
8. Catacombs (12 – 30)
Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic Orchestra, CBS

Ravel now combines the two brass sections, voicing the horns in close harmony (intertwined) with the trombones. He also tosses in the woodier sounds of the bassoons and eventually the bottom note on the A clarinet (a note that’s not playable on the standard B-flat clarinet). Then the top tune is played by the open solo trumpet. After these new introductions of sounds we’ve not heard before, Mussorgsky and Ravel briefly return to the heavier brass sounds as the end of the first part of the movement is approached. Ultimately, the trumpets, trombones and tuba have the penultimate chord.

The final chord is played with the addition of the clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoons, contrabassoon and contrabasses, the sound of which is overlayed by the unique sound of the four stopped horns.

With Death in a Dead Language: Promenade

The second portion of Catacombs reintroduces the melody (kind of) of the promenades from earlier in the suite. What is immediately apparent in the piano work is the line Mussorgsky intended in the upper range of the piano on which it must be played as a tremolo. The promenade melody is first in the treble clef range and then, in an ominous tone, it’s played in the low end of the instrument. Listen to this in Example 39.5.

Example 39.5 Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition
8. Catacombs: Con mortuis in lingua mortua (1 – 9)
Byron Janis, Mercury Living Presence

This piece would almost orchestrate itself if it were simply a question of tessitura. But, it’s not. And Ravel chooses divided first violins in octaves with mutes for a pianissimo tremolo on the F-sharps. Once that sound is established, he employs the double reed sound of the oboes and English horn for the first melody in the right hand. It seems he hears this in the woodwinds because he uses the bass clarinet, bassoons and contrabassoon with the lower strings for the echo of the upper double reeds. Listen to Example 39.6.

Example 39.6 Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition (Maurice Ravel, orch.) –
8. Catacombs: Con mortuis in lingua mortua (1 – 10)
Neeme Järvi, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Chandos

While this unison line is playing softly, but with conviction, in the lower woodwinds and strings, the upper strings (second violins and violas) with mutes continue the first violin’s tremolo from the F-sharp as a descending chromatic line. At this point Mussorgsky dissects the promenade theme and, with the upper strings playing a similar descending line, the low flute and bassoons have the first phrase, then the bassoons are removed and the flute is next joined by the chalumeau clarinets for the next three note phrase.

But Ravel is not done doling out pieces of the melody. The next three or four notes are combined with the bassoons and then again the clarinets, until just the two flutes play the last of it under the divided tremolo first violins. The next passage in measures 9 and 10 is almost a repeat of measures 4 and 5.

The final portion of this movement has some surprising, though subtle, new sounds as the visitor to the subterranean maze leaves the depths, returning to sunlight in the land of the living. To my ear this portion of the work is somewhat reminiscent of the end of Mussorgsky’s (and Rimsky-Korsakov’s) Night on Bald Mountain.

Listen to the final portion of the orchestration in Example 39.7.

Example 39.7 Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition (Maurice Ravel, orch.) –
8. Catacombs: Con mortuis in lingua mortua (12 – 21)
Antal Dorati, Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, Mercury Living Presence

At a glance we see and hear the woodwinds fleshed out: The oboe and English horn have the melodic line in octaves with the flutes, clarinets and bassoons playing sustained harmonies. In a similar fashion to the earlier passage where the trombone section and horn section played antiphonal sustained chords, the woodwinds and strings perform thus here.

Ravel does employ some relatively arcane string harmonics in this passage. The cello’s D string, stopped as a harmonic on the B will sound a two line F-sharp, the same note that the top first violins just finished playing. With the woodwinds now tacit, the divided second violins and violas sustain the F-sharp major chord. On the subject of harmonics: the contrabasses are sounding the F-sharp that the lower first violins have just finished playing. If you are not a string player, remember to check with a knowledgeable source when writing string harmonics. It will make rehearsal time more efficient and keep your parts cleaner. Should you have the opportunity to hear the sound that is made by this kind of harmonic on the contrabass, you may be able to incorporate it in an orchestration of your own.

Note the slow arpeggio that would just naturally fall under the fingers in the left hand on the piano. Here, Ravel has the roots of it performed by the second half of the divided cellos, but the entire arpeggio is played with two strings (enharmonically) by the harp.

Both the piano part and the sonorous scoring by Ravel are delights for the ears as the visitor climbs out of the catacombs.


As noted last week, Ravel continues to employ techniques that make the work sound as though it were originally written for the orchestra and not the piano. But perhaps it is Mussorgsky who heard an orchestra playing this delicious suite of gems when he wrote it for the piano.

Listen to the work again and see what other innovative sounds strike your ear.

In the next post, number 40, we’ll continue with the ninth movement, The Hut of Baba-Yaga. Then we’ll complete this series on Pictures At An Exhibition in post number 41.

Matthew Yasner


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