40. What Would Ravel Do? 11


Examples discussed in this article:

If you’ve been following this site you know by now that we have been reviewing Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition as orchestrated by Maurice Ravel. And in fact, the title of this series of articles “What Would Ravel Do?” was chosen because, unlike many orchestral scores, here we have Mussorgsky’s colorful and unique piano work from the early 1870s, which Maurice Ravel was commissioned to orchestrate some fifty years later. This sheds light on orchestration techniques of the time as well as the carefully written score by one of the greats of orchestration.

Last time we listened to the eighth movement, a two-part work, entitled Catacombs. In this post we’ll look at the ninth movement, The Hut of Baba-Yaga. The painting upon which this work is based depicts a unique style of clock that has some resemblance to a simple roofed structure sitting on what appear to be chicken legs.

Individual Interpretations

Before looking at the details I thought it would be useful to listen to two differently styled performances of the opening of the work. The first is fast and in some ways echoes the second movement of the suite. It’s rough and chaotic. Its rhythms sometimes rely on the conductor’s fancy of the moment. Listen to Example 40.1.

Example 40.1 Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition (Maurice Ravel, orch.) –
9. Hut of Baba Yaga (1 – 26)
Antal Dorati, Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, Mercury Living Presence

Example 40.2 is perhaps less dynamic, but quite rigid in its interpretation of meter. If you can put the dynamic first example out of your mind, you can imagine the weighty and slightly scary ticking of a clock.

Example 40.2 Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition (Maurice Ravel, orch.) –
9. Hut of Baba Yaga (1 – 26)
Eiji Oue, Minnesota Orchestra, Reference Recordings

Even if an audience did not know that this movement was based on a painting of an odd clock, the rhythmic pulse is impossible to miss. The first two notes of the work, the descending major seventh, followed by a brief pause begin the rhythm that continues throughout the work.

To emphasize this important, in-your-face opening, Ravel gives it to the entire string section, marked fortissimo with down bows all around. Enhancing the string sound he adds some lower woodwinds. It’s noteworthy that he holds back on taking the “kitchen sink” approach, not utilizing any brass at least not just yet. However, he does decide to reflect the rhythmic color in the percussion. And he takes a slightly unusual approach.

Many orchestrators would be inclined to give the “melody” to the timpani. Ravel does give the first note, the F-sharp, to the timpani, but to emphasize the second note, he opts to give it to the bass drum. This begins an occasional dialog throughout the piece in the percussion. To add to the emphasis of the “off beat” Ravel has the lower strings play their Gs on two strings. This virtually doubles the amount of sound they produce and it adds a slight bit of raw sound to the mix as open strings are less controlled than stopped ones.

Once Ravel has set up the orchestra in the first eight measures, he changes the color slightly. In measure 10, just as the composer has begun to expand on the opening “licks” by beginning the pattern of two quarter notes followed by eighths, Ravel opts for the low horns to accent the down beats of the eighth notes with their low Gs, simultaneously removing the string basses. It’s a subtle difference, but that’s part of the art. Also note the continued interplay between the timpani and the bass drum.

Arriving at the double bar at measure 17, Ravel changes the colors again. The woodwinds are no longer playing the chromatic ascending eighth note pattern. That is solely in the lower strings. Instead the orchestrator adds accents to the second beat of each measure. He begins this first with bassoons, contrabassoon and harp. The pattern continues in the next four bars with the brass making a compelling argument on the final three notes with the introduction of two trombones doubling the octaves in the horns. He also introduces the second violins and bass clarinet for those second four measures (21 through 24).

Just a note on the harp. In case you’re unfamiliar with the harp, it’s important to remember that it’s a diatonic instrument with seven pedals, one for each note of the scale. There are three pedals for the performer’s left foot (moving laterally from the instrument: B, C and D) and four for the right (E, F, G and A). Each pedal can be in one of three positions. Upper position makes that note flat. First position makes that note natural. And second position makes it sharp.

So, in these few measures Ravel has the harp preset the pedals for the G, A and B such that they will play G-sharp, A-natural and B-flat. Given the method the piece uses to emphasize the rhythmic off beats, using the harp on the second and fourth beats followed by its use on the second, third and fourth beats, is innovative as well as quite functional.

Before moving to the next example, listen to the last few measures of this passage. For the staccato and grace pattern, Mussorgsky is reflecting on the earlier movement about unhatched chicks. Ravel removes most of the orchestra here to emphasize the light, dry quality of the flutes and oboe balanced with the pizzicato violins. The upward eighth note line is now played only by the (arco) cellos. Yet, he still feels the need to have some sustained bottom to the passage. He brilliantly decides to use a bass drum roll for this effect!

Slow Trills

The next example uses the bottom end of the orchestra to take over the sustained sound previously played by the bass drum roll. Ravel uses the bass clarinet, bassoons and cellos to provide the slow half tone trills. Not wanting the audience to miss the beat he adds the staccato contrabassoon and pizzicato contrabasses play the Gs on the downbeats.

What he is setting up here is the sonic tableau for the next part of the movement. Listen to Example 40.3 as the trumpets and horns have the block chord melody. As they get to their sustained notes in measures 36 and 40, the descending scalar line is played by the bassoons, contrabassoon, tuba and lower strings, accented by the bass drum rolls.

Example 40.3 Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition (Maurice Ravel, orch.) –
9. Hut of Baba Yaga (33 – 50)
Eiji Oue, Minnesota Orchestra, Reference Recordings

What’s of interest is how this pattern is cut in half and played by the upper wood winds and pizzicato upper strings. Then the piece has the upper winds play the eighth note figure in measures 43 and 44. Part of the upper strings, to add their weight here, quickly move to their bows and play the same line as the flutes as sixteenth notes, then they move back to the previous pizzicato part. The other portion of the upper strings, the second violins, play their big (strummed) chords on the down beats of those otherwise arco measures. Another item here that Ravel exploits is the octave leaps (remember the opening major seventh leaps) in the low winds and low strings.

Of course, you can’t listen to this passage without hearing the sustained brass notes (F-sharp and B-flat) as the passage continues. Using two horns on the F-sharp will add to the sound while the B-flat in the first trombone, in that high register, will ring out even with all the other activity in the orchestra. I needn’t remind anyone to also note the percussion parts and the harp throughout this portion of the piece.

Traditional Traits

In Example 40.4 Ravel uses some of the orchestra for exactly what they were designed. Listen to the horns and lower brass on the down beats of measures 67, 69, 71 and 73. Ravel wants to emphasize the raw, strong sounds of these instruments. He puts the two sections in unison octaves and to emphasize that note he has the lower woodwinds and lower strings play the down beat as eighth notes. The sound that we hear after the attack is pure “down and dirty” brass.

Example 40.4 Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition (Maurice Ravel, orch.) –
9. Hut of Baba Yaga (64 – 88)
Antal Dorati, Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, Mercury Living Presence

Once we arrive at the sustained notes in measure 74, Ravel has all the strings – save the basses – play a nearly three octave glissando. And he wisely has the upper woodwinds hit that top A-flat eighth note to assure the ear that it is an A-flat – and a clean one.

For the next passage Ravel introduces a cymbal roll behind the descending chromatic lines tossed from one section to another as they get to the low “trills” noted above. And while he is playing with these sectional colors he brings in different woodwinds, brass and percussion. To make this all as effective as possible, Ravel smartly has the strings only play the down bowed down beats on the alternating measures beginning in measure 85.

Although I have not included it in the examples, I recommend listening to the continued alternating figures before the style change at measure 97. Note too the use of an open trumpet for the first four Gs in measures 93 and 94 followed by the muted ones in 95 and 96.

Delicacy in the Bass

When we do get to the B section of the movement the sounds change dramatically. For starters the passage commences with just a solo flute playing rapid, low triplets of thirds. This sound is harmonically ambiguous, especially once the bassoon and pizzicato contrabasses enter in the second measure with the descending augmented fourth.

Before moving on, listen to Example 40.5 and see how the rapid parts in the flute are played by two performers. In this low register the flute takes quite a bit of wind and given the rapid passage it would be almost impossible to find a place to take a breath. Hence, Ravel moves the pattern between the first and second players.

Example 40.5 Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition (Maurice Ravel, orch.) –
9. Hut of Baba Yaga (97 – 114)
Neeme Järvi, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Chandos

There is not much to say about the scoring of the bassoon and contrabasses. It’s a useful tool for this left hand pattern, but there are not too many other options for this kind of low but light passage. What is interesting, though, is the way Ravel uses string harmonics for the echos of the bassoon and contrabass lines. Note the unique sound in the other string sections in measure 106 through 108. (As has been stated here many times, if you’re unfamiliar with the way to notate the sound of a harmonic, seek out a performer for clarification.) Also note the way the clarinets take over the descending triplets in these same measures.

As this pattern comes to an end, Ravel adds some of his unique color identity. Most striking is the use of the celeste, xylophone and the harp harmonics. These sounds are reflected in the use of two piccolos, flute, and pizzicato strings.

Also note the introduction of the tuba, substituting for the previously used bassoon to double with the lower strings (and harp) on the bass melody.

Arriving at the Gate of Kiev

If we were searching for a precursor to the ending of this movement, we might look at the end of Limoges, the seventh movement. After using the lower woodwinds and strings for the bass trill, the upper strings begin to enter on their tremolos just as the winds begin the same lines up to the high G. Listen to Example 40.6.

Example 40.6 Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition (Maurice Ravel, orch.) –
9. Hut of Baba Yaga (193 – 213)
Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic, CBS

Note how Ravel has a cymbal roll throughout the passage and just before the final chromatic scale, the cymbal is joined by a snare drum roll. This is capped by the use of a ratchet for the final two measures. But listen to the space at the end of the movement. All the winds and strings are marked staccato. The percussion too is designed to leave a brief silence before the final movement of the work.


The review of this Mussorgsky-Ravel work will finish in the next article with the tenth and final movement, The Great Gate of Kiev, next week. As always, please let me know if you have any questions.

Matthew Yasner


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