42. Combinations


Examples played and reviewed in this article:

Early this year I began posting an occasional series of articles about Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition, centering on Maurice Ravel’s familiar orchestration of it. The last several movements were the focus of the recent posts. If you’re interested in reviewing the series, remember to click on the “Table of Contents” button below the header image for a list of all previous posts. Each of the series – like “What Would Ravel Do?” – is grouped together at the top with individual posts below.

Given the orderly content in the Mussorgsky-Ravel posts, I have decided to take a more capricious approach. This post and the next one will draw from examples of a variety of music with its focus on interesting and sometimes rare sounds from the orchestra.

A hybrid among instruments

For the first example we’ll look at an instrument that is rarely associated with the orchestra: the saxophone, an instrument developed by Adolphe Sax in the middle of the nineteenth century. It is a reed instrument and categorized as such, but its timbre has a metallic edge often making it stand out in an orchestra. Hence, it is apt to be used as a solo instrument more than an ensemble one when playing orchestral music. Unlike the flute, clarinets, bassoons and horns, it is not considered a blending instrument. After it was invented there were two families, one in F and C and the other in B-flat and E-flat. The F and C instruments are rarely seen today, although there are some players of the C soprano and C melody saxes. The array of the B-flat and E-flat instruments runs from bass to sopranino, but the most commonly played today are the B-flat soprano, E-flat alto, B-flat tenor, and E-flat baritone saxes.

Example 42.1 Bizet: L’Arlésienne Suite Number 2 (18 – 27)
Thomas Beecham, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, EMI

In the first example we see the instrument’s use as a soloist in the L’Arlésienne Suite number 2 by Georges Bizet. The composer uses the instrument here just to add a new sound color in a brief transitional section in the “Pastorale” movement.

In the passage preceding the example, the saxophone has solo octave leaps. This example, with staccato sixteenth notes in the flute, clarinet and bassoons, shows the saxophone entering with an upward fourth. In the next measure the upward fourth is played on the horn followed by a similar passage back with the alto saxophone. The use of the sax for these short solos exhibits the way that the instrument can be used in a delicate fashion, but in the standard canon it’s much more the exception than the rule. Note that we have heard other examples of works that include the saxophone from Prokofiev and Ravel among others.

I’ve included a few measures of the ensuing passage wherein the flute and the English horn have a canon with the double reed entering two beats after the flute. The passage is quite simple and transparent, the only other element being the open fifths in the bassoons. The drone, added by the latter, provides a sound similar to two open strings in the lower part of the orchestra. It’s a short bit of clear writing achieved by paring down the options the large orchestra provides and another example of “less is more.”

Serious timpani

Berlioz is one of the cornerstones of innovative orchestration. We have examined some of the creative ideas he brought to the orchestra in the past, especially in the Symphonie fantastique. Here we are going to listen to the use of four timpani in the Resurrexit of the twenty-year-old’s Messe solennelle from 1825.

Example 42.2 Berlioz: Messe solennelle – Resurrexit (87 – 107)
John Eliot Gardiner, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and Monteverdi Choir, Philips

The score calls for two performers with two timpani each (although a performer on each drum might make for smoother rolls). They are tuned to B-flat and D in one part and G and E-flat in the other. Bizet employs these players sparingly but effectively in the text that has the basses singing “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end.”

In his desire to highlight these fateful lines Berlioz uses two and even three timpani at a time with sustained rolls. This must have been shocking and evocative for a nineteenth century audience. Listen to Example 42.2. What do you think of these timpani playing harmony?

Another thing to notice about this score is the variety of keys in which the brass are pitched. The common standard is for music to be written for horns in F and modern trumpets are pitched in C and B-flat. Nevertheless, you will still see many examples of scores with horns and trumpets written for instruments in C, B-flat, A, F, D and E-flat, among others. These parts are common enough that it would benefit anyone doing score reading and analysis to be familiar with these transposing instruments.

Mystic Circle‘s alto flute

The “Mystic Circle of the Young Girls” is the second section in the second part of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps. If you’re unfamiliar with Le Sacre du printemps – often simply called “the Rite” – don’t delay in learning it. It’s a work that every orchestrator should know. In that one work Stravinsky pushed back many boundaries of orchestration – and music in general.

At the opening of this section, Stravinsky has six solo violists playing a melody with tight and mostly dissonant harmony, spanning a couple of octaves. Two solo cellists play some harmonics above the violas. The rest of the lower strings give the passage rhythm, most still employing harmonics. If you’ve heard even a small amount of Stravinsky, it will sound quite familiar.

This short slow section with a variety of time signatures proceeds for eight measures. The tone changes dramatically when the upper strings enter at the beginning of the ninth measure with a pizzicato second, accenting the same two notes sustained and trilled by two clarinets for a couple of measures. You can hear this in Example 42.3.

Example 42.3 Igor Stravinsky: Le Sacre du printemps, Part 2 (64 – 75)
Lorin Maazel, Cleveland Orchestra, Telarc

A few measures later an alto flute enters (solo) as the first violins divide and play the only background in this passage. One group plays tremolos of chromatic seconds while the other group trills the same second. This is a method of cutting down the overall amount of sound, making it transparent at the same time. It creates a cluster of harmony.

The alto flute solo’s tessitura is actually below the strings here, as though the sound of this flute is the only voice in the orchestra. Concurrently the first violins are providing a vague miasma of soft sound just above the flute. Although the flute part could be played on a soprano (standard) flute, the richness of the alto gives it a more resonant sound. The instrument was relatively new to the orchestra just before World War I when this piece was premiered.

This is a great example of taking a relatively simple sound and making it an entire “background” section. One note, if you’re unfamiliar with the phrase: when a string performer is told to play flautando, that tells him or her to play with the bow slightly over the fingerboard. This diminishes the bite that a violin can have, especially when playing closer to the bridge. Sometimes flautando is differentiated from sul tasto. So it may be somewhere in between normal mode and bowing farther up on the fingerboard.

Balancing reeds with strings

I’ve included this next example to put at ease anyone concerned about balance between large string sections and just a handful of winds. This passage shows the combined forces of the entire string section trading repeated two beat phrases with three wind parts of two players each (flutes, oboes and bassoons).

Example 42.4 Antonin Dvořák: Symphony No. 8, Movement 1 (157-164)
Andrew Davis, London Symphony Orchestra, Philips

In the passage, the strings are playing homorhythmic harmonies while the winds are playing unison in three octaves. Of course the juxtaposition between the sound of the full string contingent and the sudden arrest of their sound is contrasted by the high pitched flutes and bassoons as well as the oboes. Nevertheless, the combined sound of the winds here are certainly a match for the strings. Dvořák takes advantage of this opposition to great benefit during this transition in the first movement of his Symphony Number 8.

The orchestration in this example is intertwined with its composition and it’s beyond the scope of these articles to get to involved in musical analysis. However, I suggest that the listener hear the upward scalar movement in the winds over the four bars with a similar downward one in the lower strings. In the last two measures of the example, hear how the first violins have ascending thirds that change into a scalar pattern as the line moves to a C-sharp in the ensuing measure. Again, the cellos and basses have a descending octave scale beginning on the C-sharp at the opening of measure 163. The passage in the example ends just as the composer uses an Italian augmented sixth chord (D augmented 6) to arrive at the C-sharps in the next bar.


As stated at the outset, we’ve moved among several composers and compositions in this post. Knowing a variety of techniques always gives the process of orchestration and the orchestrator a richer set of fundamentals upon which to build. Writing for relatively unused instruments gives a piece a new overall color as does juxtaposing forces that are frequently used in common.

Again, if you’d like to review the material on the Mussorgsky-Ravel Pictures, click on the Table of Contents in the header menu bar for a complete set of links. Let me know your thoughts or if you have any questions.

Matthew Yasner


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