44. Presenting Melody


Examples played and reviewed in this article

Melody, harmony and rhythm are fundamental elements of music. One might legitimately argue that melody should be at the top of the list. While we might find ourselves tapping our feet or beating on the steering wheel to a familiar or well loved rhythm, it’s melody that we sing, hum or whistle when we’re alone.

But what is a melody? Is it simply a collection of notes? Is the “walking” line played by the bassist in a jazz quintet a melody? What about an inner voice in a Bach chorale? What about a viola part playing on beats two and three of each measure in the minuet of a Haydn string quartet?

The answer is that, yes, they are melodies, but perhaps they’re on a sliding scale. That is, they are tones to a degree.

Here’s an example to consider. Listen to Example 44.1a. Do you think it’s a melody? If so, is it presented in any way to showcase it?

Example 44.1a Mystery (3 – 7)

If you’re not familiar with the “tune” I’ll give you a hint: It’s played by a bass clarinet. Listen in Example 44.1b to the passage from which this melody comes.

Example 44.1b Mystery solved (1 – 7)
Ernest Ansermet, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, London

Now you can hear the melodic line in context. It’s the bass clarinet line from the opening of the first scene in the Nutcracker ballet by Tchaikovsky. If you’re one of the many people who know only the Suite from The Nutcracker, you owe it to yourself – even if you never see it danced – to listen to the full ballet. There is so much to discover is the delightful score.

When you put this bass clarinet melody in context, it’s more than just a strange ascending scale. It becomes a voice that is singing below the busy work of the string’s eighth notes and the incipient pieces of a parts of a tune played by the first violins.

This post will look at a few examples from well known works in which the composer introduces melodic constructions or statements and review these introductions to hear how each is unique. And although each one is like no other, they are still share common elements in context.

A London Symphony

We’re going to start with an example in which a melody is played on a solo viola. Listen to Example 44.2. It is from the second movement of Ralph Vaughan William’s second symphony, entitled “A London Symphony,” from 1914.

The solo viola plays the modal melody softly. Just as the soloist is completing the phrase, the lower woodwinds enter, supported by a solo horn line and harp chords. There may be no clearer way to produce a melody than by having one solo instrument play it with a tacit orchestra. When the first clarinet enters to provide the continuation of the theme, the instrument is on top of the accompanying harmony. As you listen to the example, hear how the clarinet in its middle register stands out, overshadowing the lines played by first one and then a second horn.

Example 44.2 Ralph Vaughan Williams: Symphony Number 2, “A London Symphony,” Movement 2 (59 – 77)
Leonard Slatkin, Philharmonia Orchestra, RCA

When the solo viola returns at measure 67, it is doubled with the English horn at the unison. Note that on this entrance the tutti violas and the lower strings enter with sustained harmony. Although the viola might stand on its own, it has a better chance to be heard with the addition of the English horn, a good choice to double the instrument in this register. Vaughan Williams might have chosen another woodwind but this double reed is perfect to give the viola just a bit of an edge to make the two of them sing as one in a novel timbre.

Listen to how the inner harp voices double the viola parts as the bottom harp lines double the lower strings. Note the bit of orchestrational magic as the solo lines and the bassoon entrance on the second beat of measure 69 almost hide the fact that the upper strings enter at the same moment on a tremolo second. You don’t hear them enter, but just barely perceive them by the time the violas add to the mix on the downbeat of measure 70.

Before leaving these few measures (67-69) it’s worth taking a moment to see how the harp adds to the energy with its chords on the downbeats as well as the inner voice. The passage has been somewhat static: first with the solo string and then with the smooth wind voices. The composer appears to feel that it’s important to breathe a little bit of rhythmic energy into the slightly stolid structure and the harp does this for him perfectly.

At this point the open cantabile English horn and viola solo are just memories. The energy focuses on the clarinet and its repeated As (concert F-sharps) with their appoggiaturas/pickups. After a similar passage by the piccolo, the clarinet returns with another solo passage.

But let’s take a moment to listen to the piccolo here. Remember that the piccolo sounds an octave higher than where it is written, so this brief passage could have easily been played by the flute. In fact, the flute would sound brighter in this passage at the octave than the piccolo. And the piccolo is frequently used to double the flutes in the upper stratosphere. Yet, the piccolo brings something unique to this register: It sounds “breathy,” so much so, in fact, that it could almost sound like a fife or even a pan flute (also known as a pan pipe). Given the pastoral tone to this movement, it adds to the inherent bucolic sound of the winds, the melodies, and the modal harmonies. It’s a small touch, but often that’s what makes the difference between merely functional and truly extraordinary orchestration.

Pavane pour une infante défunte

Now let’s show off another beautiful, and unfortunately less often used, orchestral instrument: the horn. In Ravel’s haunting Pavane pour une infante défunte (Pavane for a dead princess) written for a chamber orchestra, the horn in G was designated as the opening soloist.

As I understand it, Ravel liked natural sound of the crooked horn and scored the piece for these natural horns. If you’re not familiar with horn in G (and most people would probably not be) just recall that the concert pitch is a fourth lower than that written in the score.

Example 44.3 Maurice Ravel: Pavane pour une infante défunte (1 – 12)
George Szell, Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, CBS

The sound of the solo horn here is plaintive when played alone. In Example 44.3 however the soloist is accompanied by sustained chords in the bassoons and second horn, the ensemble providing a special form of blending the two wind sections. To assist in the introduction of the sound, Ravel holds back on the lower strings on the opening downbeat. Instead, only the muted second violins and violas have the major third pizzicato and the ensuing eighth note rhythmic chords.

The muted pizzicato cellos play the “off beats” on 2 and 4 with the muted basses entering on three of the first measure. Even when the same rhythm is repeated by the winds in measure 3, the only accompaniment at the opening is the second violins and violas. The simple beauty of this passage is easy to just soak in. But it’s educational to recall that a lesser orchestrator might unnecessarily choose to “enhance” the passage, another example of “less is more.”

There are a few other interesting items in this example. For one, hear how Ravel uses the divided basses pizzicato to enhance the entrance of the solo horn on the second beat of measure 7. In the following bar, he doubles the horn an octave lower when he introduces the first violins. He also removes one bassoon, substituting a clarinet for it.

To make sure we don’t miss the horn melody in measure 10 he has it doubled down one and two octaves by the clarinet and the bassoon respectively. Although the part is marked to crescendo and decrescendo in this measure, most players would naturally perform it that way. And lastly, in the next measure, listen to the first entrance of the oboe, at the bottom of its range, playing the brief melody. Hear how the suddenly novel effect of the low strings adds to the sound produced by the clarinet below the oboe.

The surprising opening of this lovely piece is stunning in its beauty and its simplicity. It’s a great example of how a master craftsman puts notes on the page.

I pini di Roma, Pini presso una catacomba

The composer and musicologist Ottorino Respighi is probably best known for his Roman tone poems and for his brilliantly arranged and orchestrated sets of Renaissance works.

Example 44.4 is a passage from the movement in I pini di Roma (The Pines of Rome) entitled Pini presso una catacomba (Pines Near a Catacomb). The suite is scored for a large orchestra of triple woodwinds, a wide variety of brass, especially lower brass, keyboards, percussion and strings. In this example, however, we’re going to look at how he showcases the solo trumpet (in C).

Example 44.4 Ottorino Respighi: I pini di Roma, Pini presso una catacomba (17 – 27)
Riccardo Muti, Philadelphia Orchestra, Philips

He asks for the performer to be “as far away as possible” but to play forte (and sweetly and expressively) so he or she can be heard. The trumpet solo also stands out because the only accompaniment comes for the upper strings, primarily divided violins. Initially, they play a three octave unison line, but by the third measure Respighi opens up the harmony and in the fourth through sixth measures the violas join in and the harmonies in thirds are ascending and descending concurrently.

The natural advantage to this approach is in isolating the sonic range so that in addition to the lack of accompanying movement – at the start at least – the soloist has the area to himself or herself and can be a rhythmically as adventurous as desired. We’ve seen examples of this in other compositions, but here Respighi envisioned the soloist performing from a different location, possibly offstage or in a balcony. It may be a “gimmick,” but it is an effective one.

Once we pass the first six bars (measures 17 through 22), similar to the Vaughan Williams discussed above Respighi needs to add some regular rhythm to the passage. His choice is to begin with the harp and celesta. Although the rhythm heretofore could be interpreted as being in 2 or in 3, at measure 23 the harp and the cellos emphasize the duple meter: The upper cellos and harp have down beats on 1 and 4, with off beats on 3 and 6. Over these sounds, the celesta has triplets with the down beats tied from the previous triplet. This effect emphasizes the two and three of each (triplet) beat.

Tonally all these instruments are playing the same note, a B, but in this configuration (and with the first violins) the B becomes a pedal for most of the remainder of the example. The only variation is at the point when the flutes and bass clarinet enter and play the ascending line (along with the first violins), G – A – B.

There are some parallels here to the orchestration in Ravel’s Bolero, in sections where the flute, for example, is playing the same repeated note to match the rhythm of the percussion. In this passage, as soon as Respighi ends the pedal Bs in the cellos, he adds in the second and fourth horns. He wants the audience’s ear to know about and remember that B!

Concerto for Orchestra

The fourth movement of Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra has the subtitle Intermezzo interrotto (“Interrupted Intermezzo”) and the piece lives up to its title. With one listen it’s easy to hear both the basic melodies with their irregular tempos and as well as the lively and regular march-like melodies with which it is interrupted.

When we arrive at the passage in Example 44.5 we have heard this plaintive melody played before, both by itself and with countermelodies. In this passage Bartók has the first violins with mutes divided in half in octaves. Remember that with half the instrumentalists comes only half the volume of sound. The tune appears to be strongest in the violas with the slightly ethereal sound of the split first violins above them. Except for the relatively sustained harp chords there are no other held tones. The only other parts are the second violins and lower strings playing pizzicato chords. Bartók shows us the confidence that three octaves of melody in the upper strings can balance the lower strings with these relatively sustained harmonies in the harp.

Example 44.5 Béla Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra, Movement 4 (119 – 135)
Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, RCA

In the Respighi example above, we saw how he used the repeated notes of the celesta to give rhythm to a passage that had little. These were especially interesting because the entire “rhythm” was monotonous, that is, they all played the same note.

In some ways Bartók reflects that here with the little woodwind parts after the string parts have ceased. Note how the clarinet holds its C (concert B-flat) at measure 132. Behind that sustained pitch, first the oboe and then the flute play the same note, but staccato in an irregular pattern. It produces or adds to the excitement of a simple sustained solo voice.


This post began with a lesser known example of a melody hidden in a bass clarinet line enmeshed in a string orchestra. As the concept of the production and presentation of melody was the core of the article, we looked at the viola solo by in A London Symphony by Vaughan Williams, the melody introduced by the G horn in the Ravel Pavane, the trumpet accompanied by the heavenly strings in the Respighi Pines, and finally the three octave string melody in the Bartók Concerto.

Taken as a group, it’s an interesting mix of a few of the variety of ways a composer can use just one instrument or just a handful of them to introduce a melody that’s cut from a whole piece of cloth. So often we’ve examined tunes that have split personalities: played by brass and strings, woodwinds and string, brass and woodwinds, or some other compelling combinations.

In this post I focused on essentially solo voices and I think it’s both refreshing and edifying to hear and examine these passages.

Remember that the Previous Posts in the header menu bar can always be used to locate all the previous posts. Let me know your thoughts or if you have any questions.

And lastly, in this season closely associated with Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker ballet, here are links to some of my earlier posts that include examples from the work.


The Hand-off (November 25, 2013)
Got Rhythm? (February 19, 2014)
Waltz of the Flowers
Triple time 1 (March 23, 2014)

Best wishes for 2015!

Matthew Yasner


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