45. The Colors of Melody


Heard and reviewed in this article are works by Bartók, Delius and Vaughan Williams

Among the many ways of listening to or analyzing music, one method breaks it down into melody, harmony and rhythm, as has been said here on a number of occasions. A big shift in any one of these in a piece of music will make listeners take note. These changes often denote a change in mood or direction of the piece. In Mozart’s day no self-respecting composer would make the two main themes of the first movement of a symphony in any way similar. If the first theme was angular, the second would be smooth. If the first theme was in a minor key, the second would be in a major one.

There’s nothing like a melody to give the listener a signpost to navigate the sonic adventure of a piece. And the melody’s presentation provides the composer with the opportunity to give it some of its character. Is the melody going to be poignant? Is it supposed to introduce a bit of levity after a somber section? Are we supposed to have our emotional heart strings figuratively plucked, stirring passion, fear, strength or sadness?

All of these emotions and many more can be conveyed by the arrangement and orchestration of a tune. We’ll listen to some examples in this post and in the future.

Second Seduction

The final post of 2014 ended with an example of a melody played in three octaves by divisi first violins on the upper two octaves and violas on the bottom voice from the fourth movement of Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. The only background was from sustained chords from the harp with the other strings providing the articulation with their pizzicato chords.

It seemed only fitting therefore to begin 2015 with another melody, simply introduced from another work by Bartók, the ballet The Miraculous Mandarin. If you’re not familiar with the story, I recommend that you see a performance of it. If that’s not a current possibility, reading up on it will assist you to understand the score.

In Example 45.1, there’s a passage from the “second decoy game” where a young woman is coerced into trying to seduce a young man to help her captors can rob him. The example, from the beginning of the “seduction,” presents a solo melody (at measure 250) by the oboe over a sustained chord from the English horn and clarinets. The melody continues in the next bar, but now the sustained chord, a triad, is played by six cellos, two on each note. This sound is much more intimate than if the triad had been performed by the entire cello section.

45.1 Béla Bartók: The Miraculous Mandarin ballet (250-268)
Claudio Abbado, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Deutsche Grammophon

Bartók adds more winds and strings bit by bit through the next few measures: First a clarinet doubles the bottom of the cello triad in measure 252, then four soli violas enter in the next bar, becoming the bottom of the chord in measure 253. The sound is enhanced further in the next measure. Here, the lower two cellos play a double stopped open fifth, doubled at the unison by the clarinets. Note that the upper part of the chord, the minor third, B – D, is doubled by the flutes at the bottom of their range, the four violas, doubled stopped, and the upper four cellists. Although it’s not a part of the range of the flute where it can stand out in a crowd the way it can in its uppermost register, the harmony between the two rounds out the string sound adding a richness that enhances the overall timbre.

It’s clear to the listener that the composer is arriving at a minor climax with the English horn entering to double the oboe line. The accompaniment serves to emphasize the descending fourth, now a half-step higher than it was when the oboe line entered four measures previously.

After a brief silence the oboe continues its line in the next bar. When it hits the F at the beginning of the 7/4 measure (256), the clarinet enters with the soli violas and cellos sustained for the two 7/4 bars. But after the first measure, the English horn plays a similar passage, the new timbre making a listener take notice.

The composer changes the character in the next bar with sustained octaves in the horns with an upward arpeggio harp passage repeated for the next eight or nine measures. Note how the composer changes this subtle background sound after the first three measures. Where the two horns were sustaining the octave Cs (concert), the violas take over, playing the same pitches as tremolos. To make the shift from the sustained sound of the horns to the tremolo violas, Bartók brings in one flute on middle C. This is a perfect way to continue the sound, but to make its timbre diverse and maintain the listener’s interest.

As this background continues, the melody is given to the other double reed instrument, the bassoon, high up in its range. It’s educational to note how the composer is never one to let a sound stick around to long without making a slight (or sometimes, not so slight) adjustment. For example, after the first four measures of the bassoon solo (261 through 264), one muted violin enters to double the bassoon line, but without the grace notes. This adds interest as well as tension especially from the brief, but somewhat rare sound of the harmonics at end of the line on the D.

And in the final two bars of the example, the lower strings continue the quarter note pattern established by the harp octaves, two more solo violas are added to the tremolo sound and the clarinet and two horns enter on a triad. All of this supports the melody line now played by the flute and two soli violins.

Each of these sounds, by itself, is not necessarily surprising, but the way in which the composer shifts from strings to reeds to the horns, especially in this transparent and soft passage is a little bit of orchestrational magic. Listen to it a few times, trying to imagine what it would sound like if the composer had not made these subtle timbre decisions. It deserves study because of these odd and compelling choices.

Paris, The Song of a Great City

It’s not uncommon to open a work with a pedal and sustain it while the orchestra builds upon this base. A few compositions that come to mind almost immediately are Claude Debussy’s La Mer and Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé. Another preeminent example is the opening of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold, the first of the quartet of operas known as Der Ring des Nibelungen. (Wagner himself referred to the four operas as three music dramas with a substantial prelude.) In these works the pedal (or foundation) is formed by some combination of bassoons, timpani and basses.

In Frederick Delius’s paean to the city in which he spent much of his life, he chooses to use the contrabasses divided in octaves (as does Wagner in Das Rheingold) and the contrabassoon doubling the bottom basses as you can hear in Example 45.2.

45.2 Frederick Delius: Paris, the Song of a Great City (1-24)
Andrew Davis, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Teldec

But Delius, just as the French composers mentioned above, adds the timpani to the mix. Another notable difference is that Delius here is not one to maintain the pedal for long. By the second measure he introduces a melodic line in the solo bass clarinet that appears to stem from the pedal D with the line moving from E to F-sharp and eventually to the A in measure 4.

By themselves the bass clarinet line here and the one that follows are not too orchestrationally interesting. However, what ensues in the cellos deserves notice: Divided into three, the cellos enter on a triad in the first inversion (6-5 inversion) in their lower range. This is sustained for just one quarter note and then they move to the same triad in a second (6-4) inversion. Getting a group of ten or twelve cellos to sound clean and full without sounding muddy is a challenge for the conductor, but it is a relatively rare sound. Used with sparingly and with care is brings a robust, rich and round sound to this austere mix.

Delius likes the sound enough to bring it back after the second bass clarinet solo, in three different chords (all built on the same notes the bass clarinet introduced in its opening solo). To extend the melody line the composer adds a measure of 9/8 and then, in a nod to Herr Wagner, he introduces first one and then a second horn echoing with long, rising arpeggios. These culminate in the matched pairs of eighth note triplets, first in the clarinets with open harmony and, as the upper horns enter to sustain the polytonal quality, the second violins divided in three in close harmony.

The composer introduces a new idea with two unison bassoons playing in measure 23. Note how clear the bassoons sound even with all of the other voices. Of course, this is partly true because the bassoons are marked mezzoforte while the other voices are marked pianissimo. But it’s also the case that the round, reedy sound of the bassoons in this range will easily penetrate the surrounding sound. We’ll return to this work in the near future.

A London Symphony

We previously listened to a passage in the second movement of the second symphony by Ralph Vaughan Williams, entitled A London Symphony. In that example the solo viola presented a melody, soon to be joined by other voices. For this example we’ll listen to a passage a minute or so prior to that example to hear how the composer uses the combination of a flute and a trumpet in unison.

The flute is the only orchestral reed or woodwind instrument that has neither a reed nor is constructed of wood. It has the unique sound among the woodwinds because of its metal tube that can add a bright, rich sound unlike the other woodwinds. It is often used to double the trumpet at the unison. Although it is usually not readily apparent to the average listener it can be heard distinctly with a bit of focus.

In this section of the work, Vaughan Williams begins with two measures of sustained lower strings, both the violas and cellos are divisi. To add some movement to these sustained chords, the composer brings in all the strings and gives them a rhythmic pattern that adds just a little to the otherwise stolid sustained chords. These chords begin in 4/4: two eighth note triplets and then a syncopated eighth, quarter, eighth. The next bar has two noticeable quarter notes in 2/4. To this pattern is added a solo horn playing a quarter note E on the fourth beat of the 4/4 measure, moving up to an A on the downbeat of the ensuing 2/4 bar. To emphasize the A, the composer adds a second horn down an octave and a soft timpani roll.

Listen to Example 45.3 and hear how effective this seemingly nondescript background is for the melody introduced by the flute and trumpet.

Example 45.3 Ralph Vaughan Williams: Symphony Number 2, “A London Symphony,” Movement 2 (25 – 42)
Leonard Slatkin, Philharmonia Orchestra, RCA

The two flutes doubling the trumpet solo naturally adds a bit more sound than just one. Noticeably for the conductor, the flutes are marked double piano while the trumpet is marked triple piano. We know these are all relative markings, but it gives the conductor an idea of the composer’s wishes.

In measure 33, note the hand-off from at end of the trumpet’s line on the fourth beat of the measure, the E (concert). We have the three flutes and the second clarinet entering to pick up the melodic line until the fourth beat of measure 34. Hear how the composer adds another layer to the orchestration with the introductions of the oboe, English horn, first clarinet, bass clarinet and the third horn. Building to the entrance of the string line in measure 37, Vaughan Williams brings back the trumpet-flute combination just before the next bar.

Note the clever leap of an octave from beat 2 to 3 of measure 36 in both instruments. This is the set-up for the other woodwinds and strings to enter with their octave leap from beat 4 to the downbeat of measure 37. The genius in this scoring is the way that these timbre shifts are almost constant, keeping our interest, but without bringing attention to the craft. They operate in a supporting role, but one that is integral to the music.

On this entrance, the composer adds both harps in unison with four note chords in each hand. This introduces us to the arrival of the string melody. And for one more additional bit of activity, the lower strings begin and upward rise on the downbeat, the movement lasting through the middle of the following bar, just to begin again.

The climax here is in measure 41 with sustained chords from the woodwinds and brass as well as the strings. Note too the entrance of the lower brass and the timpani roll accompany the flute and strings on the A above high C. One brief score feature: Vaughan Williams does not use the timpani to crescendo to the climax. Instead, he uses the timpani at the climax in measure 41.

Although this climax took several measures to achieve, the composer takes just one measure to diminish and remove it. By the time we arrive at measure 42, it is history and the strings enter virtually alone.

If you’ll take a few moments to review these last bars of the example, you’ll hear how masterful the composer is in building the passage, achieving the climax and releasing it quickly. It is an example of how a craftsman can manipulate the forces of a large orchestra to introduce a melody with contrast, intelligence and interest.


With this post I am moving all of the previous posts (from 2013 and 2014) to a new site just for these archives. It can be reached at Orchestra Sounds Archive. And the menu bar item “Archives” can always be used to locate all these previous posts. Let me know your thoughts or if you have any questions.

Matthew Yasner


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