46. The Colors of Melody 2


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

Just can’t get that melody out of your head? At the very least, I might have some tunes to replace it. Melodic lines will be the primary subject again for this week’s post. But these examples range a little more widely in design than those of the previous post. They still have their emphasis on melody, but the orchestrations provide a broader range of styles.

We’ll listen to a passage from the third movement in the second of the Ancient Airs and Dances, probably the best known of these three suites by the Respighi. The passage is a rich tapestry of sound and merits a detailed examination. This is followed by a gracefully transparent section of the first movement in Vaughan Williams’s Second Symphony, entitled A London Symphony. And we’ll end with a brief, but dynamic passage in Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin ballet. I think you’ll find all of these selections to be interesting and their study edifying.

Quick note: This is my second post of 2015 and my second post with this “theme,” the layout I’ve chosen for the new year. I’m still unsure if I will stay with this one. So, if you read these posts regularly, just be forewarned that the look and feel may be changing yet again until I’ve settled on one that works for these posts and examples. If you have thoughts about the theme, please let me know.

The Bells of Paris

Among the various hats Ottorino Respighi wore in his busy life was that of a musicologist. As such he championed Italian music of the Renaissance. He arranged and orchestrated songs and dances of the period, eventually creating four sets of suites: three entitled Ancient Airs and Dances (Antiche arie e danze) and a fourth devoted to music evocative of songbirds, entitled The Birds (Gli uccelli).

Example 46.1 comes from the third movement of the second suite of Ancient Airs and Dances entitled Campanae parisienses [The Bells of Paris] & Aria. The sound of the original work for lute by Jean-Baptiste Besard (a contemporary of Shakespeare) is supposed to be reminiscent of the ringing and sustained sounds from church bells.

46.1 Ottorino Respighi: Ancient Airs & Dances 2, Movement 3. Campanae parisienses (250-268)
Christopher Lyndon-Gee, Australian Chamber Orchestra, Omega

Although the first portion of the example has the English horn doubling the inner string voices (mainly the second violins), it’s the richness of the sets of two bassoons and two horns that assist the sound made by the tightly knit strings. Listen to the inner voices of the divided cellos doubled with the bassoons. This is a sound crafted by Respighi the orchestrator that could not be obtained by a solo lute or even a similar but enhanced plucked string instrument such as the theorbo.

Yet it seems that Respighi the arranger wants to stay at least partially true to the original work. This is only an assumption on my part, because I don’t know the original well. Understanding a little about lute tuning tells me that Besard may have written for an instrument whose strings are mostly a fourth apart (frequently G-C-F-A-D-G), similar to – but not the same as – the modern guitar. Of course, the guitar’s strings begin on E and the major third is one set off. The point, though, is that it is relatively easy to play harmonies that are a tenth (a third plus an octave) apart. These kinds of lines are common in lute music. So, note the two bassoons as well as the first violins and upper cellos beginning on the second beat of measure 49: They enter and crescendo for a few beats in tenths. Given the lack of movement in the other voices this line in tenths stands out to maintain the sonic impression of a lute, if not the timbral one. The double reeds and lower strings continue this tenth scalar line in measures 51 and 52.

Upon the entrance of the upper woodwinds enter at measure 52, Respighi applies the well-used logic of changing timbre when a passage is replayed. The three flutes and one oboe take up the top melodic line previously carried by the first violins. In its own way, the sound is also rich and balances the middle and lower strings in their pleasing, sustained lush timbre. At the end of this three measure passage, the violins have dropped out completely and the violas, divided into three parts, move on quarter notes up the C chord to their higher register to restate the pattern beginning at measure 55.

As this passage continues here the flutes on the top line (soprano) are still in unison, joined by one oboe and the top violas. The middle violas and second flute play the second voice (alto) and the lower violas double the English horn on the third voice (tenor). The divided contrabasses are scored for the bass line. Respighi doubles all of these voices, mostly at the lower octave, in the bassoons, horns and cellos. Again the sound is lush and lacks the bright edge that violins can add to this kind of ensemble.

To give the sound even more richness in the lower range, as the phrase continues around measure 60, a trio of trombones is added to the sustained sounds of the English horn and bassoons. Listen to the trombone entrance and hear how much their close harmony adds to the warmth of the passage’s crescendo through the 4/4 measure, number 62.

Another bit of Respighi’s craftsmanship is to have the first violins enter mezzo-forte on the second half of that measure (bar 62) and crescendo to the down beat of measure 63 where the entire ensemble comes together. This down beat is enhanced by the triple and quadruple stopped chords by the strings. As the passage continues, Respighi has the top line (the soprano melody) now scored in three octaves (flutes, oboe and violins on top; horn and cellos in the middle; and bassoon and trombone on the bottom). With the steady quarter note line in the bass this slow “dotted” rhythm is perfectly juxtaposed to highlight their sounds. And, again, this has at least a passing nod to the sound of church bells, with their often-irregular rhythms.

If you are an orchestrator or someone who is learning the craft, I suggest studying this passage to hear the choices Respighi made and what you might have done differently or what you might have done the same.

A London Symphony

Recently we’ve examined pieces that use a subset of one of more string sections of the orchestra. To make a comparison, as an example there’s an intimacy that comes from a string quartet that you cannot achieve with a string orchestra.

In my last post we listened to a portion of the adagio from Ralph Vaughan Williams Second Symphony, entitled A London Symphony. Example 46.2 is from the opening movement and features a string octet playing “out front” (i.e., figuratively) of the orchestra. In some parts the octet plays as a quartet with two instruments on a part and in other sections they play eight distinct lines.

This creates a sense of presence and immediacy that could not be achieved with the full complement of strings. Listen to Example 46.2 and, for starters, hear how the solo cello begins a line that rises two octaves and then is handed off to a solo violin at middle C-sharp as the latter’s line rises up a thirteenth to the A. This tone is sustained while one harp enters with a rising F-sharp minor seventh arpeggio that finishes on the same A as the sustained solo violin.

What follows is the string octet, entering on the previously sustained chord, and is soon moving to another sustained chord along with the rest of the strings. Note, however, that the octet mainly has the higher portion of the chord. The entrance is accented by the string basses playing a pizzicato C-sharp. On this iteration, the harp plays a C-sharp major arpeggio.

This pattern continues until, what is perhaps the most stunning and lovely part of this passage, the soli string quartet portion from measures 251 through to the entrance of the clarinet in 254. The writing is “string quartet style” with its open harmonies and the presence developed by the solo ensemble writing.

46.2 Ralph Vaughan Williams: Symphony 2, A London Symphony, Movement 1 (233-256)
Adrian Boult, London Philharmonic Orchestra, EMI

And, upon the entrance of the winds, the writing is reminiscent of a typical woodwind quintet, a relatively standard ensemble of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn. (Although, with the second clarinet joining so quickly perhaps it might be best referred to as a woodwind sextet.) Keep in mind that this brief passage is from the first movement of a symphony written for a large orchestra. If this were the only passage you’d heard, you might think that the piece was for a chamber orchestra or an even smaller ensemble. A less experienced orchestrator might think that by not using the full resources of the orchestra he or she was committing a sin.

But this is not the case. Instead, the reverse is true. By using the tools available with economy and focus, the composer obtains an intelligence and intimacy in this liberating arrangement of voices.

More Miraculous Mandarin

This work has so many novel sounds that I keep returning to it for inspiration. We are going to hear how the composer adds intimacy by moving the melody to two cellos and a few bassoons. Before we get to this line, note the disjointed parts in the first two measures of Example 46.3.

These two measures, at least until the “melody” enters with the cellos, have a melody line and an accompaniment. The melody line is played by the upper woodwinds harmonized at the second in each voice. There are upward and downward leaps, but the line is played legato. What I find to be most interesting here are the way the upper strings have accents on a variety of the on and off beats while the lower strings play on the beats not in the upper strings. Joining the inchoate bit of music, are one flute, two bassoons, a couple of horns and a harp.

46.3 Béla Bartók: Miraculous Mandarin ballet (202-206)
Claudio Abbado, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Deutsche Grammophon

It throws off most of what we rely on as guides when listening to music. It’s difficult to find the beat for foot tapping. It’s not exactly a hummable tune. The line is shrill. Yet, with all these “faults,” the music works at a subliminal level.

When the two cellos enter of the last three eighth notes of the second measure (bar 203), they are joining the last part of the line played by the upper woodwinds. But at the moment of the downbeat, when the rhythm notably changes to straightforward down beats and up beats, the sound is new and immediate.

First listen to how the orchestra provides the simple quadruple rhythm. The clarinets have a staccato eighth note pattern moving between G-sharp and B. (We’ve seen and heard the interval of a minor third recurring frequently in this work.) The clarinet’s off beats are accented by pizzicato upper string chords. Adding to this highlight is the piano, whose right hand doubles the chord played by the first and second violins and the viola. The lower strings (most of the cellos and the contrabasses) play the down beats pizzicato accompanied by the piano’s left hand.

Among all of these other happenings we have the muted trombone in its central register doing these glissandos from B-sharp to D-sharp. This helps to emphasize or even showcase the minor third in the reeds.

The trombone pattern brings us to the one item we have not yet discussed in depth: the melodic line played by the two cellos. Note that the line itself focuses on the key points of the work: the minor third and the tritone. While these two cellos are playing the line with the bassoons, they have a glissando from the B to the G-sharp on the third beat of the first measure. Remember that the trombones reflect this slightly before the second and fourth beat of the two measures. Then, on the third measure, the trombones do this on each beat, accelerating the pace. Note that the piano also shifts its written part. By changing the notation to eighth notes and fleshing out the harmonies on the both the down beats and up beats, Bartók adds to this increase in the intensity of the passage.

The intimacy of the passage is focused on the two cellos playing the melodic line. Remember the intimacy that Vaughan Williams reached by using just a handful of strings in the soli passage in Example 46.2. Bartók achieves the same effect here with the two cellos on the melodic line.


As of my previous post, all of the posts from 2013 and 2014 were moved to an archived site. Just to remind you it can be reached at Orchestra Sounds Archive. The menu item “Archives” can also be used to locate these previous posts. Let me know your thoughts or if you have any questions.

Finally, if you’d like to leave a comment, please feel free: Dialog is welcomed and encouraged. I try to avoid the large amount of bot-created and undesired communications. However, if you are a human being and you’d like to contact me you can make an address for me from my first name at this URL.

Matthew Yasner


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