47. The Colors of Melody 3: Subtlety


Heard and reviewed in this article are works by Frederick Delius and Antonín Dvořák

The orchestral repertoire would be poorer had every composer used all the instruments available throughout each work. The skill of the orchestrator or composer lies in how he or she engages the musical fabric by choosing just the right number and types of instruments for each voice, each melody, each line: for each moment. In addition, the balance, techniques and other notations that can modify the sound are necessary for the music’s creator to help the conductor and instrumentalists perform and interpret a work.

Selected for this post are two works written in the 1890s, one a veritable landmark of nationalism and the other a lesser known work that could be called an example of metropolitanism. However, Delius’s paean to Paris may be more of an homage than it is an impression.

Lower Thirds

Harmonies in thirds are run of the mill – and yet supremely satisfying. What composer, orchestrator or arranger has not put a tune on a staff and heard the sound of a voice a third below it or a third above it? The third has been a standard in music for centuries. If you consider that it is the fourth overtone of a fundamental, you could think of it as simply part of our physical world.

But, thirds – and harmonies in general – have their limits in the low end. At some point in the depths of the bass clef the voice becomes muddy, unclear and hard to discern without the assistance of a voice at the octave, the first overtone. This is one of the reasons that orchestral composers have traditionally doubled the contrabasses at the octave by the cellos.

When you attempt to harmonize in the subbasement the picture does not get much brighter. There are, of course, examples of composers putting harmonies in these depths, but rarely do they remain there.

More success can be achieved by moving up to the cellar: Putting your voices between Great C and middle C. Not only can harmonies be more readily perceived, but the options for orchestration – the available instruments – are increased dramatically. In Example 47.1 listen to a passage from Frederick Delius’s Paris, The Song of a Great City (Measures 69 – 76).

47.1 Frederick Delius: Paris, The Song of a Great City (69-76)
Andrew Davis, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Teldec

Listen to the bassoons and divided violas playing together in thirds in the first measure. They are in the middle C range and the harmonies are rich and, here, somewhat mysterious. In the following bar, Delius moves the sound to the clarinets and divided cellos. It may be a little difficult to hear because of the two additional voices in the measure: the piccolo and the horn. If you listen closely, you should hear the same melodic and rhythmic pattern from the previous measure repeated, just an octave lower in these darker instruments.

Where the third-harmonized melody is most apparent is in the next measure, bar 71. For this and the following measure, the composer expands the triplet from sixteenth notes to eighth notes. In addition, the line now has a bit of a dominant-tonic (V-I) feel, moving from the C-E third at the beginning of the phrase to the F-A third on the downbeat of measure 73.

Of special interest to the orchestrator is the way that Delius colors the pedal in the passage. In measure 69, it’s played by the timpani, second harp, cellos and basses. In the next bar, the cellos move to the melody in thirds and the fourth horn is called upon to fill the gap the cellos just left. Similarly, in the next bar, the contrabasses divide but are joined by the contrabassoon, with accents from the timpani on the downbeats of measures 71 and 72. When the cellos finally arrive at the F-A third on the downbeat of measure 73, they join the violas who have been playing the F-A third an octave higher as a tremolo. Adding to the interest are the off beats on one and three in the timpani.

When examined in this detail we can see and hear how clearly Delius needs to have that bottom note doubled to make the pedal a solid fixture in the subbasement. Those of you thinking about letting the bass voice play down there by themselves, take note: See the hoops that Delius makes the orchestra jump through just to maintain clarity of the pedal voice.

In the example’s added text, I’ve noted the solo bass clarinet in the second part of this passage. Although today the rich, reedy tones of the instrument are common, when this was written at the turn of the previous century (1899), it was a relatively novel and interesting  sound. One that extended the clarinet down an octave.

Coloring the Sound by Moving It Around

Example 47.2 plays a passage from later in the same work by Delius and is a great example of how smoothly a few melodic germs can be distributed to maintain timbral interest while also moving forward harmonically. The first of these seeds is initially played by the second violins in measure 296: Two scalar eighth notes followed by the leap of an upward sixth. We hear this played by the first violins in measure 299 and once more in measure 302. Each time it’s played the harmonic and rhythmic accompaniment is by the lower strings composed of a dotted half note and a quarter note.

The winds follow each of these measures with a chromatic sixteenth note run in thirds, emphasizing the down beats on the second measure of each bar. With the accents on two, it’s a bit reminiscent of the way a beginner piano student might be instructed to hit and sustain the dissonance of a cadence with his or her hands rising off the keyboard for the release on four. Note that for the first two of these, the down beat on two is enhanced by the addition of another instrument: In 297 it’s the English horn and in 300 it’s the piccolo.

47.2 Frederick Delius: Paris, The Song of a Great City (296-305)
Andrew Davis, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Teldec

The third part of this three measure pattern is a “turn” in the form of an eighth note triplet followed by a quarter note, then duplicated in the second half of each measure. We first hear it in measure 298 in the horn, then in measure 301 in the trumpet and in the flute in measure 304. Ultimately, the horn repeats the flute notes in the next measure, down an octave.

In both measures 304 and 305, the solo violin plays the dotted quarter note, eighth note and half note pattern used in its voice throughout the passage. In addition to the repeated pattern in the horn, what stands out most in these final few measures is the solo cello. In its robust and warm upper register, the soloist enters on the dotted quarter-eighth pattern, but on the fourth beat of the measure it introduces another eighth note triplet, something we’ve not encountered yet on that beat. It’s a small change, just a nuance, but played in a solo manner, the ear is drawn to the new sound.

Taken as a whole this brief passage plays the emotional content card by subtly shifting its underlying feeling. The chromaticism, the harp chords, the give and take of the string section, the solo violin line, and the colors in the reeds and brass combine to involve the listener at an emotional level that is at the same time moving, beautiful, sad and supportive.

It shows the nuance the composer can evoke from a carefully rehearsed orchestra.

Nuance in a Dvořák Warhorse

One of the most well known and beloved works in the orchestral canon, The New World Symphony deserves its fame. Written in 1893 while the composer was living in New York, it is rich with ideas that sound like traditional American folk tunes. Nearly fifty years ago a recording of the work accompanied man’s first trip to the moon. The passage in Example 47.3 reprises the main theme from the second movement, one in which the composer may have tried to evoke an American “spiritual.”

In this passage, late in the movement, the melody is first played by the English horn, the same instrument that introduced it at the opening of the movement. Just prior to the passage in the example, the orchestra climaxes at a fortissimo, recalling thematic material from both the first and second movements. The climax is reached and within two or three measures, the full orchestra diminishes to the pianissimo passage in the example. This juxtaposition almost subconsciously makes an audience work to hear in the suddenly quiet hall.

The composer’s decision to downsize the string section serves the purpose of making a smaller sound, but more importantly it makes the sound that it does produce even more intimate, more like a chamber ensemble than a full orchestra. In fact, with four players on each of the four string parts (first violin, second violin, viola and cello), we are listening to an enhanced string quartet sound rather than an orchestral one.

47.3 Antonín Dvořák: Symphony No. 2 (“From The New World”), Movement 2 (101 – 113)
Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, RCA

Note the voicing in the first measure: The lower third (D-flat and F) of the D-flat chord is played by the cellos with the violas doubled at the octave and for each group, the violins have the A-flat, the top of the triad. The English horn part, contained in the range of a fifth, sings out in the same register where first violins and violas reside. With the English horn’s reedy and rich timbre it’s impossible to not focus on that voice. Just to make sure, though, Dvořák (in this score at least) notates the strings to play pianissimo and the double reed piano.

Dvořák maintains the sound in a similar fashion through to the end of the English horn’s melody in measure 104. The four first and four second violins remain doubled at the octave. The four violas divide in measure 104 with the cellos moving their pedal D-flat in measure 103 and 104 to the median, the subdominant, the dominant and finally the tonic.

The composer, not someone I typically think about when I think of novel orchestration, does provide a rare orchestral string sound in the last part of this example. As the melody and its harmony moves to the subdominant for the next five measures, Dvořák reduces the size of the string section from a chamber ensemble to just two players on each string part. Let’s take a closer look at these voices.

Immediately noticeable is the melodic combination of the first violins and the violas playing in tenths. In between these two voices is the second violin part on a pedal D-flat with slight (that is, difficult to hear) rhythmic off beats. By itself, these three parts would be satisfactory. Yet, the composer puts the subdominant in the two cellos, with the two string basses playing the fifth above them. This is not a sound heard often. It’s quite subtle and if not seen in the score, might easily be overlooked. However, the two basses playing the top of the open fifth provide the passage with a heavier sound than an audience would probably be familiar.

With this entire passage written muted and marked to decrescendo, it’s a bit of a tour de force for a conductor to pull it off with grace, interest and nuance, but without losing the forward momentum. Fritz Reiner in this recording makes it convincing.

Before moving to the last few measures, it’s noteworthy to point out the effect achieved by the English horn sustaining its final note (concert D-flat) well into the ensuing bar. It’s only a small thing, but with the space the strings have at the end of measure 104, the solo double reed gracefully extends the line, meshing with the second violins at the onset of the subdominant section.

As we’ve seen again and again, orchestrators and listeners both like to “mix it up,” to change the sound or for the audience to hear the sound change often. In measures 110 and 111 Dvořák provides the audience with a gem. First, he cuts the string ensemble down to a trio. Then, he puts the solo viola on the same note the two basses were just sustaining. And to cap this off, he moves the solo cello up to play the harmony with the solo violin in thirds, not tenths as we’d previously had. It’s a small, subtle and – if you’ll pardon the colloquialism – a pretty neat bit of string writing. And it’s perfectly used as this movement is drawing to a conclusion.

At the end of the phrase, the entire string section returns for the big crescendo to the IV-I or “plagal” cadence in measure 113. Note the first violins and violas are playing in octaves with the second violin sustaining the tones between them. Note too, the cellos first holding the A-flat, but then joining the upper strings, playing the harmony line at the sixth below the violas, increasing the richness of the passage.

Perhaps, most surprising is the contrabass line playing the D-flat to G-flat quarter note descending scalar line with no other instruments at the octave. In a faster passage this might sound a little blurred, but here the low strings moving in this manner are somehow just right when combined with the crescendo in all the voices. We know the melody and we know how it’s going to work itself out. The thing we don’t know is the manner in which it will do that. That’s where Dvořák’s genius shows itself and shines.


One last reminder that all my old posts from 2013 and 2014 are in the Orchestra Sounds Archive page or by clicking on Archives at the top.

Matthew Yasner


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s