48. The Richness of Thirds 1


Heard and examined in this article are works by Igor Stravinsky, Béla Bartók and Paul Dukas

In my previous post I discussed the warmth that a composition can achieve with harmony in thirds. As one might expect there are many works in the orchestral canon that use thirds, sixths (their inversion) and other variations. Last time I mentioned that the third is a natural overtone, but I did not explain the term. In lieu on an explanation, please see Example 48.1 that shows the first few natural overtones of the fundamental Great C (65.406 Hz).

Example 48.1 Fundamental and the first six overtones

Because these intervals are heard as part of every note that’s played, their resonance is built into sound. In this and the next few posts we will be examining other passages where composers have employed the device in a variety of ways – all of which are interesting and edifying. Most of these are well known, but that should not diminish the usefulness of their study – even if you’re just in a rut and looking for ideas.

Petrushka’s Organ-grinder

Petrushka is one of those extraordinary early ballets by Igor Stravinsky, written when he was in his late 20s. Its premiere was in Paris in 1911 by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes – just a year after the premiere of The Firebird – under the baton of Pierre Monteux. This original version is scored for a large orchestra with quadruple winds, a range of pitched and unpitched percussion, two harps and strings. Stravinsky revised the work in 1947, reducing the size of the orchestra, mainly in the winds.

Example 48.2 is from the Organ-grinder music in Tableau 1. To emulate the sound of a hand-cranked street organ-grinder, Stravinsky orchestrates the melody with upper woodwinds. In fact, this passage is all winds except for the rising chromatic line in which the violas join the bassoons. And, of course, the triangle provides the initial rhythm and giving the mechanical impression of the organ’s hand-turned crank.

Example 48.2 Igor Stravinsky: Petrushka, Tableau 1, 116-129
Riccardo Muti, Philadelphia Orchestra, EMI

The melody begins on the second half of measure 117 and has the first flute and the first clarinet in octaves. The second flute plays a somewhat harmonically awkward role, supplying the tone that’s either a third or a sixth from melody, depending on the need of the harmony. To complete the effect of a hand-turned organ, the other two clarinets have rhythmic accompaniment on the second, third and fourth eighth notes of each measure while the bass clarinet has the down beat on the root of the I and V7 chords (B-flat and F7).

The evocative nature of this passage returns us to rudimentary music education class, with chords no more complex than tonic and dominant. Note too that there’s not one accidental in the entire line, just as one would expect from the simplicity of the device, permitting the performer to play another instrument, perhaps a tin whistle, with his free hand.

It’s interesting to speculate on the two flute quarter notes in measure 125 and 126. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the triangle’s final note here is the downbeat of 125. Perhaps the mechanism of this hand-cranked organ has a couple more beats before it repeats its melody beginning on the second half of measure 126. This would then require two more beats before the melody begins. The fact that they are played in minor thirds (the major third and perfect fifth of the tonic) on these two beats is surely not by chance. The third and fifth of the chord without the tonic feels like something’s missing. It’s not until the down beat of measure 127 that we hear that tonic.

It also draws in the listener, subconsciously expecting the melody to repeat right after the final tonic chord on the second beat of measure 125, by not directly satisfying the required tonic. Instead we have to wait two beats. Stravinsky rewards our ears with the introduction of another timbre: the trumpet playing the melody an octave below the first clarinet on the second beat of measure 126.

Finally, it’s worth noting how the melody with the added trumpet continues while the bassoons and violas enter in another tonal center before the flute, clarinet and trumpet have even completed their first phrase. For those who are not familiar with the work, the first part of the First Tableau is a street scene at a market the day of the Shrovetide Fair (also known as Mardi Gras), the day before the beginning of Lent. Stravinsky gives us this small scene with the organ-grinder for one complete performance of the tune. Once it begins its repeat, more activity is shown on stage and the solo organ-grinder cedes to other voices as well as rhythms and tonal centers.

Bartók’s Imperfect Portrait

This early work by Béla Bartók contrasts two moods for orchestra. The first, a pastorale, is scored for solo violin and string orchestra, lasting about ten minutes. In the second portrait we get the “less than ideal” portrait. It’s a triple rhythm presto in one and takes a little over two minutes to perform. Those fleeting minutes are crammed with quite a bit of fun music.

A little more than a minute into the piece Bartók has a built-in musical pyramid, evident in the score visually as well as musically. Example 48.3 shows the build-up and build-down of this pyramid. It shows the composer’s use of thirds in several of the sections of the orchestra.

Example 48.3 Béla Bartók: Two Portraits for Orchestra, One Perfect – One Imperfect, Number 2, 124-145
Claudio Abbado, London Symphony Orchestra, Deutsche Grammophon

The passage’s thirds begin in measure 126 with the bassoons and violas. Two measures later the two oboes and two E-flat clarinets join in the fun. And two measures after their entrance the violas, now in unison, play a third below the second violins in the same two-bar pattern.

As you might expect, the horns enter forcefully high in their range. At this pyramid’s apex the thirds are played by the two oboes and clarinets (both an octave higher than their first four measures), the first and second horns, the first and second violins, and the again divided violas, also up an octave from where they began.

And, in the same way the pyramid was built, Bartók takes it a part until the last third is played by the two bassoons and two violas on the downbeat of measure 142.

Below all of this, of course, is the other melodic line at the bottom of it all. This line consists of a two measure descending pattern of a minor seventh, B to C-sharp. It begins and is sustained throughout by the bass violins. They are joined in ensuing waves by the bassoons, horns and cellos. And it is the cellos and bass violins that we are left with after the pyramid is no more.

Bartók gives the listener a few more milestones in the pyramid that are worthy of note. At the climax the piccolo and flute have staccato down beats (also in thirds) doubling the other instruments for that one note. They are preceded by ascending grace notes and play first in their lower, then in their upper, and then again in their lower registers. They enter just for the same measures as the horns and first violins. For this passage Bartók brings in the tam-tam for four measures. The apex itself is accented with a cymbal hit.

Lastly, I’m sure you can hear it, but it’s worth pointing out the way the timpani sustains its rhythmic emphasis by growing from piano to forte and back to piano for most of the passage.

The unique sound of two of the same instruments playing in thirds adds to the congruity of this passage. It’s something that should be remembered when scoring. Just as two of the same instruments playing a dissonance is one of the strongest ways to emphasize the dissonance, the same is true with two of the same instruments play a consonance. There’s nothing much more congruent than that.

Great use thirds in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

There’s a climactic passage about a two-thirds of the way into Paul Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice that makes use of thirds in a very effective manner. Although this passage is very different from the Bartók just heard, the two trumpets in thirds can remind one of the entrance of the horns in thirds in that work just heard.

The chaos of the triple rhythm in one is similar enough to the Bartók, but the Dukas is much more evocative. Listen to Example 48.4 and then look at the score.

48.4 Paul Dukas: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, 594-620
Neville Marriner, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Philips

It is deceiving to examine the score before hearing the passage. From the score it’s easy to think that you’ll hear the eighth note pattern played by the upper woodwinds, harp and glockenspiel. But when listening, the ear is most struck by the sustained notes in the brass throughout the first half of the passage.

To create the chaotic activity that Dukas wants us to feel, he has first the upper woodwinds play eighth notes for the first six measures. Then the bassoons join the lower strings in cementing the forward momentum with their echo of the previous pattern in the upper woodwinds. To add to the build-up, first the violins and then the upper woodwinds have three scalar runs, culminating in measure 606 when the entire orchestra hits the down beat (marked sec.) and then is silent. It is this silence that leaves sound space for the trumpets.

Before examining from that point, however, it’s important to see the other elements that Dukas uses for his crescendo. First, there’s a cymbal roll throughout, always helpful for a build-up. But it’s the sustained melody in the trumpets, the cornets and the horns that make the passage so dynamic. To assist in this, Dukas brings in the oboes, clarinets and two of the bassoons to sustain these dissonant chords beginning in measure 600 and running through 606.

The melody here is an augmented version of the tune itself, moving around in the brass. It’s played in the trumpets first and then moves to the cornets, doubled in the oboes, clarinets and horns, ending with the four eighth notes in measures 605-606. To accent that down beat in measure 606, the composer has both a bass drum hit and a triangle hit. These add to excitement of the piccolo, flute and first violin hitting that down beat in their highest registers.

This brings us to the solo thirds played by the two trumpets marked fortissimo and molto staccato. It’s difficult to imagine how empty and dull (I might have used the adjective “jejune,” but then I’d have to look it up to make sure it was the le mot juste!) the sound would be if only one line were played. It’s as though the thirds were an integral part here of this work.

The composer repeats these three measures and then gives us two additional orchestral hits, which do nothing to dispel the tension. He wants the audience to continue to be involved enough to be able to begin another long build up to the final climax a minute or two from now. To heighten the sound, he has the strings play the two hits sur le chevalet or at the bridge, giving the sound of some forty or fifty players an dramatically edgier tone.

To assure the audience’s involvement, he brings back the two trumpets, but with the last orchestral hit, he’s changed the chord and the tune: First the trumpets and then, down an octave, the four horns play the same passage of thirds.

What’s new here is the concurrent chromatic movement he gives the middle woodwinds and strings under the trumpets. These instruments hold the E for just over a full bar, giving the last full measure of the horn passage (measure 616) plenty of room to be heard. The chromatic line is repeated, beginning on the down beat of the last note the horns play, by the bassoons and low strings.

Before leaving this passage, just note the decisions the composer made on where to bring in the percussion. As I’ve mentioned, on many occasions, economic use of percussion in orchestral music is generally a virtue. Unlike the Bartók in Example 48.3 Dukas refrains from using the timpani for this entire passage until the last of the chromatic lines. And it is immediately echoed in the bass drum. Although the two timbres are similar, especially in the low timpani, the difference is noticeable and enhances the effects of the difference between measure 618 with its Great F and in measure 619 of only the contrabassoon and pizzicato contrabass on the Contra F.

Because of its association with Disney’s Fantasia from 1940, many people today think the piece was written for the animation. In fact, it’s a work inspired by Goethe’s eponymous poem (Der Zauberlehrling) from 1797 and written about one hundred years later. Surprisingly, to those unfamiliar with the poem, the Disney cartoon stays quite close to the story too.


We began with an organ-grinder playing a simple melody in Stravinsky’s Petrushka. Then we looked at a pyramid based on rapid thirds in the early Two Portraits from Bartók. We finished with the unique sound of two trumpets solo in rapid staccato thirds in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Dukas.

Next time we’ll examine some more passages that show off this wonderful and rich harmony. As always, please let me know if you have any questions.

Matthew Yasner


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