49. The Richness of Thirds 2


Heard and examined in this article are works by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Béla Bartók and Sergei Prokofiev

Previously, we examined The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas and the surprising shift from a single line to one that is harmonized in thirds played alone by two trumpets with the remainder of the orchestra dramatically, albeit temporarily, silent. We’re going to begin by listening to a similar idea, but one implemented in a completely different manner.

Third Harmonies In A Tchaikovsky Line

Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony was written in the 1870s when the composer was in his late thirties. It’s a somewhat surprising work in that the first movement is one of the longest written by the composer, and is about as long as all the other movements combined. The passage in Example 49.1 is from this first movement. Although the brief descending run figures in the woodwinds are impossible to miss, the listener is drawn to the euphonic, sustained line in the cellos. This plaintive line consists of triplet figures and quarter-note-and-eighth-note groupings.

49.1 Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Symphony Number 4, Movement 1, 124-144
Lorin Maazel, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, London

There are a few orchestrational details that are of interest. First, examine the accompaniment. It consists simply of downbeats in the bassoon and basses, soon joined at the octave by the cellos when they hand the melody over to the strings in measure 127. On the final beat of each triplet the upper strings play the accompanying chord.

To maintain and punctuate the relatively staid feel here, the composer continues to use the woodwinds to accent and add momentum to the passage.

It’s interesting to see the many places that Tchaikovsky could have harmonized the two melodic ideas, but decides against it. Yet, when the woodwinds finish and the violins take over the melody part just before the key change at measure 134, the previously single minded melody takes on a new emotion with the introduction of the thirds between the first and seconds.

See how it begins by using the previously used figure of dotted sixteenth and thirty-second note, but here they are played in thirds. The harmony adds a new and breezier lightness to the descending quarter-eighth patterns. This is played against the woodwinds, introducing a new rhythmic pattern that, from the tones themselves, echoes the rapid, descending figures previously played in the same voices.

In many ways, this is actually a simple orchestration, but Tchaikovsky, never one to score things as simply as anyone might expect, throws us a unique use of the timpani to anchor both the rhythm and the bass line in the new key.

Before leaving this example, I’d like to call your attention to a small touch that contributes its own type of richness. It may be difficult to perceive upon the first hearing, but try to listen for the two clarinets – in thirds, of course! – in measures 128 and 131, the two measures wherein the flutes and oboes have the descending quarter note-eighth note thirds. The passage calls for the clarinets to enter on the third eighth note of the first beat and sustain one third for the second beat, returning to the opening third on the third beat. I suggest that you listen for this in light of the implied chord changes in the flute and oboe lines. When you learn to hear this passage and appreciate how much it contributes to an otherwise transparent orchestration, you’ll have a new appreciation for the simple yet luxurious effect two clarinets in their chalumeau register can contribute.

Thirds In A Bartók “Game Of Pairs”

Written during World War II, the second movement of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra did not originally have a title. It was, nevertheless, eventually subtitled “Game of Pairs.” The title is an appropriate one as the movement has several sections featuring a pair of winds at a constant interval. The first is a pair of bassoons that play their tune a minor sixth apart, that is, the inverse of a major third. I had initially planned to showcase the oboes (in minor thirds), but the opening passage with the snare drum (with snares off) was more direct.

49.2 Béla Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra, Movement 2, 7-31
Leonard Slatkin, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, RCA

After the opening drum solo, the two bassoons, playing a minor sixth apart, have a playful melody that is unique, but stylistically not unlike ensuing melodies in the movement. Naturally, in an older work with more traditional harmonies, the sixths would vary between minor and major depending on the chord. It still is both interesting and informative to hear two of the same instrument playing a melody at a constant interval. After the bassoons complete their tune, the next pair to play is the two oboes separated by a minor third. After the oboes, the two A clarinets have a melody in minor sevenths. Rounding out the playful pairs are flutes in fifths and finally muted trumpets in major seconds.

Accompanying the bassoons are the strings, all pizzicato. In typical Bartókian manner, the composer makes sure that the possibly boring accompaniment from the strings is far from it. Notice how the composer selects an appropriate place for the pizzicato string chords. For the first few measures they are on the beat, albeit normally the unaccented beat. But note how in measure 15 and 16 the chords are played on the off beat. The effect is to sometimes accent the tune and at other times to accent the notes not played by the two soloists.

Before moving to the next pair, note the effect of a slur in the second violins and violas on the pizzicato chords on the second beat of measure 17. It’s not easy to hear, but from a harmonic standpoint, it is logical. The effect itself deserves note because it might be one that any composer or orchestrator could use to advantage, a relatively rare sound, especially in the upper strings with their limited resonance when playing pizzicato.

I’ve only included the first six or seven bars of the minor third paired oboes. Of most interest here is the way Bartók essentially stops time in measures 28 through 30. There’s a lot of activity, but not a lot happening harmonically. What is happening is a strange bitonal chord and the first example of the harmonies not remaining constant. Note that the oboes are playing the major third C – E, with a dash of an A thrown in for good measure. Is it a passage in A minor? Well, maybe by itself, but the D-sharps in the low strings and the Gs in the violas belie this simplistic approach to harmonic analysis.

Of interest, at least to those who are not string players, is the use of the marking punta d’arco or point of the bow. This is generally used when the composer desires a delicate string effect. Because of the length of the bow, using just the tip makes it more difficult to press down hard, creating a softer sound. Bartók wants to continue to feature the pair of oboes, but he wants to sustain this harmonic pattern and to maintain the energy at the same time. He does this by moving the notes in these harmonies as little as possible, but moving them nonetheless.

It may be simplistic, but it’s a great example of less being more. If you are a composer or orchestrator it might be a technique you could use one day, too.

One last minor notation to examine: in measure 31 the first oboe plays descending seconds as sixteenth notes slurred two at a time, while the second oboe plays a chromatic line staccato. Given that everything we’ve heard from the pairs until now is articulated exactly the same between the two players, it’s noteworthy to see what the composer does in this measure.

Lieutenant Kijé’s Wedding Commands A Military Band

The last passage we’ll examine is the final eight measures of “Kijé’s Wedding” from the Lieutenant Kijé Suite by Sergei Prokofiev. The composer wrote the score for the eponymous film directed by Aleksandr Faintsimmer produced in the 1930s. A few years after the film premiered, the composer reworked the material into a suite. Listen to Example 49.3 to hear the end of the wedding music.

Before continuing, please note that the score is in concert pitch. That is, it is not transposed. For those of you used to reading scores this can be a little disconcerting. And while I’m on the subject of caveats: There is a mistake in the score in the line simply called Bass Trombone. It should be notated as Trombone III and Tuba. Also, in my previous post (number 48) I listed the first six overtones of Great C incorrectly. The sixth overtone is not two-line C, it should be one-line B-flat. The seventh overtone is two-line C. Mea culpa.

49.3 Sergei Prokofiev: Lieutenant Kijé Suite, Kijé’s Wedding, 109-116
George Szell, Cleveland Orchestra, CBS

The melody in Example 49.3 is played in four octaves by two flutes, two horns, trombone and tuba. In light of the thirds we’ve been examining, note the way that Prokofiev uses only the second and fourth horn to provide the tune’s homorhythmic harmony. It is mostly in thirds, but unlike the Bartók above, the composer uses sixths when they are more appropriate for the harmonization of the melody.

Of interest too is the lack of strings, save for the final two chords. Given the martial theme of the title, scoring for a military band certainly makes sense even for The Lieutenant’s wedding. Prokofiev gets the round, rich sound from the horn section, especially in measures 110 and 111. Remember that the top horn line is playing up to a high G on the two tenuto dotted quarter notes. The horns in this register are almost as brassy as they can get. A hornist can play physically with their bells up (pavillons en l’air), but it’s a wide open – and thus almost uncontrolled – sound. Examples of this technique can be heard in Mahler and Stravinsky among other composers.

Although the harmony shifts between the tonic (E-flat) and the subdominant (A-flat) in those chords, the latter is in the second inversion and basically an upper neighbor movement rather than a change in harmony. It’s for this reason that the composer wisely chooses to maintain the root and third of the E-flat in both the oboes and bassoons, with the clarinets playing the B-flat (the fifth), moving to the C and back to the B-flat. These might appear to be minor additions, but the instruments add a sort of glue to the center of the passage, holding together the four octaves of melody.

Another focus on the third here is in measures 114 and 115. Note that the piccolo is an octave above the flute. And the pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets and the trumpets enter to get the harmonies to the big “fake cadence” finale. It’s a surprising sound and a useful way to put these harmonies together. In fact, the penultimate chord, when the strings enter is mostly subdominant in nature, but with the leading tone (the A) in all four horns and most of the strings. As is pointed out in the example, the final chord is comprised of all B-flats except for the third and fifth in the clarinets and trumpets.

One last thing to note is the choice Prokofiev makes not to have the bassoon or tuba play the last eighth note in the penultimate measure. It’s probable that the sound would muddy up the effect, but see that he is comfortable with the bass drum accenting those notes. Remember that the bass drum can be stopped and played quite dryly, unlike the effort the low reed or brass would need to sound the eighth note and then to make it staccatissimo.


To sum up the focus on this post, then, we heard how Tchaikovsky takes a solo line in the cellos, moves it to the upper woodwinds and then brings it back in a new key in the violins in beautiful thirds. Then we listened to the way in which Bartók employs pairs of winds in a variety of harmonies: sixths, thirds, sevenths, fifths, and seconds. Lastly, we heard how Prokofiev evokes a military band for a lieutenant’s wedding, letting the natural resonant sounds of the instruments provide most of the harmony.

Next time we’ll review some more uses of thirds in Debussy, Mahler and Ravel. As always, please let me know if you have any questions.

Matthew Yasner


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