50. The Richness of Thirds 3


Heard and examined in this article are works by Gustav Mahler, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel

“Dying is easy, comedy is hard” is an old quote that may be attributed to Edmund Kean, a contemporary of Beethoven and an actor, well-known in his day. Or, it may only go back to the mid Twentieth Century to Edmund Gwenn, probably best known for his portrayal of Santa Claus in the 1947 film, Miracle on 34th Street.

What, you may be asking, does this have to do with orchestration? Good question. I’m glad you asked. The answer is somewhere between nothing and not much.

The challenge came to mind when I simply wanted to introduce this post and did some research about key changes and how they are used or are related to sonata-allegro form. I found a lot of material that does a fine job of describing what that is, how it’s used, and where it’s heard most often.

In the sources I found, little about how sonata-allegro form evolved was mentioned. This surprised me. I find it disconcerting to separate a thing’s history with its explanation. I’m no music historian, but surely in the evolution of the music of Western Europe there must have been a desire to mix things up when a band, orchestra, lutenist, string trio, crumhorn quartet or any ensemble played. How rare it must be for any music performer or listener to play the same rhythms, tempos, harmonies, or melodies repeatedly.

As I recall from my music history reading, people liked to dance a variety of different styles. Listeners, too, liked to hear differet styles. And, of course, we have musicians, always a group that likes to mix things up. Many composers associate a key with a feeling, say, E-flat major for majesty, C minor for funerals or D major for playfulness.

So, back to my point – or possibly, just getting to my point. One of the many elements in music is change. In your compositions, you change rhythms, melodies, harmonies and the like. Tunes are shortened, portions are removed, textures evolve. New instruments are added to or removed from the timbral pallete.

Keys change.

Dying on stage might be as simple as Romeo speaking the line “Thus with a kiss I die.” And, dropping to the floor – in a comfortable position because he has to remain dead for rest of the scene – he has nothing more to do, but to take a bow at the curtain calls.

It’s in the comedy where the timing is ever more important. All situation comedies used to shoot with a live audience so the actors could judge how long to pause for the hoped-for laughs. This tradition has become somewhat outdated, but many of the most popular do still use live audiences.

As a composer, it’s your task to entertain, to create music that is evocative, that supports the story you are telling. Unless that story is supposed to be monotonous and trite, the composer and the orchestrator should employ the many tools in their kits. They should also be looking at new tools and techniques to support that story.

This little diversion is now at an end. Ite in pace.

Moving Right Along

We previously listened to a passage in the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony where the composer changed from a minor to a major key and, although he used the same melodic elements, he emphasized the shift in harmonic sonorities by adding thirds to the melody. See Post 49. The Richness of Thirds 2, Example 49.1. The first example in this post shows an passage of Gustav Mahler doing something similar. We’ve listened to this example before, but at the time the exploration focused on the variety of methods to employ triple time, not the harmonization.

Mahler’s Eastern European Sounds

In Example 50.1 we hear Mahler presenting the first theme of the third movement of his second symphony. After a brief and rhythmically ambivalent timpani solo, the lower woodwinds and percussion provide the steady rhythmic introduction to the sixteenth note line in the unison first violins for seven or so measures before the two clarinets enter and almost immediately divide into thirds for most of the next seven measures, balancing the first violin phrase.

50.1 Gustav Mahler: Symphony Number 2, Movement 3, 14-30
Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic, London

Mahler frequently used some stereotypically eastern European harmonies. This passage provides a good example of this sort-of melodic minor sound. The two clarinets in their middle register sound like one in a reflection of the first and second violins in the previously examined Tchaikovsky. (The two symphonies were written within twenty years of one another. The Tchaikovsky Fourth had its premiere in 1878 and, though Mahler began writing his Second Symphony in the late 1880s, it didn’t have its premiere until 1895.)

The change in attitude between the single line of first violins and the third harmonies is dramatic and effective in this usage.

“Gradus ad Parnassum” in Children’s Corner

In the previous example we listened to the clarinets in close third harmonies. To put that in perspective, we’re now going to juxtapose the melodic and harmonic roles, putting the melody in a solo wind, beginning with the clarinet, with the harmonies in thirds in the strings.

In the opening measures of this passage the clarinet plays the piano etude-type exercise, reminiscent of the opening of the movement and, of course, evocative of the piano exercises of Czerny and Clementi. The melody moves around the woodwinds, from clarinet to flute and back to clarinet. After those six bars, the tune, as it were, gets played between the low clarinet and the bassoon, handing it off to each other in two beat phrases. After these four measures the orchestra joins together in an ascending augmented triad for two measures.

Example 50.2 Claude Debussy: Children’s Corner, Movement 1. “Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum” (orch. André Caplet), 45-56

With the basics of the melody out of the way, let’s examine the string voices to find the thirds. The downbeat, hit and sustained, in the low strings is punctuated by the harp. Other than the clarinet there are no other sounds on that first beat. On beat two, the first violins play two-line E, D, F, and so on as quarter notes. Below them the second violins play the C of the tonic major chord and below them is the fifth in the violas. These three parts are reproduced an octave lower in all three, divided, parts (first and second violins and violas).

For those who may not have paid attention in your Classical Period orchestration class – just kidding. I don’t even know if there are such classes. Regardless, if you study the music of Mozart you’ll note, for example, that often in the piano concertos when the piano plays triads on the beat the strings will play the same notes. This is not happenstance. Mozart could never be accused of scoring by chance. An example of this is easier than attempting to explain it. Here is a brief passage from the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto, Number 23 in A Major.

Example 50.3 Mozart: Piano Concerto Number 23 in A Major, 92-98
Robert Casadesus, George Szell, Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, CBS

You’ll note that the arpeggiated chords in the piano are reflected in the voices in the upper strings. The first violins have the top note of the right hand piano chord, the second violins have the bottom of the chord and the violas take the remaining note. This was a common way to see that all the voices reflected the same structure in both the orchestra and the solo.

If you look at the harp part in the first two measures of the Debussy, you’ll note that they reflect the same voices and necessarily the voiceleading of the harmony lines in the strings, mostly in thirds. And, let’s face it, if you’re going to pay homage to the music of the Eighteenth Century, you shouldn’t be able to get away with faking it just because you’re writing a century later. Debussy steps up and takes responsibility for his emulation of this music of an earlier age.

He continues to support the harmony lines in small bites with the winds. In the second two measures, the first and last of the sixteenth notes on each beat in the flute is played staccato by the oboe and as part of the sustained lines in the first violins.

What may not be as apparent – and was not a feature of Eighteenth Century music – is the way the harmony lines overwhelm the rapid piano exercise melody in measures 49 and 50. Although the strings could pull this off by themselves (and are appropriately marked to crescendo and decrescendo), the flute, oboe, bassoon and horn join the strings for the all-important climax of these four beats. If you’re not listening for it, it’s understandable that the beauty of the sound is so organically intertwined with the strings that one might miss it. I suggest that you listen again for this figure alone.

By the time Debussy arrives at the last two measures of this example (55 and 56), he provides the listener with an augmented chord, a chord that is built on and contains only major thirds.

This orchestration by Debussy’s friend and sometime orchestrator, André Caplet, is a traditional example (if that’s not too oxymoronic) of an orchestration by the composer himself.

Organic Thirds in La Valse

In this final example, we have the composer most often lumped in with his fellow Frenchman, Maurice Ravel. History has come to label them as Impressionists. The Impressionist painters were known for many unique qualities, but one was the rapidity with which they could work. This was not the case with composers; in fact, the works by the French composers from the latter part of the Nineteenth Century were, if anything, a time of new and often quite specific notations. This became relatively common in the works of the composers of the early Twentieth Century such as Stravinsky, Bartók and Schoenberg.

In Example 50.4 you hear the A clarinets and divided cellos playing the waltz melody in thirds for the first 16-bar phrase. What may be of interest is what happens next: The lush sounds of the clarinets and cellos turn over the melody responsibilities to the flutes, oboes and bassoons. It’s an open and transparent sound, clearly differentiable from that which came before and that which is coming.

50.4 Maurice Ravel: La Valse, 330-361
Charles Dutoit, Montreal Symphony Orchestra, London

The flute, oboe and bassoon combination only lasts for four measures. The composer has structured this to build until the violins enter in measure 355. But, to get there, once he’s established our comfort with the woodwinds for these four measures, he brings in an additional oboe and a pair of clarinets.

And just another four measures later, the divided first and second violins have the melody and third harmony in octaves, along with the flutes, oboe and clarinets. To reinforce this entrance of the upper strings, Ravel employs the timpani on the downbeats and the four horns on two and three to provide a strict waltz tempo.


To sum up the focus on this post – after my tirade about dying, comedy and key changes – we heard how Mahler used close, melodic minor thirds to differentiate the first part of a theme from the second. Then we listened to the way Claude Debussy reflects upon the harmonies and exercises of Czerny and Clementi. Lastly, we heard how Maurice Ravel makes his thirds a waltz requisite.

Unless I receive some different ideas from my readers, I may be moving in the direction of specific instruments for my next post. As always, please let me know if you have any questions.

Matthew Yasner


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