JBOE: Just a bunch of examples
Some of this article’s examples point to some surprising chromatic passages, but that is not the sole focus of the post. The examples–from a variety of composers–were written within a thirty-year period and contain some interesting pieces of orchestration.
(This post’s title comes from the initialization in the tech world, JBOD. N.B.: Usually a network server contains several disks in a RAID configuration where at least one disk is redundant so that if one fails the server can continue to function. However, a server could also be configured so that each disk can be addressed individually. As such, its configuration is known as JBOD, just a bunch of disks.)
Three chromatic turns
In my last few posts I explored some notable rhythmic devices George Gershwin used in Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris. There’s a feature of the slow, lush E major section introduced relatively late in Rhapsody in Blue that deserves mention. After the first two measures of the tune, the horns have a three-note descending chromatic line that is played with a rhythm, which constantly shifts the motif’s emphasis. The rhythm for the six measure passage consists of two eighth notes and three quarter notes. Listen to the well-known passage in Example 63.1.
Example 63.1 George Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue (302 – 319)
Erich Kunzel, Eugene List, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Telarc
In performances the conductor will often take some liberties with the rhythm in the horns. Given the sustained accompaniment from rest of the orchestra, it’s a simple matter for the conductor let the horns know his or her wishes for the passage.
The Rhapsody had its world premiere in 1924 under the baton of Paul Whiteman. The following year the conductor of the New York Symphony Orchestra, Walter Damrosch, commissioned Gershwin to write a concerto for the orchestra. This commission produced his Concerto in F, premiered in December 1925 with the composer at the piano and conducted by Maestro Damrosch. A few years later Damrosch also conducted the world premire of the composer’s An American in Paris.
There’s some thematic material in the Concerto that also uses a three-note chromatic passage, but here the rhythms are more regular. In addition, the chromatic motif in the Concerto rises, unlike the descending one in the Rhapsody. The material in general is more complex and denser too. It’s worth examining the variety of orchestral material to see how Gershwin scores the passage in Example 63.2.
Example 63.2 George Gershwin: Concerto in F, Movement 1 (346 – 361)
Mitch Miller, David Golub, London Symphony Orchestra, Arabesque
All of the material used in the example was used previously as this example comes rather late in the movement. The first theme you’ll notice is the one that consists mostly of repeated off beats with some leaps thrown in, played here in three octaves by the flutes, oboes, solo trumpet, violins and violas. This is the first theme, introduced by the solo piano near the opening of the work.
When the soloist introduces this theme beginning at measure 53, the second element you hear is the ascending chromatic line played in quarter notes after the first down beat. In Example 63.2 the piano dramatically plays the line in four octaves in triplets clearly to be heard above the other forces of the orchestra. The line is supported in simple quarter notes by the low woodwinds and the trombones.
The third element is another theme that is also presented earlier in the work, but here it is played by the high horns reinforced by the clarinets.
For these first six measures of the example, probably the most notable feature of the orchestration is way the composer uses the brass to double all four of the elements of the passage including the tuba sustaining the bass notes (along with the low strings). Many composers might choose to combine some of the brass sections, but Gershwin opts to make each section of the brass its own element in the orchestration. Note too that only one trumpet is used to play the off beat theme, rather than the whole section. One solo trumpet adds to the mixture of the woodwind and string sound without overpowering them.
After the first six measures the style shifts with the upper woodwinds and upper strings playing another, disjointed line from earlier in the work. The other main element is the descending chromatic chords in the lower woodwinds, trumpets and trombones. These all join the soloist who throws in some grace notes and tremolos. With the high trumpet, high trombone and animated piano it’s difficult to miss this element of the score. To emphasize the dramatic passage the composer has the bass drum play the down beat of the two-measure group with a snare drum roll beginning on the second beat.
Lastly, as this passage comes to an end, the orchestra suddenly goes quiet after the downbeat of measure 360. Now the upper strings reprise their theme from the beginning of the example, but in just two octaves as two horns and the cellos provide the harmony behind them. This leaves sonic space for the soloist to play his scalar passages with liberty and lightly, not having to scream out over the orchestra. The shift happens rather quickly and it’s a refreshing change from the big sound of the previous bars.
Up on the roof
Though only a few years older than George Gershwin, Darius Milhaud had the good fortune of living a long life, passing away in 1974 at the age of 81. Famous for being a member of Les Six, he was a teacher as well as a prolific composer. His work, La création du monde, containing elements of jazz and blues, premiered in 1923, the year before Rhapsody in Blue.
Several years earlier, after returning to Paris from a trip to Brazil, Milhaud composed Le boeuf sur le toit in 1919. The composer thought the work might be used as the score for a silent film by Charlie Chaplin. Although the music never made it into the film, it was staged as a ballet. Its world premiere was in Paris in 1920, almost exactly three years before Gershwin’s Rhapsody.
There are a number of Brazilian tunes and influences in the work. I’ve selected the opening, mainly for a colorful (chromatic) scale that goes up and down more than an octave while the remainder of the orchestra is dancing happily – and tonally – along.
Listen to Example 63.3. After the C major melody in the opening eight measures, the composer tosses in four bars of a little polytonality, followed by four bars of vamp. The second melody in C minor starts at measure 17, letter A in this score, and runs eight measures.
Example 63.3 Darius Milhaud: Le boeuf sur le toit (1 – 49)
Leonard Bernstein, Orchestre National de France, EMI
This second tune is repeated almost exactly in the oboe and first violins. However, the dynamics are slightly increased and the low strings get a little lower.
The surprise is in the flutes and clarinet. They introduce an ascending chromatic series of minor triads in open fifths, with the second flute filling in the minor third on the second eighth note of each beat. This chromatic scale runs for a tenth and is eight bars long. Perhaps the most surprising orchestrational detail is that just these three winds have these chromatic block chords; it’s not doubled or in any way supported by other instruments.
In the spirit of “what goes up, must come down,” eight measures later the trio descends a tenth in the same fashion. Similar scalar passages occur with different instrumentation later in the work. (Given the experimentation of his contemporaries—such as Villa-Lobos, Hindemith, and Hovhaness—is it possible that the visual upward and downward movements could represent the architecture of a traditional gabled roof?)
Although this long chromatic movement might seem odd, if you are familiar with the work, you’ll know that the melodies shift tonalities throughout the work. And, maybe those polytonal sixteenth note arpeggios in the flute and clarinet earlier (in measures 9 through 12) serve the purpose of getting the listener ready for the variety of colors the piece introduces. Milhaud plays with his audience by providing a seemingly straightforward, catchy melody, simple harmonies, and a Latin-tinged rhythm. And then he surprises them with these additional tonal centers that are at odds with these more typical popular styles.
One other feature of note is the solo horn part beginning at letter B (measure 33). After the possibly jarring chromatic harmonies of the preceding eight bars and the high flute offering its slight counter melody, it’s easy to overlook this delightful horn solo. Once you notice it, though, you’ll be hard-pressed to forget it. Its accents on the final eight note of each two bar phrase add a different kind of new color to the new tonal center.
Till’s trip to the gallows
There’s a passage late in Till Eulenspeigel’s Merry Pranks where the folk hero Till Eulenspiegel is on his way to the gallows to be hanged, punishment for all of his mischief. There are some wonderful orchestration examples in the work that many have heard, but still bear examination.
Example 63.4 begins with a solo snare drum roll followed by the low woodwinds, four F horns, trombones and tuba, and the double basses playing open fifths. The highest pitch among these instruments is middle C, the lowest is Great F. On the second beat of each open fifth measure, four D horns and all of the other strings play the third of the minor chord. Thus, for four measures these various orchestral sections sound a bit like an antiphonal choir. After the sustained chord at measure 583, the playful D clarinet (Till) repeats his opening theme, attempting to soften the executioner and make his escape.
Example 63.4 Richard Strauss: Till Eulenspeigel’s Merry Pranks (578–608)
Antal Dorati, Minnesota Symphony Orchestra, Mercury Living Presence
Listen to the chord played by the upper double reeds when the clarinet hits his final note. You have a closed chord with the English horn at the bottom playing a B-flat and the first oboe on top with a G-sharp. In between are the other two oboes, filling out the dissonant harmony.
When this passage is repeated the chord is sustained for an extra bar in the double reeds and then “resolves” to an A major chord on the second beat of measure 595, accented by pizzicato strings.
On the third iteration, the chordal passage is shortened, but this time the clarinet is shouting out loudly with the theme up at the top of the clarinet’s range. But the clarinet doesn’t even get a chance to finish before the “powers that be” return with the funeral dirge. And where we would now expect another complaint from Till, there is but silence (at measure 603).
The example ends with the double reeds, horns, trumpets and violins playing a chromatic passage in close harmony very loudly.
Strauss, a master at orchestration, in these few programmatic measures keeps the listener entertained and excited to hear if the little scamp will make his escape. The color of the orchestration perfectly enhances the drama of the music.
Although writing for string ensembles has been a tradition with a long history, heavily divided strings is a phenomenon introduced in the latter part of the nineteenth century, enabled in part because of the increase in the size of the orchestra. In a post entitled Careful Writing 2, from September of 2014, we examined Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, a beautiful and haunting work for three groups of string: a string quartet, a string nonet, and a string orchestra. It’s noteworthy that with all of these strings available, the composer yet divides the sections.
With this in mind the last two very brief examples are from Claude Debussy’s score for the ballet, Jeux, which had its premiere in 1913. The two examples are heard relatively close together in the work and both are scored for divided strings. However, in the former in Example 63.5, the passage has a transparency that the latter lacks. Yet, the second example, gives the listener a richness not found in the former.
Example 63.5 Claude Debussy: Jeux (223–226 and 245–247)
Pierre Boulez, New Philharmonia Orchestra, CBS
Debussy’s music generally thwarts traditional (i.e., tonal) analysis, but there are five parallel major chords in mostly descending chromatic movement. In the first section of Example 63.5, the score calls for the first desk of the first violins to be tacit with the rest of the section divided in octaves on the fifth of each chord. The first two desks of the second violins have the third of the chords in octaves. The second two desks have the same down an octave. The root of the chord is played in octaves by half the violas. Two desks (excluding the first desk) of cellos double the lower desks of the first violins. One more item to note is how the composer brings in two more desks of cellos just for the root of the last two chords.
Each part is marked pianissimo and to be played sweetly and in a caressing manner. It’s just a short passage, but one that shimmers, bringing a temporary peace to the music.
Now compare that to the second portion of Example 63.5, just twenty measures later in the work. Not only does the composer bring in all of the strings (except for the contrabass), the divided sections themselves are divided. One new feature here, though, is the range of the strings. In Example 63.5 each chord is played in an octave and a fifth. Here, the range is extended higher an additional octave.
As the second passage ends in Example 63.5, the two harps enhance the final two chords with rapid, thirty-second note scales of an octave each. (The two are needed because of the harpist’s need to change the pedals for these chromatic chords, B and C.)
The works we listened to in this article were all written in the relatively short span of thirty years. It should not be surprising to have such a broad range of styles, harmonies, and orchestrations, but somehow the extremely varied styles of Gershwin, Strauss, Milhaud and Debussy seem to be worlds apart.
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