65. Tremolo Varieties 1


Composers, arrangers and orchestrators come from a wide range of backgrounds. For some, their passion for music began at a keyboard. This keyboard could have been a 61-note MIDI keyboard or a traditional 88-note piano keyboard or even a QWERTY keyboard. For others, their lessons began in primary school (or before) on the violin, the clarinet, the guitar or the trumpet. Any of the many paths to writing music usually begins with a first—or perhaps, sole—instrument.

Just like those who speak multiple languages, musicians tend to be most familiar with that instrument which they learned first. For an orchestrator (or composer or arranger. N.B. For this post, these terms are used interchangeably.) this can mean asking a performer of “his” or “her” instrument to use techniques that other orchestrators may not know. I don’t know how many different types of trumpet mutes there are, but I know that it’s a considerable quantity. Asking a violist to play sul C and sul tasto will create a unique and different sound than the standard style of performing. But unless the orchestrator knows about them and how to use them to advantage, all of these extraordinary techniques will be less frequently employed. Just a quick glance at the score to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring shows the use of harmonics, sul ponticello, mutes, glissando, double- and triple-stops, col legno, and other uniquely string-centric sounds.

With this in mind, I’m going to begin a few posts on just one string technique: the tremolo. In the field of music as the word implies (It comes from the Latin tremulus and is the etymological root of the words tremor and tremble.), it means to create a sound that trembles or quivers. Depending on the way it’s used it can be at one extreme a bright and shimmering sound or at the other extreme, an ominous one.

Although there are two basic types of string tremolos, one that rapidly repeats the same note and one that rapidly moves between two notes, I’m going to focus just on the former. There are many, many examples of the technique in the canon. However, I still meet composers and orchestrators who, when pressed, will admit that their lack of familiarity with string technique keeps from writing more varied string parts.

I’ve chosen for this series examples that show an assortment of flavors of this technique, which goes back to at least the seventeenth century. In some cases the composer chose to have the tremolo “sneak in” and in other cases, the tremolo begins with some type of punctuation. Sometimes it’s with the strings only and other times with other instruments of the orchestra.

A Don Juan Favorite from Strauss

Some portions of the first example has been used here previously, but it deserves another listen to focus on the tremolo. Example 65.1 is from the Richard Strauss tone poem Don Juan, which had its premiere in 1889. This example begins with some support from other parts (not many, though) of the orchestra.

All of the upper strings have this ascending four eighth note pattern that climaxes at measure 313. This final group gets an assist from three flutes and two clarinets. But to make the entrance of the tremolo stand out Strauss drops the second violins just before the end of the lead-in so that they can begin right on one line G with their tremolo. To reinforce this entrance the oboes enter on the same two notes that the violas and second violins play. They sustain this for just one measure until the violas drop out and the upper octave is taken up by the first violins, emphasizing their entrance.

65.1 Strauss - Don Juan (311-335)

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65.1 Richard Strauss: Don Juan (311-335)
Lorin Maazel, Bavarian Symphony Orchestra, RCA

In attempting to categorize the broad array of styles, I chose this example first because of its use of the unison (or here, octaves) in the middle register. As the horns continue their bold unison soli, the string sound is modified by the introduction of the seventh (the F) by the second violins and violas. The dissonance is quickly resolved as the seventh moves to the sixth. But Strauss is not nearly done with the harmonic suspense. At measure 320 the chord is a clear and open G7. Yet, all through the entire passage at least one set of violins continues to play the two line G.

One technique that became popular in the nineteenth century is that of reducing the number of instruments to create a diminuendo. See how the composer has the four horns on the (concert) B at measure 325, drop to three, then two and finally to just one.

And when the horns take their pause, with the little minor section in the upper woodwinds, note how the violins divide so that complete triads are played by the two sections. Strauss is not comfortable with just the string tremolos. He adds the three flutes to support these rapidly changing harmonies. Then at the next entrance of the horns all of the violins enter with emphasis on the beat right after the octave leap in the horns. The G is again sustained even as the woodwinds begin some chromatic scalar movement as the section continues.

For a Change of Pace

Now that the ground has been broken on this topic, for a completely different and more traditional style, listen to Example 65.2. This is from Beethoven’s Symphony Number 7, written some seventy-five years earlier than Strauss’s Don Juan. Here the composer is finishing up the symphony with a style that includes mainly tonic and dominant chords with the upper strings on a tear, playing descending scales in thirds with each eighth note actually two sixteenths.

65.2 Beethoven - Symphony No. 7, Movement 4 (417-432)

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65.2 Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 7, Movement 4 (417-432)
Herbert von Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Deutsche Grammophon

To add interest, although it may be more difficult to hear, note the violas too have a tremoloed line supported by the bassoons, also in thirds in both sections.

Given the limitations of the orchestra of Beethoven’s time, the composer had fewer resources available in his orchestrations compared to composers of latter half of the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, Beethoven rarely ceases to surprise and delight listeners.

Debussy, of Course

Debussy wrote his Images pour Orchestre in the first decade of the twentieth century. As a brilliant pianist, he earned his living early in his career as an accompanist. But he was, to some degree at least, an academic. He was exposed to a variety of music in his early life, including that of Wagner and Liszt. Although the sensuousness of these Romantics touched Debussy, he created his own inventions for its expression.

In Example 65.3 we return to the sustained tremolo, but in a very different manner than that in Strauss’s Don Juan in Example 65.1. Debussy rarely did something as direct as the divided string tremolos above. In this example, he adds an octave of sustained string voices in the divided cellos. With the performer asked to play the harmonic a fourth above the indicated pitch, the sound will be two octaves above the fundamental. (Simply put, one finger is placed on the fingerboard on the B-flat and another finger is placed lightly, not touching the fingerboard, a fourth above.) So, in this example, the cellos will sound one line and the two line B-flats. But the harmonic, especially on the lower strings, produces a unique, somewhat thin and breathy sound. Given the composer’s approach to the sustained B-flats of the first few measures, it’s the perfect backdrop for the somewhat animated sounds produced in the other strings.

65.3 Debussy - Images pour orchestre - Rondes de Printemps (1-10)

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65.3 Claude Debussy: Images pour Orchestre: Rondes de printemps (1-10)
André Previn, London Symphony Orchestra, EMI

Harp 1 plays the two line B-flat with two-octave grace notes while Harp 2 plays the great B-flat and the small B-flat on the second half of each measure. However, as they are also notated as harmonics, they will sound an octave higher.

To this blend of sounds, the first and second violins each have three octaves of B-flat tremolos (quarter notes, descending and ascending in each bar), while the violas join the tremolo set on the temporarily lowest sustained pitch in the piece: small B-flat, just below middle C.

Adding to the detail of these parts, the composer has the cello harmonics played over the fingerboard, producing a softer sound than normal. Yet, the violins are told to play near the bridge, producing a brighter and more biting sound than normal. Note how the combination of these octaves is so distant from the simple octave Gs in Example 65.1.

There is one additional bit of tremolo that deserves to be mentioned. This is in measures 9 and 10. While the divided second violins have an ascending scalar eighth note pattern in tremolo thirds, half of the cellos have a similar line descending. This creates a small but still apparent broadening of the orchestral range beginning right around middle C (B-flat and D-flat) and working its way outward for an octave in each direction. It’s a small detail that’s played behind the first entrance of the two flutes in thirds.

Scores with few markings can lead to misinterpretation. Debussy rarely made simple statements. Instead, he wrote his parts with detail, using many of the perhaps lesser known techniques that are available to the instrumentalist. Many composers of the time pushed the previous limits of sonic colors. It is not coincidental that the Images were written at almost the same time as Stravinsky’s iconoclastic early ballets, The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring.

A Touch of Berlioz

After considering these interesting colors created by Debussy, we’ll go back to the early half of the nineteenth century for the third movement of Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. The opening of this movement, Scène aux champs (In the country) evokes bird song, with just an oboe and an English horn. Soon, though, the composer adds to the mix, but just divided violas.

The playful interaction of the double reeds in Example 65.4 takes on a different feeling with the introduction of the tremolo octave Cs. But, it’s when the violas move from unison to complete triads at measure 14, the listener is challenged to determine exactly where the music is going, at least emotionally. This is especially true when the D-flat major triad gives way to a diminished one in the next bar.

65.4 Berlioz - Symphonie Fantastique - Scène aux champs (8-19) 1 3

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65.4 Hector Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique, 3. Scène aux champs (8-19)
Charles Munch, Boston Symphony Orchestra, RCA

Of these first few examples, this one goes in a slightly new direction as the tremolo is used to enhance the harmonic mood of the music. This is accomplished by adding more notes of a chord as well as by turning chord changes into orchestration events.

Debussy’s Sirènes

According to many myths and legends of the Greeks and later the Romans, the Sirens were a small group (their number varies by the source) whose song lured sailors to their deaths on a rocky shore. Sirènes (Sirens) is the third in Claude Debussy’s Nocturnes for orchestra completed in 1899.

The orchestra required for the three sections is similar, but not the same. The biggest differences being in the brass: Nuages, the first of the three nocturnes, is scored for just a horn quartet, Fêtes adds trios of both trumpets and trombones, plus a tuba and Sirènes just adds the three trumpets. The percussion also shifts among the three movements too. But the biggest difference is that Sirènes is scored for 16 female wordless voices, a natural feature of a so-entitled piece.

As stated above, Debussy was a detailed orchestrator. The quality of the sound his orchestra produced has a great deal of subtlety as expected by the particulars of his notations.

65.5 Claude Debussy: Nocturnes: 3. Sirènes (111-121)
Bernard Haitink, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Philips

Example 65.5, is from late in the work. I want to look at the scales at measure 119, but before we get there, listen to the tremolos from the entire string section at the beginning of the example, measure 111. For the first four measures all of the strings are playing an open fifth (B – F-sharp) in four-and-a-half octaves. This open sound plus the similar open sounds in the winds, provide the canvas for the voices to move with little traditional dissonance.

Note the sustained bassoons doubling the open fifth in the cellos. This sound blends in with the rest of the orchestra, but it helps to bind the varied sections together too.

At the end of these four bars, the tonality shifts along with the scoring. What had been just open fifths, now is a combination of B, D, G, and F (the notes of a G7 chord), creating more dissonance and tension against the vocal lines.

Along with the obvious change in the rapid descending runs from only harp to alternating clarinet and harp, the upper strings are now playing quarter note tremolos. These are somewhat similar to those octave leaps in the Rondes de printemps in Example 65.3 above.

When we arrive at measure 119, Debussy produces a complete whole tone scale. The choir drops out and the horns have alternating major thirds for a bar before moving those major thirds up and then down part of the scale.

Note the change in the upper strings. The violins have descending eighth note tremolo whole tone scales. The violas and cellos have ascending ones for the first bar and then they descend for the second. This little bit of orchestration gives a strange new flavor for the moment, but without actually changing the thrust of the music. It’s a brilliant technical way of concurrently providing movement and stasis.

Lastly, it may surprise you to hear the way the horn thirds from 119 become viola thirds at 121 when the horns pass the line to them. The timbre is so similar, but the color does shift. It’s at that same moment that the first group of four sopranos reenter the work. Debussy then adds a second set later in the bar.

It’s exacting and detailed writing, but the way the composer creates a sense of mystery and danger in the song sung by the Sirens is compelling.

A Romantic Scientist’s First Symphony

The final example for this post looks at another use of descending and ascending tremolos in the upper strings also. Here we go back some thirty years from Claude Debussy to Alexander Borodin’s first symphony. Borodin was a highly trained physician and biochemist, publishing respected research in this, his primary career.

He considered himself as an amateur composer, but he’s known for his symphonies, string quartets and his opera Prince Igor. Perhaps he is best remembered for the reworking of a few of his melodies for the musical Kismet which won several Tony Awards in 1954.

In Example 65.6 we hear the flutes, oboes and clarinets play a descending line, mostly in thirds, for three octaves.

65.6 Borodin - Symphony No. 1, Movement 1 (461-475) 1

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65.6 Alexander Borodin: Symphony No. 1, Movement 1 (461-475)
Stephen Gunzenhauser, CSR Symphony Orchestra, Naxos

The violins duplicate the same lines. They play them tremolo, giving the lines more excitement and of course color. Simultaneously, the violas and cellos have a unique line, rising in scalar groups of three in each bar. Notably, this line is not duplicated in any other orchestral voice. It’s not, therefore, as easy to hear, but it does contribute to the new timbral shift, especially after the unison voices of the preceding bars.


Music is everywhere as a background to our lives today. Most composers hear a variety of music, whether voluntarily or not. The music in these examples was written in the days before electronics. In those days, if you wanted to hear music you had to play it—on real (i.e., acoustic) instruments. There were no “definitive recordings.” Careful notations gave the composer more control over performances.

My review of some of the varieties of tremolos will continue in the next post with a few of these same composers and some new ones.

I hope you enjoyed this post. Feel free to send me a note (my address is on the About page) or leave a comment.

Matthew Yasner