Examples discussed in this article:
In the last few weeks this thread has examined the ways composers and orchestrators focus on the details of their works. Last time we continued with the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams entitled Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis with an additional example from Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations. This article looks at works from composers as different as Wagner and Gershwin. Although this is a diverse selection, the details of the composer’s care in notation are worthy of inspection and analysis.
Wagner’s Tristan Chord
One of the most surprising and innovative moments in nineteenth century orchestral music is the opening of the Prelude to Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Wagner essentially invented a chord, dubbed the Tristan chord, the first chord of the piece.
For those who don’t know the work, it is most worthy of study. In fact, the premiere of Tristan und Isolde is probably a pivotal moment in music history. Wagner introduces a chromaticism heretofore unheard in Western music. Some composers. such as Mahler and Strauss, embraced this new mode while others steadfastly did not. Among the latter is Claude Debussy who even quotes the opening line in a distorted fashion in Golliwogg’s Cakewalk from his work entitled The Children’s Corner. Regardless of their statements or musicological philosophies, once Tristan und Isolde was premiered in 1865 the traditional harmonic world of Mozart and Schubert was no longer the only game in town.
I’d like to just review the sounds Wagner uses in the opening few measures in Example 34.1. After the opening cello line, the woodwinds enter on the Tristan chord. On the downbeat, Wagner doubles the chord among the double reeds and the clarinets. The relatively high cello D-sharp is doubled by the English horn. Below the English horn, the clarinets and bassoons have the tritone (F – B). Above the cello the two oboes play the G-sharp.
Example 34.1 Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde Prelude (1 – 13)
Erich Leinsdorf, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Sheffield
It seems clear that Wagner wanted this doubling on the downbeat to emphasize the chord because once the chord is sustained for four eighth notes, the second oboe, clarinets, and cello are removed, leaving only the first oboe, English horn and bassoons (notably, they are all double reeds) to “resolve” the chord in the next measure. If moving from an F half-diminished seventh chord (to those familiar with pop chords, it could be spelled Fm7 flat 5) to the E dominant seventh is not quite a resolution to our ears, one can only imagine what it sounded like to an audience 150 years ago.
The sound created by this is quite rich when the initial chord is sounded due to the doubling and the full throated sound of the A clarinets in the chalumeau register joining the bassoons at the unison. Of note too is the opening descending chromatic lines in the cellos (after an upward leap) reflected in the ascending chromatic lines in the winds.
In the second iteration, the doubling changes. It’s now the oboes and the second clarinet joining the cellos on the downbeat for four eighth notes. Then the first clarinet (now the top note) has the ascending chromatic line. Unsurprisingly, the sound of the second phrase is quite different due to the instrument playing the melody and to the doublings.
Before continuing, just note the distance between the top and bottom of the final chord in each phrase. In the opening phrase, the chord is the range of an octave. In the second phrase, it’s the range of an octave and a fifth. In the third phrase it’s also an octave and a fifth, but there are several new or different ideas.
The first of these new ideas is the “bottom” note (middle C) played by the horn doubling the second clarinet and the second bassoon. The second one is the length and number of notes in the phrase. The cello line descends from B to G-sharp while the oboe line ascends from D to F-sharp. Another novel item is the line in the first bassoon part, now descending from F to D-sharp chromatically. The bassoons in all three iterations of the phrase consistently go from the tritone to a major third. There’s nothing new in the resolution of a tritone to a major third. What is new here is the major third to which it resolves is not the “right” one. That is, it’s not the traditional resolution of a tritone. In addition, Wagner’s emphasis by only using bassoons cannot be simply coincidence. The audience, after three hearings, becomes familiar with that sound – even if it’s one they’ve rarely or probably never encountered.
The melody in the oboe sets the groundwork for the minor second, which is the focus of the melody in the ensuing orchestra parts. But, for now, notice the repeated phrase in measures 12 and 13. They duplicate the music in measures 10 and 11, but they sound new and even fresh because of the single line voices from the flute on top (a new sound for the work) and the English horn on the bottom. These two voices are “stuffed” by the clarinet and the oboe playing the Tristan chord and then resolving harmonically just as in the previous phrase, but orchestrationally the sound is novel.
Repetition in orchestration is not necessarily to be avoided. What’s key is to be clear on the purpose of the sounds you write. If repetition is called for, then repetition it is. But if there’s a need for the music to organically create a new or different kind of sound, understanding the kinds of sound available is an imperative.
Gershwin’s Cuban Overture
While on the subject of repetition, I was reminded of a passage from Gershwin’s Cuban Overture. It’s just a short section consisting mainly of solos from the winds. These lines are based on material presented in the piece. In Example 34.2 note how the oboe line in measures 128 – 131 is reproduced by the clarinet in measures 132 – 135. The opening English horn line is similarly reproduced in the bass clarinet in measures 132 – 135 and the flute has the bassoon line. So, except for the instruments and the octaves, the first four measures after the double bar are repeated in the second four measures. Because of Gershwin’s rescoring of the same lines, the repeat sounds new and fresh. Keep this technique in mind when writing a repetition.
Example 34.2 George Gershwin: Cuban Overture (127 – 136)
Howard Hanson, Eastman-Rochester Orchestra, Mercury Living Presence
There are three additional noteworthy bits in this brief passage. The first violin parts are doubled in the seconds in measure 131, but as soon as they sound their As on the downbeat of 132, the seconds are removed. This kind of writing helps the conductor understand the composer’s intention. It’s essentially a scored forte-piano.
Also note the addition of the bells doubling the violins. Often, the glockenspiel is used for an entire section, such as in a march where the instrument will play for 16, 24 or 32 bars. Gershwin brings it in here just to accent the violin “fill” between the two iterations of the four measure phrase. The sudden addition of the sound is magical, especially with the openness of the three solo woodwinds.
Lastly, in the score Gershwin notated the bowing in measures 135 and 136. Historically in the nineteenth century this was not the norm. In the twentieth century it became more common, but the use of accent notation will probably get the effect the composer or orchestrator desires, especially if the composer is not a string player.
Stravinsky’s The Firebird
Igor Stravinsky carefully notated every item on his scores. Example 34.3 is from the ballet The Firebird, early in the work when the Firebird first appears. It’s preceded by woodwind and string trills and the glissandos of three harps. The crescendo climax reached in measure 50 is naturally creative, but Stravinsky was very particular with the sounds he wrote. We’ll examine the elements.
While the first six measures can be considered as a whole, Stravinsky displays elements that could separate the six measures into three two-bar phrases that are similar but different. Each group of two measures introduces a different layer to the overall texture of the crescendo.
At the top, the piccolos and flutes start with eighth note triplets, move to sixteenth notes in the second pair of measures, and finally to sixteenth note sextuplets in the final two measures. This is done over the space of an octave and a half, from high C (three line C) to five line G-flat, dividing the 12-tone scale into three even parts. Under the first piccolo the second piccolo and flutes play the same rhythm repeating a cluster of notes, moving up in blocks with the first piccolo. (For those who are not wind players, it may be of interest to know that at this rapid pace, the performers are probably using the technique known as “double-” or “triple-tonguing” for measures 46 through 49.)
Example 34.3 Igor Stravinsky: The Firebird (44 – 53)
Pierre Boulez, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Deutsche Grammophon
To enhance the clarity of this acceleration of notes, the oboes and clarinets start with eighth notes and move to eighth note triplets in their higher registers as the flute section moves into the stratosphere. The other section that has a similar pattern is the upper strings. The first violins play sextuplets sul ponticello, joined by the violas and occasionally by portions of the second violins and cellos. Playing near the bridge (sul ponticello) creates a more “metallic” – also described as “nasal” – sound. This adds to the tension created during this six measure crescendo.
Adding to the increasing tension, a stopped horn and the bassoons bounce tritones back and forth on downbeats clarifying the same pattern in the cellos, but without the “fuzziness” added by the cello’s grace notes. Note too that Stravinsky doubles the top piccolo line in the D clarinet for the first two measures (beginning at C) and then in the English horn for the last two measures (also beginning at C). When the half-way point (F-sharp) is reached in the chromatic ascending scale, he chooses to sustain a C in the English horn, rather than double the ascending line for these two measures as the first oboe doubles the piccolo at the octave.
There’s one last element that adds immensely to this crescendo: Two percussionists play cymbal rolls, one using brushes and the other using timpani mallets.
At the climax in measure 50 there is a dramatic change in texture as the winds diminuendo for the four bars shown. Like the example from last week’s article in the Elgar Enigma variation, Stravinsky writes a decrescendo into the working of the score: The clarinets begin to drop out after measure 50. The oboes have a similar pattern. Note that one piccolo, one oboe, the English horn, one clarinet and both bassoons simply hit the downbeat of measure 50 and rest.
Concurrently, the strings divide and tremolo, also dropping out as the passage unwinds. Unlike most of the rest of the orchestra, the cymbals continue their rolls, simply with a decrescendo. They, however, only achieve a mezzo-forte at the climax unlike the woodwinds and strings.
To ensure a satisfying climax after this mixture of chromaticism and tritone emphasis Stravinsky has three horns enter forte (only) on the downbeat of the climax with an ascending movement for seven beats, marked diminuendo. Remember that horns have a unique way of blending and consolidating the orchestra without necessarily alerting the audience to their presence. At first, it’s easy to miss the sound of the horns, but after just a few notes it’s understandable – and rather brilliant – why Stravinsky uses them at this point: Their sound adds to the climax and their removal adds dramatically to the diminuendo. These harmonies are reflected in the lower strings as the bass line is an ascending chromatic scale for this passage. It’s the horns, however, that adds the extra unique sound quality to the activity at the climax.
Fauré’s Masques et Bergamasques Overture
This final example shows how the simple act of adding some sustained sounds can dramatically change the sound of a repetition.
This post has focused primarily on the ways that large and especially small changes in orchestration can make a repeated phrase or melody sound new and exciting. This final piece shows how the addition of sustained notes – even if they are duplicating notes previously in a score – can refresh a practically verbatim repetition of an exposition.
Gabriel Fauré composed Masques et Bergamasques at the end of World War I, originally as a piece of music to be danced and sung. A suite was created of four solely orchestral movements. The opening of the overture is in Example 34.4.
Example 34.4 Fauré: Masques et Bergamasques: Overture (1 – 39)
Ernest Ansermet, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, London
The opening melody is played in a light and rapid manner just in the strings. The arrangement is quite straightforward. First violins play the tune while seconds and violas play repeated eighth notes in harmony. Cellos and basses have a pattern that plays on the one and four of three measures and then rest for a measure.
This theme runs for twenty-four measures and then repeats. The strings mainly repeat their parts from the beginning. On the repeats, the flutes and oboes join the first violins in octaves. It may seem like an obvious way to score, but what happens in the bassoons and horn adds a new dimension beginning at measure twenty-seven. The bassoons enter on the tritone of the dominant seventh chord (B-flat – E) and they are joined by one horn playing the tonic of the chord (C).
With the horn voiced in the middle of the bassoons, the C7 chord is filled out in a richness that had eluded the string sound at the opening. Please take a moment to listen to these rich inner voices. Note that by the time the score gets to measure 33 there’s no longer a need for the harmonic rhythm of the low strings. Instead they join the winds in sustaining the harmonies behind the upper winds and first violins.
As stated above, this is not a major or novel piece of orchestration. It is, however, a small detail without which the repeating strings would sound exactly that: repetitive and banal. In fact, even without the extended harmonies and their little foray into voice leading towards the end, just the sound of the bassoons and horn in measures 27 through 32, would breathe new life into the charming but not terribly memorable melody.
The intent of these posts is to help those learning orchestration as well as those knowledgeable in the art who might be looking for a different point of view. It also aims to help classical music audiences find mileposts when listening to orchestral music. It is hoped that these goals are worthwhile.
In the next article this focus will continue with works by Debussy, Mozart and Holst.