43. Combinations 2


Examples played and reviewed in this article:

Let me just say it, although I am documenting the obvious: Art is extraordinary. It raises the species to something above most of the other animals on the planet. Art provides us with the opportunity to feel, laugh and cry. It enables us to become more than we were yesterday.

For those creating art it provides a platform to let flow ideas, to develop structures, to nurture the creative process. In music specifically one can hear the places where the composer is creating a line, a rhythm or a harmony that feels like its purpose is to be a point of departure for expansion, modification or embellishment.

On the other hand there are passages in music that have an organic quality, something that just feels right, that – while new and creative – seems to grow from what came before. It’s difficult to describe. Yet one knows it when one hears it. I can think of many examples. One that comes to mind begins at the introduction of the sixteenth note flourish in the violins in the chorus entitled “For Unto Us A Child Is Born” from the first part of Handel’s Messiah. Listen to the passage in Example 43.1.

Example 43.1 Georg Friedrich Handel Messiah, “For Unto Us A Child Is Born” (20 – 37)
Trevor Pinnock, The English Concert and Choir, Deutsche Grammophon Archiv

In a variety of performances, I’ve heard the sixteenth note violin passage that begins in the latter half of measure 32 played doubled with oboes and even some upper brass. Regardless, the introduction of this line, played in thirds by the first and second violins, is a paean of joy. It is both a surprising revelation in the piece but also a natural outgrowth of the material that comes before it. And, while it’s not a subtle and rare piece of orchestration like much of the music we’ve examined at this site, it nevertheless stands out because of its appropriateness. It emerges from the voices singing “and his name shall be called” with that moment of brilliance only to support the entrance of the next measure when the choral counterpoint ceases and the chorus homorhythmically sings “Wonderful.”

Another more subtle example of an organic moment that comes to mind is the passage in the first movement of the late Beethoven string quartet in C-sharp minor, number 14, when the two violins are the only musicians playing in their upper register (Example 43.2). This is echoed in the viola and cello just a few measures later.

Example 43.2 Ludwig van Beethoven, String Quartet in c-sharp minor, Number 14 (63 – 78)
Alban Berg Quartet, EMI

The interplay between the two voices in each of the soli passages is so simple, that their geneses are mostly ignored. We don’t necessarily know where they come from, but they sound like they’ve existed this way forever. Art can combine the old and the new to make something rare.

Continuing combinations in Delius

These examples are a good basis for reviewing some newer works, more specifically from the “golden age of orchestration.”

Example 43.3 is just such a passage. It’s from a lesser known work by Frederick Delius entitled Fennimore and Gerda, a German-language opera. Although completed in 1910, it did not have its first performance until after WWI.

The example begins with the flute and oboe “trading twos” as they might say in the jazz field. The string accompaniment is a perfect piece of music that could be labeled “organic” in this context. Listen to the first eight measures of Example 43.3. Note how the divided first violins play the major third F – A under the flute. As the flute line moves to the F and is sustained in the second measure the first violins drop down to the major seventh F – E that “resolves” to a B-flat triad on the second half of the measure with the entrance of half of the divided second violins. The entrance of the second half of the second violins at the beginning of measure three moves the chords through F major to F minor and then back to F major for measures 3 and measure 4, cemented on the second half of that latter measure by the divided cellos playing an open F major chord on the third beat of measure four and sustaining it through measure five. There is nothing unique or extraordinary here, but I consider the passage to an example of this organic quality I mentioned at the outset.

Example 43.3 Frederick Delius: Fennimore and Gerda, Tenth Picture (1 – 24)
Thomas Beecham, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, EMI

As the passage continues the first violins divide into four sections of three or four players each. Each voice is doubled an octave below in the second violins. Before Delius introduces one of the solo winds again, he expands his string section. First, he introduces divided violas in measure 12 and then divided cellos in the next bar, just before the flute enters on the second beat. The oboe takes over the solo line for the next two measures until the flute doubles it an octave up and then continues with the line while the English horn enters for a couple of measures.

The opening line in measure one is repeated and the tune is tossed around the orchestra over the next few measures while the flute extends its additional line beginning at measure 19. Finally in this passage, the horn enters forcefully with the same line at measure 23.

The passage is remarkable for its movement throughout the strings with the few winds thrown in because of its essence. The melodies and harmonies all feel like they were cut from the same cloth. Nothing stands out as anything that we haven’t heard before – even though this is the first time we’re hearing these individual snippets.

It’s a brief example of how these disparate elements can work together to make the passage “feel” just right.

Enigmatic shifting subtlety

In previous posts we’ve listened to examples from the Elgar Enigma Variations and you may recall the specifics: How very careful writing can create a subtly shifting canvas. In Example 43.4 we have another, similar example from the theme itself. Listen to the example.

Example 43.4 Edward Elgar: Variations on an Original Theme for Orchestra (“Enigma” Variations) (5 – 12)
Andre Previn, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Philips

One of the most striking parts of this passage is when you see the score and realize the colors and voices Elgar introduces, removes and then reintroduces. For starters, there’s the leap of the Gs from measure 6 to measure 7 in the second violins. Now that the bassoons have entered there’s no longer a need for the second violins to sustain the note and Elgar would rather deploy the seconds to play a third below the solo clarinet in measure 7. Then, just as the flutes play the thirds on the final two eighth notes of measure 7, doubled by the clarinet and second violins, the first violins enter an octave below on the downbeat of 4 to continue the string harmony with the clarinet into measure 8.

This interplay continues in measures 9 and 10 as the horns enter. Note too that there are two horns playing with the sul G first violins in measure 10. But as we’ve seen before, listen to the way Elgar removes the horn sound in measure 10. The third horn plays an E (concert) on the third beat of measure 10, but the first horn sustains that note for one-and-one-half beats and even plays the last eighth note of the measure, just as the player drops out of the ensemble.

Ultimately, by measure 11 we are left with just the melody in the first and second violins and the bass line. To recap the passage: It begins with only strings and ends with the only strings. In between Elgar subtly shifts the melody between the woodwinds and the horns. These other elements help to develop the crescendo and diminuendo of the passage. It’s noteworthy that the orchestral sound is predominantly a string sound, but with a light seasoning of the reedy clarinet, the roundness of horns and the highlight of flutes and oboes. These, however, are ephemeral highlights. It’s the integrated, orchestral feeling that Elgar presents the listener: the combination of both a large orchestra and a chamber ensemble, all emanating from one convincing set of materials.

Less enigmatic Brahms

In juxtaposition to the subtle changes in timbre just presented by Elgar, Johannes Brahms’s approach in a passage from his third symphony is to shade his melody and harmony with color from the same section. Listen to Example 43.5 from the second movement from his Symphony Number 3.

At the start of this passage the strings have a direct harmonic and rhythmic role as background to a melody performed in octaves by the clarinet and bassoon. To my ear, for both instruments in this range the combined sound has a hint of the sound of a solo horn. Note that the range of this melodic line is only that of a sixth. It is a good example of how these two solo woodwinds sound when play in this register. That’s something to tuck away for further study and use in your own compositions.

Example 43.5 Johannes Brahms: Symphony 3 in F, Movement 2 (40 – 55)
George Szell, Cleveland Orchestra, Sony

The strings continue the same background with the addition of two flutes in their lowest octave as the clarinet and bassoon hand over two measures of the melodic line to a solo oboe and horn. In these thickening and somewhat dolorous harmonies the combination of oboe and horn contributes to the plaintive sound.

Hear how the oboe and horn cede the melody back to the clarinet and bassoon in measure 48 when they each play the same notes on the downbeat of the bar. Then, just two measures later, the woodwind ensemble subtly adds to its ranks such that it hands off to the strings on the fourth beat of measure 50: one flute and the clarinet give way to the first violins, the second flute passes off to the second violins and the second bassoon extends the tune to the violas.

As the strings change the kind of melody (even eighths with two downward notes followed by an upward leaps and the another, longer descending line), the cellos have a pedal of sorts. Then, as the winds enter of the fourth beat of measure 52, a similar pattern of harmonies, melodies and rhythms are played. Brahms answers these two two-measure phrases with a one-measure pattern that’s more like the inverse of the previous one when he shifts back to the strings at measure 55.

It’s educational to compare these two examples by listening to them without the scores and discerning the subtleties in each.

A saxophone rhapsody, here sans sax

Claude Debussy never seemed to lack for ways of writing colorful music. Nor did he fail to embrace technology, especially when said technology added color to his pallet. In the previous article we listened to a short passage featuring the alto saxophone in one of Bizet’s L’Arlésienne suites. Some thirty years later Debussy wrote a Rhapsodie for alto saxophone and orchestra.

I’ve selected a passage from this work that does not feature the soloist, however. I selected it mainly for its writing for the harp, although there are always many items of interest in all of Debussy’s orchestral writings.

Writing for almost any instrument about which one is unfamiliar can emotionally range from uncomfortable to downright intimidating. All instruments have their subtleties and difficult technical and mechanical challenges. I think that the harp can be either overrated or underrated in these terms. This is especially true when one hears the wealth of harps in some of Richard Wagner’s writing.

Here, though, I’d like to focus simply on the way that the sound of the harp can be heard even with quite a bit of other orchestra instruments playing. Listen to Example 43.6 and hear how well you can follow the harp line, even in the midst of woodwind figures, wind and string sustained chords and upper string tremolos.

Example 43.6 Claude Debussy: Rhapsodie pour saxophone (131-147)
Jean Martinon, Orchestre national de l’ORTF, EMI

After some obvious harp chords behind the solo flute lines, in the latter half as the upper wind lines are doubled in the flutes and with the oboe, the harp has duple ascending lines that begin in the bass clef. These ascend, well up into the treble, and repeat the process from measures 138 to 145.

It’s worth making a note of the scoring that allows the harp to be heard. For one, virtually the entire orchestra is marked either piano or pianissimo. For another, the harp is similar to the piano in that playing octaves will essentially double the sound volume. Although it might have been possible for the composer to write enharmonic equivalents for the passage and therefore doubling the sound at the unison, due to the scalar line, it would probably involve more than a bit of pedaling. Because the harp offers the rich sound at the octave, Debussy took the more standard and functional approach with the right hand part.

Without going into any detail, I’d like to just point out some other notable features in this example. Review these items at your leisure.

  • The first and second flutes share the sixteenth note passage in measures 134 and 135.
  • The clarinets do a similar trade in measures 136 and 137.
  • The timpani shares the duple bass line with the bassoon in measures 134 and 135.
  • The English horn line from measures 138 through 144 are doubled in three octaves the string tremolos.
  • The block chords in measures 146 and 147 are aptly assigned to the horn section with addition support by the lower double reeds and lower strings.

Another Image pour orchestre

Earlier this year I devoted a few articles to Claude Debussy’s second section of his Images pour orchestre, Ibéria, composed in the first decade of the twentieth century. For this final example I’d like to review a passage from the third section of Images pour orchestre, entitled Rondes de Printemps.

To my ear there is a slight parallel to the last two measures of the previous example in measures 132 and 133 of this passage. But, that’s just a personal quirk. Listen to this passage in Example 43.7.

The centerpiece of the example is at the change from 15/8 to 9/8 at the double bar. Debussy scores the “tune” for two oboes, English horn and four horns, the latter playing in their upper register, but well below the extreme range. Four horns playing in unison, marked forte and très en dehors, will deliver a sound that no one in the audience will be able to miss. However, the three treble clef double reed instruments add a slight edge to the sound and keep it more precise.

What I find most interesting in this passage are the three “hits” on the first and third beats of the first measure and the second beat of the second measure. The scoring on the first beat is two octaves of the chord played in both harps along with a pizzicato unison F in the low strings.

The composer adds to the sound on the next hit. Here we have the cellos playing their open fifth (D – A) higher than the previous note while the contrabasses move down to their D. In addition, the violas enter, overlapping on their A with the cellos and then doubling the D – A fifth an octave above the cellos. As far as the harps are concerned, they have not moved much in terms of range even though the chord has changed. Given that the quantity of strings is now dramatically increased by the addition of both the double/triple stops and the violas themselves, Debussy has written an orchestral crescendo.

When we finally arrive at the last of the three chords, several additional elements are sounded. First, every player’s part is marked sforzando. Next, all the first violins and half the seconds enter on complete chord, filled out by the violas. The C minor chord has all of its notes covered after the open fifth at the bottom up through two line E-flat, capped by the high C in the first violins and the first harp.

Although this seems rather perfunctory, I would assume that Debussy carefully fleshed out these three chords to offset the melody in the double reeds and horns. They work perfectly together and are as organic as any of the examples we listened to above.

Example 43.7 Claude Debussy: Images pour orchestre – Rondes de printemps (130-139)
Andre Previn, London Symphony Orchestra, EMI

A few other items in the example are worth noting. Hear what Debussy does in the accompaniment to the flute solo in measures 130 and 131. He begins by introducing the the first violins and cellos with a line that begins on one and runs through the fourth beat of these two five beat measures. To ensure that we feel the rhythm, he has the two harps accenting the second beat of each measure and horns and contrabasses accenting the third beat. Finally the clarinets have a pattern on the fifth beat of each measure, first supported by horn and second supported by bassoons. This, after all, is a dance and he wants to make it colorful in a variety of ways, but the beat must remain clear.

We might ask ourselves, then, about the rhythm beginning in measure 134. The melodic phrases are two beats each: quarter, eighth, quarter, eighth. First played by the flute, then the oboe, then the bassoon. This pattern is played twice and it continues even after the feel moves from somewhere around A-flat major to G-sharp (A-flat) minor in 138. But trying to analyze Debussy is usually a challenge and, thankfully, outside the scope of this post.

Regardless, it is illuminating to listen to and examine his creative and innovative orchestrational styles. See how he has the lower strings play and rhythmic accompaniment in measures 135, 137 and 139. These might be difficult to hear at first. They are there though and they function in a similar way to a rhythm guitar in a pop group: adding both harmony and rhythm to this dance movement.


These examples are always useful places to review when scoring music. Every composer in one way or another builds on the creativity of those who came before him or her. Listening to and studying the work of a variety of composers can only help give any contemporary orchestrator a broader foundation and deeper range of options when developing new work.

This post and the previous one have examined the different parts of sections of large orchestral works to understand the building blocks that go into making the work whole. In these two posts we’ve looked at compositions ranging from the eighteenth century into the twentieth century. I’ve discussed ideas about individual techniques that might make the ear feel like the music comes as one finished whole. Yet, we know that the composer sat (figuratively) at a blank piece of music paper and wrote down each note to be played by each instrument. It is a monumental undertaking. However, it does not require a superhuman talent. Study and creativity can work together to become more than the parts.

Remember that the Table of Contents in the header menu bar can always be used to locate all the previous posts. Let me know your thoughts or if you have any questions.

I will be taking several weeks off and plan to start up with some new “adventures in scoring” and possibly a new look to the site when Orchestra Sounds returns.

Matthew Yasner