37. What Would Ravel Do? 8


Examples discussed in this article:

The review of Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition continues in this week’s article. We’ll look at the sixth movement and the start of the seventh.

The sixth movement (not counting the Promenades) is thought to be based on two separate paintings, one of a rich man and the other of a poor one. It’s been variously entitled “Two Jews, One Rich and One Poor,” “A Rich Man and A Poor Man,” and the names of the two subjects: “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmüyle.”

The work is a brief study in contrast: a discussion between the two men. Mussorgsky begins the work with both hands playing the same line in a minor key. It’s actually more modal, an eastern European sound bordering on the Phrygian mode. In the opening of the movement the melody, one of the two men talking to the other, is played in the piano with both hands one octave apart. The middle section brings with it slowly moving mostly minor harmonies and a new, insistent and inexhaustible voice at the upper range of the treble clef. It’s a busy voice with almost constant grace notes and turns that continue through nearly the remainder of the piece.

Listen to the opening solo piano work in Example 37.1.

Example 37.1 Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition – 6. Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle (1 – 6)
Byron Janis, Mercury Living Presence

It’s standard practice when writing piano music to add octaves when simply indicating forte or fortissimo is not enough. This will generally double the number of strings sounding the desired notes. With an orchestra, though, this is not always the case. Sometimes putting all of the melody in unison in a section or even in the entire orchestra can have a dramatic effect.

With this melody Ravel follows Mussorgsky’s two hand piano piece exactly. Listen to Example 37.2. He puts the English horn, clarinets, all the violins and half the violas playing the right hand while the bass clarinet, bassoons, the other half of the violas, cellos and contrabasses play the left hand piano. In itself, this is a pretty standard way to orchestrate the piano piece. What adds weight to this and makes it somewhat unique is Ravel’s choice of instruments. He eschews all brass and pitched percussion sounds, selecting the lower woodwinds with their rich timbres to accompany the divided strings. Taken as an individual piece of music it’s an interesting and unusual sound. One especially striking choice is his use or lack thereof of the lowest instruments: He chooses not to use to contrabassoon and to have the contrabasses play loco from the piano work (as written). This has the basses move quite high in their range of normally produced sounds. It adds a gritty timbre that is not often heard. In addition, the resonance of the large sound chamber on the contrabass enhances the forcefulness of the sound.

Example 37.2 Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition – 6. Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle, (Maurice Ravel, orch.) (1 – 6)
Neeme Järvi, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Chandos

After the opening melody is completed the piece changes character with the introduction of a new voice over sustained harmonies. Listen to Example 37.3 for the beginning of this passage.

Example 37.3 Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition – 6. Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle (9 – 12)
Byron Janis, Mercury Living Presence

As I ask in the video example: What selection(s) would you make for this sound? The harmony lines are not terribly surprising. Ravel likes to use woodwinds for these kinds of passages. Employing the English horn, clarinets and bassoons is not unexpected as they were the instruments that were presented in the opening of the piece. The only new sound here is the inclusion of the oboes giving the timbre a little more bite.

As the passage continues Ravel does add some new sounds, but before continuing, please listen to Example 37.4 to hear the surprising instrument he chose for the other voice. A muted trumpet playing towards the top of its range is not that unusual, but one playing a busy almost nagging part is. With the opening sound of the full lower end of the orchestra (sans brass) Ravel introduces a smaller voice for the background winds and this bright, nasal and piercing sound of the high, muted trumpet. In the entire orchestral work, this is a new sound. Its presence explicitly states, “I’m a voice not to be argued with.”

Any fear a composer or orchestrator may have, especially one unfamiliar with writing for winds, that the soloist might not be able to find a place to take a breath here, is unnecessary. With the brief spaces between the eighth notes and the ensuing grace notes the trumpet player will find a way. You won’t have a brass player passing out from hypoxemia. Depending on the expertise of the orchestra, however, this might be a daunting part for the trumpet.

Example 37.4 Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition – 5. Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle, (Maurice Ravel, orch.) (9 – 12)
Antal Dorati, Minn, Symphony Orchestra, Mercury Living Presence

I’ve left out the next portion of the piece where Ravel brings in horns for some of the background chords. Ultimately, Ravel arrives at the last section of the movement where the insistent upper voice is now played in octaves by two muted trumpets. Listen to Example 37.5. The lower voice providing solidity to the piercing and bright upper one.

Example 37.5 Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition – 5. Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle, (Maurice Ravel, orch.) (24 – 29)
Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic, CBS

By now Ravel has brought in the contrabassoon to join the rest of the lower orchestra timbres and we arrive at the loud climax on the second beat of measure 25, followed by a fermata on the rest. What is interesting is the sounds that Ravel chooses next. The top melody sings out with the first violins on their 4th string (sul G) giving a rich sound, doubled by the oboe.

The remainder of the lines are doubled between the second violins and English horn, the viola and clarinet and the cello and bass clarinet. This is probably the equivalent of a resolution to the two sides of the argument. The sound is mostly that of the strings, the more homogenous group, with the addition of the lower woodwind ensemble. It’s an opportune place for both the composer and the orchestrator to change the overall sound. Mussorgsky provides the listener with a new sonic tableau for these last few measures and Ravel takes the passage and gives it a new coat of paint.

The final two figures were probably fun for the orchestrator. He puts the first one in just the woodwinds. The final one is most of the other instruments that have already played in the piece. There are a few interesting items in terms of the ranges that Ravel gives us. The bassoons are in octaves, but the second bassoon is doubling the contrabassoon, lower cellos and contrabasses. And the top half of the violas are playing in between the first and second violin parts. The lower violas are doubling the upper cellos. Taken as a whole the strings are intertwined. With the horns and woodwinds thrown in, we have the same line (unison) played in five octaves. Do you know who won the argument?

Limoges, The Market

Listen now to the beginning of the next movement, Limoges, Le Marché in Example 37.6. The rhythmic energy is immediately apparent. There’s a vague sense that, if it were reasonable for the pianist to play the opening chord (E-flat major) and repeat it 16 times, Mussorgsky might have elected that for the opening bar. However, the “riff” is easier to play with the E-flat chord followed by the brief and dissonant second sixteenth notes and then repeating the chord for the third and fourth of the first group of sixteenths. In addition, the propulsion from the turn between the first and third sixteenths, creates an energetic accent for each group. This energy focuses the accents on one and then three and four before returning to one.

Example 37.6 Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition – 7. Limoges: Le Marché (1 – 8)
Byron Janis, Mercury Living Presence

It’s notable that, after that first measure establishes the rhythmic tone of the movement, the left hand has four more bars of sixteenth note chords. Mussorgsky plays with the single tone drop  in the sixteenth note figures in bar number three. But after the second measure is repeated in measure four, the piano part returns to again focus on the four-sixteenth note groupings. In this case, four that are staccato and four that are slurred. Also note the quarter notes on the down beats. When we arrive at measure six the alternating lines between first the left and then the right hands are an element that the orchestrator employs to highlight, adding more color to the mix.

Listen to Example 37.7 to hear Ravel’s idea of the orchestration of this piano passage. Hear how Ravel starts the opening. All four horns are used to replicate the piano passage. Joining them and adding to the percussive effect are the pizzicato violas and cellos, reflecting the loud opening and then diminishing along with the horns as the measure continues. Because this movement, like most of the others is relatively brief, once Ravel establishes the short, sharp attacks of the sixteenth note chords he brings in some more resources to enhance the slurred run on the last one-and-a-half beats of measure two. Flutes and clarinets joins the first violin on with descending run. Their sound is supported by two horns playing dotted quarter notes slurred to end on the eighth note of the down beat of the next bar.

In that next measure the off beats of one and two are emphasized in the piano part and Ravel does the same in the orchestra with flute, clarinets, percussion and the off beats in the strings. Beginning in the next measure (bar 5) Ravel gives us the four-sixteenth note groupings, first in the trumpets, then the second violins, then horns and finally the violins again. The melody, meanwhile, is tossed around the orchestra too. It appears first in the bassoons and cellos, then in the clarinet and violin, then again in the bassoons and cellos. Ultimately it appears in the upper woodwinds and the violins. I highlighted this pattern in the piano work, but not in the orchestration. I suggest you listen to it again just for these few measures.

Example 37.7 Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition – 7. Limoges: Le Marché, (Maurice Ravel, orch.) (1 – 8)
Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic, CBS

Once Ravel has echoed the Mussorgsky with its emphasis on the and of one and two, he produces the short, two note slurred sixteenth notes on all the following groups in measure eight.

Also note the way he uses the harp as a percussion instrument along with the snare drum and cymbal on the off beats of one and two. But Mussorgsky wrote a cute, but almost deceptive little chromatic passage on the last half of measure eight. This figure is not lost on Ravel and he gives it to the trumpets, doubled down one octave in the violas and cellos.


There are other elements in these eight bars that are deserving of continued analysis. It’s recommended that you listen both with and without the score. See what gems strike your ear.

This movement has some more to teach and these items will be examined in next week’s post.

Matthew Yasner