Examples discussed in this article:
Of an actress in a play (Katherine Hepburn, I think), Dorothy Parker is supposed to have said that her performance ran “the gamut of emotions from A to B.” It’s a cute quip, one of those sucker punches of criticism that we may wish we were wit enough to have said. Others may argue that the criticism was too harsh, that the noted wag was too dismissive. There are always mitigating factors in almost any presentation. The range of similarities or differences will change depending on the observer and what the observer brings to the table. The same items can be as similar, in fact, as A and B. But change one part or view it in a different light and the items can be as different as A and Z.
This article will review music from a variety of composers and examine how they are both alike, but also different.
If you’re unfamiliar with Haydn’s Symphony Number 45, it’s a work that deserves an audition. It seems that Haydn is too often under-appreciated today and this is unfortunate. His ability to create and develop mellifluous melodies (especially in a relatively rigid era) is almost superhuman. In this ability he is in the company of other unique composers, such as Bach, Mozart, Schubert and Puccini.
Unlike some other Haydn symphonies whose associated names are arbitrary or were assigned long after their creation, this work is called the “Farewell Symphony” for good reason. When leaving for Prince Eszterházy’s summer palace, his musicians were expecting to return home by a certain date. Unfortunately, as their sojourn came to extend beyond the hoped for date, the orchestra member’s desire to return home increased. To provide the prince with a subtle hint that they were homesick, Haydn wrote a unique ending for the symphony: As the final movement progresses, players one by one put out the candles on their music stands, get up and walk offstage. I once attended a performance of this piece and it included this little bit of drama, to entertaining effect.
Anyone who’s studied even a little bit of music knows that generally a few musicians will produce a smaller sound than a full orchestra. In addition to the absolute volume of sound, the tonal quality of the sound changes depending on the instruments producing it. So, in the same way that instruments can be added to a work to change the timbre, they can also be subtracted and have a similarly effective change in timbre.
As long as I’ve brought up the Haydn “Farewell” Symphony, I feel obligated to present at least a very brief portion of it. Musically, it may not be apparent as the orchestra members stop playing before the end of the final movement. But, here is a passage from the movement (Example 30.1) where you can see that a few of the players’ parts actually end before the end of the movement.
Example 30.1 Joseph Haydn: Symphony Number 45, Last Movement (25 – 35)
Charles Mackerras, Orchestra of Saint Luke’s, Telarc
If you have the opportunity to listen to the symphony, especially this final part, you’ll hear how the overall sound of the ensemble diminishes slightly as each player’s part ends. As expected, the timbre changes as the group goes from an orchestra to a string orchestra to a string ensemble and finally to a muted violin duet. I expect that Papa Haydn had a twinkle in his eye as he penned this movement.
Paring down brass
Several posts back we reviewed the “Jupiter” movement of Gustav Holst’s The Planets. At the very end the brass have four measures with sustained chords. The next measure has the brass hitting the downbeat, but the horns have a staccato eighth note while the trombones and trumpets sustain the chord. The change in timbre is immediately apparent, almost visceral. It makes for an exciting, brief final surprise before the entire orchestra hits the last staccato downbeat. In Example 30.2 I’ve included this passage for your reference.
Example 30.2. Gustav Holst: The Planets: “Jupiter – The Bringer of Jollity” (Measures 396 – 412)
Adrian Boult, London Philharmonic Orchestra, London
In Example 30.3 there is a similar type of change, but in a much different environment. We’ve recently examined Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin, so we’re going to look at just a few measures from late in the work. The horns, trumpets and trombones enter alone on a sustained minor third (B – D). After the first measure the trombones and one trumpet drops out. A measure later the two remaining trumpets drop out, so that the third is sustained by only the horns.
Example 30.3 Béla Bartók: The Miraculous Mandarin (347 – 350)
Leonard Slatkin, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Telarc
Bartók cycles through several particular sounds in this one brief passage, sounds that can only be produced by the brass. For those less than familiar with the timbres produced by the brass, let these few measures provide a tidbit of edification. It’s revealing to listen to the sound (played in octaves with the trumpets on top and the horns and trombones on the bottom). The shift in timbre is clear and defined, even as the notes stay the same. It’s a useful example to revisit if you’re considering scoring a chord for sustained brass and especially in these registers.
What Do These Passages Have In Common?
There are special passages in pieces of music to which one can ascribe the word “evocative.” Sometimes these events contain music that is virtually identical to other music. On other occasions the works may simply feel like one composer is paying homage to another.
For many music lovers, hearing Maurice Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin gives a sense of music from the Baroque, but this is more structural than harmonic or even melodic. With this Ravel piece it’s more of a nod to the style of music written some two centuries earlier.
Here is a passage (Example 30.4) from the first section of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The composer reprises the opening bassoon solo (with some very minor rhythmic modifications). At the end of the bassoon solo the clarinet enters on a sustained trill. What happens next is new in the piece and presages the coming accented (and well known) string passage. This passage is very simple: The first violins enter pizzicato on eight straight ahead sixteenth notes (D-flat, B-flat, E-flat, B-flat) repeated. This is followed by a brief rest and returns without the repeat. The clarinets have some rapid figures after which six violas have a sustained chord, continued in the winds, as the first violins return with their figure for five beats.
Example 30.4 Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (66 – 78)
Loren Maazel, Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, Telarc
This soft first violin passage leads into the surprise entrance by all the other strings playing downbows on repeated dissonant chords. All eight horns enter as indicated to add irregular accents to the continued eighth notes chords by the strings.
Now let’s listen to another passage in Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin in Example 30.5.
Example 30.5 Béla Bartók: The Miraculous Mandarin (185 – 194)
Claudio Abbado, London Symphony Orchestra, Deutsche Grammophon
Except for the eighth note pattern in the flute and clarinet, there’s nothing screaming out, “Look at me. I sound just like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.” However, upon closer inspection, there are elements that deserve further consideration and these might justify such a claim. Listen to the string pizzicatos produced by the violas and cellos, triple stopped. Notice that the top note of each sections’ chords rest between G-sharp and E, a descending major third. The Stravinsky alternated between a descending minor third and a descending perfect fourth. So, here the Bartók is sitting right in between the two notes with a major third. Of course, these are (dissonant) chords whereas the Stravinsky pizzicato notes are solos. Nevertheless, with the addition of the staccato winds we hear a very similar sound.
Also similar is the use of the transparency of the orchestra in both of these passages and the melody played by bassoon and English horn, both of the double-reed family and playing in the same part of the sonic range. As the passage continues, the English horn moves up to a range usually played by the oboe (and one does enter to take over the duties), but the tension of the English horns higher register sounds apparent. For that matter, the melody could have stayed with the English horn, but by employing the oboe, Bartók exploits the tension and the reediness of the very bottom of the range of the oboe.
Two more little items and then we’ll move on to the next example. Where the Stravinsky goes straight into its thirty or forty strings playing staccato downbows, accented by the eight horns, Bartók moves rhythmically into a new sound with pizzicato basses, percussion, bassoon, clarinets and a flute. What is aurally surprising is the sound of the upper strings entering col legno. For those unfamiliar with the term, this is a method of playing the violin in which the performer turns the bow over and plays with the wood (legno) side of the bow. Naturally, this is not the standard way of playing: The bow was designed to make the violin strings vibrate with the hair pulling across the strings. Using the other side gives an eerie sound that is used infrequently. We heard some pieces that employed the technique in earlier posts such as Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, Mussorgsky’s Night On Bald Mountain and Mahler’s First Symphony.
The last item to note here is the portion with offbeats played by the flute in its bottom range in measures 191 through 193. If the strings were playing as normally bowed, it’s probable that this flute part would be difficult to hear. However, with the strings playing col legno the rhythm set up by the downbeats and upbeats in this passage works well to create a unique effect that’s at least as much percussive as it is tonal.
Mussorgsky/Ravel echoing Wagner
I first heard the Wagner Ring Cycle a few years after I’d heard Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. And though it was a long time ago, I still remember my surprise when there was an ambient sound in the “Siegfried Funeral Music” from near the end of Götterdämmerung. It felt as though Wagner had stolen the music from Mussorgsky. Of course, Wagner composed the music for the four operas of The Ring of the Nibelung before Mussorgsky wrote Pictures at an Exhibition for solo piano in the mid 1870s. And Ravel didn’t orchestrate the work until forty or fifty years later.
Regardless of the dates and who might have heard what and when, there are some similarities. We’ll begin by looking at “Siegfried’s Funeral Music” from Götterdämmerung. It is one of those pieces of music that even on one hearing you will never forget. After three unison upwardly chromatic notes, the orchestra enters with a strong, rhythmic beat. In Example 30.6 I’ve picked up in the second measure of the Funeral Music.
Example 30.6 Richard Wagner: “Siegfried’s Funeral Music” from Götterdämmerung (6 – 15)
Erich Leinsdorf, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Sheffield
Four trombones have a C minor chord on two sixteenth notes, followed after a brief gap with two more chords. This is supported by the timpani with the same rhythm. At the end of the bar, the lower strings have a modified C minor scale moving from C to B-flat and down to G when the trombones repeat the opening bar. There is a difference, however, in the voicing of the C minor chord. (The fifth had been the highest note and now the third is on top.) On the repeat, the basses drop out and the cellos are in unison, not doubled at the octave.
What follows is the rarely heard Wagner Tubas for a few measures, with the trombones providing extra harmony toward the end. The same pattern is repeated in F minor next, but with the trumpets added to the trombones.
The pattern changes in measure 11 when the violas and cellos play sustained tremolos and the brass – excluding the trombones but including the standard (contrabass) tuba – have a soli. It’s this passage that made me recall the Mussorgsky/Ravel.
In Example 30.7 you can hear a portion the “Catacombs” movement in Pictures at an Exhibition. In this portion, the four horns, trombones and tuba are joined by the bassoon section playing minor/dissonant chords in a relatively low range. After the fermata the horns and lower reeds sustain chords with no perceivable rhythm and then on the last beat of measure 18, the first trumpet enters on an A, pickup to the downbeat of the D in the ensuing measure.
Example 30.7 Modeste Mussorgsky: “Catacombs” from Pictures at an Exhibition, Maurice Ravel, orch. (12 – 23)
Antal Dorati, Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, Mercury Living Presence
A simple analysis of the chord structure shows a suspension in measure 21, resolving in the next measure. Overall, though, it was this solo trumpet and the dark brass sound that came to mind when I first heard the lead trumpet in measures 11 through 14 in the “Funeral Music.”
I don’t know if Ravel was channeling Wagner when he did this orchestration, but I am pretty sure that Ravel had heard Wagner’s music. In analyzing music orchestration it’s the sound that matters and not the history per se. Yet, the combination of Mussorgsky’s fascinating piano pictures and Ravel’s dynamic and innovative grasp of orchestration make this work unforgettable too.
So, in regard to Dorothy Parker’s line about talent running an abridged gamut, let me recall one of the few Latin phrases I can remember. De gustibus non est disputandem, right? You can’t argue with someone’s taste.
With the arrival of the end of August and the end of the summer break, I plan to start posting articles weekly next month.