38. What Would Ravel Do? 9


Examples discussed in this article:

In last week’s post we examined the sixth movement of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition as orchestrated by Maurice Ravel. We also looked at the opening of Limoges, Le Marché, the seventh movement. We’ll continue with that movement at measure 16. For a change of pace, however, we’ll listen to the both the piano work and the orchestration together then we’ll juxtapose the two, focusing on the innovative sounds Ravel creates.

Example 38.1 Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition
7. Limoges – Le Marché (16 – 27)
Byron Janis, Mercury Living Presence

Mussorgsky’s piano music introduces us to a busy market. The fundamental building blocks of the work are readily apparent. There are upward scalar patterns. There are repeated sixteenth note groupings. There are accented passages on one and three. If we futher deconstruct these features there are two-sixteenth note groupings, many of which are half-steps followed by a staccato eighth note.

These are the elements the pianist emphasizes in the performance. And, as an orchestrator, they understandably would receive similar emphases in an arrangement for symphony orchestra.

Example 38.2 Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition (Maurice Ravel, orch.) –
7. Limoges – Le Marché (16 – 27)
Neeme Järvi, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Chandos

One additional item to note is the range of the piece. In the piano work, the lowest note in this passage is the A-flat just below middle C (in the small octave). If the orchestrator intends to stay true to the original, this forces a natural limit in the orchestration. Without too much thought this would eliminate the lower instruments of the orchestra. Ravel’s orchestration reflects this: There are no contrabassoons, trombones, tubas, or contrabasses in the score. Nor are there timpani or bass drum.

So, with these limitations what does Ravel do? In the first two measures he assigns the violins to carry the upward scales while using the trumpets to play repeated sixteenth notes on the third beat of each measure. After these two measures he gives the scalar passage to the trumpet. This makes for an aurally textured balance and, to add to the brass sonority, he brings in the horns to play repeated chordal sixteenth notes that descend in groups of two behind the trumpet.

The original work displays deceptively simple technique as Mussorgsky deconstructs the elements he has introduced in the piece. Note how the six sixteenth note ascending scale in the violins is now broken into a group of two sixteenth notes and then a group of four, each playing the upward movement. Ravel extends the brass sound into the next measure, number 20. With this repeat, however, Mussorgsky offsets the timing: Rather than the figure starting on the “and” of one, it begins on the “and” of two. Ravel continues the deployment of the brass for this and adds to its syncopation by the large pizzicato chords in the strings that had been on one and three, now appearing on two. These accents are played by the percussion (cymbal and snare drum as well as thee bells and harp.)

To get our feet tapping back to the opening rhythm, Ravel has a few tricks up his sleeve beginning in measure 21. He had left the cellos out for the preceding measure. They reenter here, playing the repeated pattern on one and three for measures 21 and 22. Concurrently the second violins and violas alternate between arco and pizzicato to accent the “ands” of one and three, joining with the first violins on the pizzicato second beat of each measure. To solidify the sound, the percussion play a similar pattern with the bells also playing only two eighth notes on the down beat and off beat of two.

This passage is all about building to a climax at the end of measure 24. You can hear this in the solo piano work. Ravel takes these disparate elements and throws them around the woodwinds, some playing one eighth note followed by two sixteenth notes while other play two sixteenth notes followed by one eighth note.

The pattern is further deconstructed in measure 24 when, on the last three eighth notes of the bar the high winds and strings have the repeated fifth interval (A – E) in sixteenth notes. In the following measure, the climax, is the unison sixteenth note passage accented by the trills (possibly better know as rolls) in the drum, cymbal, triangle and bells. Also note that the piccolo joins the bells on that D – E-flat trill.

Once they all hit their downbeats in measure 26, the two trumpets play the sixteenth notes: repeated Ds and descending chromatic D scale. The chromatic scale is indicated in the score to be played as a glissando by the upper strings. The performance of glissandos, portamentos, and the like can be different, depending on the conductor and the concertmaster. However, given that both the violin and the viola have D strings, beginning the glissando up on the fingerboard at the octave on the D string and sliding it down is a relatively standard technique and the orchestrator can feel confident that the sound he or she envisions will be played. If the glissando is more complex, however, it would be worth conferring with a string performer to get confirmation that what you hear in your head is what the orchestra will sound.

Market close

Just as things can become a little hectic as the stock market closes each day, I suppose the market in Limoges (an ancient town about 100 miles northeast of Bordeaux) may have behaved similarly. Mussorgsky has the work build towards the brief luftpause at the end of measure 36. The piano then plays this two hand pattern with the melody in the left hand on the odd numbered thirty-second notes and the chord in the right hand on the even numbered thirty-second notes.

Example 38.3 Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition
7. Limoges – Le Marché (34 – 40)
Byron Janis, Mercury Living Presence

But before we see the exciting close as interpreted by Ravel, let’s back up and look at Mussorgsky’s exciting build-up to the close. He reintroduces the ascending falling sixteenth note pattern in measure 34, but into the chaos he throws the rhythm off with the 2-sixteenth-1-eighth and the 1-eighth-2-sixteenth note pattern interspersed with this upward line in measure 34 only to follow it with the downward line in the next bar. Then, we arrive at measure 36 with the 1 beat pattern repeated three times, accented in both hands on the beat and off the beat.

Now we’ll see and hear what Ravel does with this passage in Example 38.4.

Example 38.4 Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition (Maurice Ravel, orch.) –
7. Limoges – Le Marché (34 – 40)
Neeme Järvi, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Chandos

In these final measures Ravel gives the lines to the violins and some woodwinds. The violas play the repeating sixteenth notes under them and most of the remainder of the orchestra have the rhythmic patterns that we noted above. The last measure before the coda (after the double-bar) has the trumpets playing the two sixteenth notes along with the violas on the down beats and the violins and upper winds playing them on the off beats. It’s a fast but effective antiphonal pattern that works to make the sudden silence at the end of the measure so effective. Just for kicks Ravel gives the off beat chords to the harp in both hands. He also has the horns and arco cellos playing the minor third eighth notes at the bottom of all the activity.

The coda for the orchestra has a surprising amount of energy, certainly on a par with the two-handed martellato patterns in the piano work.

If the words “rapid” and “percussive” come to mind when hearing the piano work, you might be thinking of the inclusion of percussion instruments. Ravel, though he does employ them here, had his focus on orchestral instruments that can play rapidly and with percussive accents.

Let’s first examine the selection Ravel makes for the left hand melody. Keep in mind that the two hands on the piano are kept pretty close to the center of its range and that Ravel has been fairly true throughout the work to Mussorgsky’s piano piece. So, Ravel has his cellos, bassoons, and the first and third horns (the ones traditionally written with the higher parts) on this melodic line. What gives the line its percussive effect are the ways in which the cellos and horns play it. The cellos have the notes as tremolos and the horns have them playing double-tongued. We’ve seen the double-tongue technique before in the woodwinds but there have not been many examples in the brass in these analyses. In the repertoire, however, this is a common brass technique used in the trumpet, horn and the trombone.

We’ve seen that Ravel has used the bassoon to play high into its upper register, but the higher it gets the less it sounds like a bassoon. This is true of all instruments: As they produce fewer audible harmonics, their unique timbre begins to diminish. So here, Ravel decides the bassoon playing the high C (two line C) on the ninth sixteenth note of the first and second measures is unnecessary. Nevertheless, it is an important note, one that is arrived at by a leap of a fifth from the F on the third down beat of these bars. To add to this syncopated accent, the orchestrator employs the English horn on just those two notes. This wisely continues the bassoon line and adds strength to the accent. But, what is an extra sonic enhancement for this accent is the entrance of the trumpets in thirds playing the first sixteenth notes using the double-tongue technique and ending on the third sixteenth note played staccato.

And in the penultimate measure the trumpets continue using this technique, but now accenting the first and second sixteenth notes of the first and third beats. I suggest that you listen to Example 38.4 again to hear the additional texture the two trumpets and, to a lesser degree, the English horn provide. Note too how the percussion and harp have similar accents on the third beats of measures 37 and 38. Then in measure 39 on each beat.

These are not the only things of interest going on in these measures. One is the countermelody that was in the top of the right hand piano part. This is played by the flutes (double tonguing) and first violins (tremolos). The other part is the harmonies under these busy figures. The second violins and the violas play this harmony as tremolos along with the first violins. But note the clarinets. They are not known to be able to double tongue. (They can, but the result has less clarity than winds without an extension (double reed or mouthpiece) into the mouth.)

Instead, because Ravel wants to have these harmonies with as rich a sound as possbile, he gives the two oboes and the two clarinets a portion of the violin line while they simultaneously play – and alternate – notes of the harmony. It might be difficult to notice with all the other business occurring, but I know the sound would be noticed if it were missing.

It’s educational to see what Ravel does in the final bar. For one, he cuts the horns on the down beat of three. This is probably because the instrument cannot play to the end of the line. In fact, it normally would detract from the crescendo if the very high horns were to be removed before the final note.

Instead, however, Ravel introduces the piccolo on the ascending figures played by the upper strings. Note that he also has the second trumpet join the first on those last eight sixteenth notes. This is to balance the removal of the horns, bassoons and cellos.

To add to this mix the cymbal begins a roll on one, the snare drum roll enters on two and a triangle roll adds to this on the third beat.

This movement is often performed with only a brief pause before the next. Sometimes conductors go directly from the final sixteenth note to the down beat of the next movement. Either way, it’s important to end the movement cleanly. It is for this reason that all the winds and strings that play the final sixteenth note, play it staccato. Note, too, that the three percussionists have a sixteenth note rest at the end of the measure. This is all to prevent any overflow of sound at the end of the movement.


The ways that Ravel uses the orchestra are often common in their approach, but they are extraordinary in the fine details he finds to create new sonic textures.

Now that you’ve had a chance to dissect this seemingly straightforward orchestration, I suggest locating one or even a few different recordings of this movement and to listen to it with and without the score.

In the next post we’ll continue with the eighth movement entitled Catacombs, a two-part movement evoking a visit to the crypts of a Parisian cathedral.

Matthew Yasner