64. Divided Strings


For most pianists, playing is a solitary affair. I’ve met many more students of piano who have never performed with another musician than those who have. This can lead them to play almost everything rubato. Coming to a difficult passage? Disregard the metronome. Approaching a climax that requires some big, quick leaps in one or both hands? Slow down. Getting to the fun part of a piece that you like and that you have practiced? Allegretto suddenly becomes Presto.

The piano is a self-contained instrument: The performer plays the melody, harmony and rhythm. Most other instrumentalists—the violinist or the trombonist, for example—will usually play with other musicians earlier and more frequently in their education. Wind and string players see and hear the world amid others making similar sounds. The pianist, though, sees and hears the musical landscape from the living room or the den.

It’s understandable, though, because musicians (and other people too!) tend to see and hear the world from their own vantage, their corner of the orchestra or band. I’ve known many players who are familiar with their section, but whose knowledge of the others is sadly lacking.

Those who orchestrate music, regardless of the instrument(s) they play, must have ears for every instrument. Orchestration requires at the very least a familiarity with the woodwinds, brass and strings. (Also, as an orchestrator, you’ll get more out of your percussionists if you don’t make them feel like the bastard stepchild of the orchestra.) It is difficult for a composer to notate the sound playing in his or her head without knowing how that sound is achieved, what instruments are needed to play it, and just as importantly how to write it for those who will be performing it.

In the spirit of education (And who among us cannot honestly admit that there’s always something to learn?), this article will examine some ways that composers, who wrote in the forty or fifty years that bracket World War I, divided their string sections. It’s during this period that new instruments had been added to the orchestra and the palette from which the composer could pick was varied and rich. So, listen to and examine some of these sustained chords from divided strings, most situated above the rest of the orchestra.

Not Tchaikovsky’s Swan

The expectation that woodwind players will play more than one instrument has been around for a long time. When a player plays a second instrument it is called “doubling.” (Even if he or she plays a third or fourth, it’s still called “doubling.”)

Over the past few hundred years, instrument makers designed products in the same family to have the similar if not exactly the same fingering on different instruments. This permits the talented woodwind player to bring more color to the orchestra with less cost than adding a second performer. In cramped quarters (such as the pit of a show), the space freed by one less player can be a godsend – for producers at least.

String and keyboard players may not know much about this: They most often just play their (one) instrument. But a woodwind section of, say, five players can provide a range of sonic colors from the swing of the Louis Prima/Benny Goodman “Sing, Sing, Sing” to the delicacy of the sunrise at the beginning of the third part of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé.

Today, it’s expected that an oboist will also play English horn. In fact, many recording dates have a woodwind player bringing as many as a half-dozen instruments to the gig.

This first example by Jean Sibelius is one of the handful of cor anglais (English horn) solos that are widely known. The Swan of Tuonela from 1895 is part of the Finnish composer’s Four Legends from the Kalevala. It is scored for a small orchestra of five woodwinds and seven brass, plus divided strings.

In Example 64.1, you can hear the broadly divided string section. The first and second violins are divided into four parts each, the violas and cellos are similarly divided. In addition, there are a few short solo passages for the cello and viola.

Example 64.1 Jean Sibelius: The Swan of Tuonela (1 – 17)
Shoko Ikeda, Tadaaki Otaka, NHK Symphony Orchestra, youtube

Perhaps the most striking feature of these opening few measures is the pyramid Sibelius builds beginning at the bottom of the strings with the tops of the chords well below middle C and within a few seconds the top violins are up above high C (three line C) with the bottom of each chord above middle C. These chords are distributed among the eight distinct parts of the divided violins. Given the small size of the orchestra, there may only be one desk on each part. It’s a sound not used often and the effect works perfectly here, providing a background evocative of the eerie realm of the dead.

There are a few ways the composer “hands off” one or more lines from one section to another. In these opening measures, the chord is first played in the basses and cellos, then, as the sound of the second cellos dies off, the chord is picked up by the violas. Once the cellos have finished their participation, the second violins enter and take up the baton from the now-ending violas. And, finally, the sound of the violas dies away and the first violins have the chord up in the two line and three line ranges.

Another use of the “hand off” in this example is the way the solo cello and solo viola climb up their ascending arpeggios to arrive at their final notes, which happen to be the next entrance of the English horn.

The solo English horn enters after the first four measures, playing for the most part below the sustained divided violins. The part remains in this range, the perfect place to show the natural beauty of this unfortunately infrequently used instrument. Of course virtually every instrument has an inherent beauty, but many instruments display their most natural and fundamental sounds in the middle of their ranges.

This is a wonderful exhibition of this “low oboe’s” sound. One other evocative sound heard here is the use of the bass drum. Listen to the ominous bass rumble beginning at measures 8 and 16. This device fills the bottom end of the orchestra in a way that almost no other instrument can.

One other technique worth mentioning is how one or another of the string lines help shape the double reed solo line by duplicating many of the emphasized (static or on the beat) notes. Of course, the English horn can be heard without this assistance, but the melody line reproduced an octave or two above or below the solo adds to the crystalline clarity of the passage.

Bax’s Fand: One More Mystical Realm

Another work alluding to mythology and composed some twenty years later is Arnold Bax’s The Garden of Fand. In Celtic folklore, Fand is an island in the sea where forgetfulness is a potential affliction. Although Bax wrote this tone poem in the early years of World War I, it did not have its premiere until 1920.

The composer uses the whole tone scale in a section of the work to help the listener to imagine the magical place of Fand. Example 64.2 is from that section and its enchanting mystical reference is obvious. Although the clarinet line is most conspicuous, listen to the strings. In a similar fashion to the Sibelius, each section is also divided into several parts sustaining the same chord in three octaves. This effect works as well here as it did in the Sibelius.

Example 64.2 Arnold Bax: The Garden of Fand (189 – 207)
Bryden Thomsom, Ulster Orchestra, Chandos

64.2 Bax - The Garden of Fand (189 - 207)

There are additional items to hear in this example. First, listen to the rhythm. The six eighth note repeating arpeggio in the clarinet, as you would expect in 3/4 time, emphasizes the down beat of each measure. However, the second harp and the pizzicato half of the cellos beg to differ. They want the listener to think that the rhythm is actually duple with their dissonant down beats on one, three and two. But wait! There’s more: Harp one has descending half notes that add to the feeling of duple rhythm. To assist the harpist to be heard through the sustained sounds and the duple meter, the harpist plays the top note in the normal manner, but the bottom note (left hand) is played as a harmonic. Because the harmonic sounds an octave higher than written, this only helps to emphasize the sound of the top note.

One might assume that the composer knew that adding the basses to the mix would probably muddy the sound of the pizzicato cellos, thus he wisely chooses to use them sparingly. They play pizzicato divided open fifths on the down beat every four bars when the harmonies shift. The one additional feature that adds to the disorientation of sound is the way the clarinet line is just barely changed by some half tones after the first seven or so measures.

This seemingly simple passage, in fact, has much to offer the listener. The composer displays his self-restraint by keeping the passage to basics. The score calls for cymbals, celesta, and glockenspiel, yet Bax chooses to keep this passage to just the doubled clarinets, two harps and strings. It’s a wise and effective choice.

Short, Sweet Divided Debussy

The next two examples are brief bits of lesser-known works by Claude Debussy, one for clarinet and orchestra, the other for saxophone and orchestra. Keeping with the divided string focus, the short examples, however, have nothing to do with the solos.

Example 64.3 is from a point near the beginning of Debussy’s Rhapsody for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra. Unlike the previous examples, the composer has the upper strings moving along with the upper woodwinds. The notes this group plays, however, are all duplicated in other places in the harmony. So, the woodwinds and strings could have simply sustained the chord as Sibelius and Bax did above. But, by continuously shifting the same notes, the composer produces a method to create movement only without any change in harmony. In an example from an earlier post we examined how Holst uses a similar technique to create what I referred to as “orchestral shimmer.” (Post 23, Example 1) In this section, the composer creates a similar effect but one designed for the background.

Example 64.3 Claude Debussy: Rapsodie pour Orchestre et Saxophone Alto (31 – 42)
Jean-Marie Loneix, Jean Martinon, Orchestre National De L’O.R.T.F., EMI

64.3 Debussy Rapsodie for Orchestra and Saxophone (31 - 42)

The sonic pedal (or more precisely, “inverted pedal point”) that it creates is even duplicated in the solo saxophone, also moving among the same tones. When the composer decides to shift the tonal center a bit and provide some movement, the ensemble plays the line and its harmonies in several octaves towards the end of the section in measures 35 through 38.

We can’t leave this example, though, without listening to the muted trombone trio as the passage changes to Allegretto scherzando at measure 39. With the sustained A-flat in the string basses, the novel sound of three muted trombones playing descending parallel chords in (mostly) 6/4 inversion. This muted section sound became familiar a few decades later as the big bands of the 1930s adopted brass sections of four trumpets and four trombones. In the early years of the twentieth century though, it added an innovative bit of orchestral color.

Debussy used divided strings also in Example 64.4, another work for solo woodwind and orchestra. In these few bars, the audience hears just a few desks of the divided upper strings repeating the same two chords. In this case, the chords alternate on each beat as the clarinet has half note trills on the I and V of the first chord.

Example 64.4 Claude Debussy: Première Rhapsodie pour Orchestre avec Clarinette Principale (35 – 39)
Guy Dangain, Jean Martinon, Orchestre National De L’O.R.T.F., EMI

64.4 Debussy - Première Rapsodie pour clarinette (35 -39)

The creative sound that surprises the listener is the way the two chord groups in two octaves (from two line D-flat up to four line D-flat) begin in the upper registers of the group, descend exactly an octave, descend another octave and then ascend an octave. The pattern then repeats almost verbatim over the next two bars. On its upward trail the line at the top and bottom of each chord is duplicated (in the middle) by the harmonics in the harp. There is a subtle change in the timbre between the shift in voicing between the lower half of the first violins and then first desk of the violas between bar 31 and 32, but this might be more seen on the score than heard in performance.

Coincidentally, these two alternating chords (D-flat major and A-flat minor) are found often in other works by the composer. The one that comes to mind quickly is the way the trumpets have the same two chords at the beginning of the middle section of the second of the Nocturnes for Orchestra, Fêtes. Listen to Example 64.5.

64.5 Debussy - Fetes (116 - 133)

Example 64.5 Claude Debussy: Fêtes from Nocturnes (116 – 133)
Bernard Haitink, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Philips

Neptune, the Mystic

Returning to the magical worlds, seen above in the realm of the dead and the island of forgetfulness, Gustav Holst imagined the planets in his eponymous work from the years at the end of World War I. The last movement, Neptune, the Mystic, is scored for a large orchestra of 16 woodwinds, 11 brass, percussion, timpani, two harps, celesta, organ pedal, female chorus and strings.

If you’re not familiar with the 5/4 work, it begins with a flute and an alto flute (called bass flute in the score), playing a motif that has two descending quarter notes followed by six eighth notes. This alternates with some slightly longer chords in the winds accompanied by harp tremolos.

Example 64.6 has a section near the beginning of the movement (before the entrance of the choir). Notice that the muted violin entrance at measure 13 is the first time strings have been heard in the piece. As the first violins hit the top of the three note scalar line, the flutes return to the opening motif with the second harp doubling them. For this string introduction, the celesta enters with chords (E minor and G-sharp minor) reflecting the harmonies in the violins and violas.

Example 64.6 Gustav Holst: VII. Neptune, the Mystic from The Planets (12 – 21)
Adrian Boult, London Philharmonic Orchestra, EMI

Although the initial string chord is played open and somewhat high, it’s not until the second measure that the violas move into treble clef, joining the violins playing closer harmonies as the celesta goes tacit and the harp tremolo returns. More woodwinds add to the eighth note pattern as the string harmonies begin to stabilize.

This sound is only temporary, though, because the inverted sonic pyramid grows with the addition of the low woodwinds, low brass and low strings through the end of the example. This inverted pyramid enhances the mystical qualities of the sound in a similar way that the ascending string pyramid did in the Sibelius in Example 64.1.

One additional trick the composer uses is the harp tremolo. It adds a surprisingly fresh sound to the shimmering upper strings. Those unfamiliar with harp writing, might need to check with a harpist to see what tremolos are possible and what ones are not. (Remember that harp tuning is based on a diatonic scale. Not all chromatic patterns are playable.)

High Strings in Paris

Recent posts have had several examples from the sadly few concert works composed by George Gershwin. For this final example, I’ve chosen a passage near the end of An American in Paris, a tone poem written in 1928 after the composer spent some time in Paris.

In a similar fashion to those above, Example 64.7 again has divided strings up in their highest registers. Typical of the composer, and this piece specifically, there are several concurrent ideas presented. First, listen to the rhythm and the easy, comfortable beat Gershwin creates. It consists of the staccato bassoons and pizzicato low strings playing down beats on the D and A. To emphasize the stronger beats, the timpani is engaged mostly on 1 and 3 of each measure. Added to this straightforward rhythm, the piece calls for brushes on the snare drum, doubling the rhythm and accenting the reed instrument syncopation.

Example 64.7 George Gershwin: An American in Paris (516 – 536)
Mitch Miller, London Symphony Orchestra, Arabesque

The clarinets and more importantly the saxes play the D7 chord half notes on the 1 and 3 and syncopated related chords in alternating measures. The snare drum (with wire brushes) is engaged to help emphasize the syncopation.

Finally, Gershwin adds a line of mostly eighth notes in the oboe and English horn. He wisely leaves sonic space for this line as it generally sits above the single reeds. It’s mostly scalar in quality, but the eighth notes give the performance the chance to engage in a little bit of a shuffle rhythm.

The flutes, assisting the upper strings, complete the variety of themes through these first eight measures. With the chords spread in the upper strings and the little variations thrown in at the end of each two bar section, the composer presents an open yet simultaneously rich transitory tapestry. The parallel chords in the strings provide the shimmery topping while the saxophones provide the meat.

After these first eight measures, at bar 524 the openness of the upper register shifts. Here the English horn, lead trumpet and violas combine to create a new line that sustains for seven beats with the eighth quarter note playing on that open space before dropping a seventh to its next sustained note.

At the same time, the violins play open fifths in eighth notes accented by the xylophone. To emphasize the initial note of each group the first flute sustains it for most of the two bar phrase before sliding to the next sustained note. Behind all of this are the continued rhythms from the first eight bars.

When the piece again returns to the original pattern, now a half step higher, the composer removes the saxes, putting four horns in their place for a refreshing bit of timbral variety.

Naturally, every part of this transitional passage works to create the sound that is well known, but if you can imagine it without the sustained strings, I think it would sound quite a bit devoid of its magic. All of the parts would be there, but without the upper register holding every other part together, helping them to congeal, these 30 or so seconds would be a much less compelling.

One can often hear this string style in popular music arrangements of the forties, fifties, and beyond. Composers such as Henry Mancini, Nelson Riddle, Bernard Herrmann and Nino Rota come to mind, but its a style that’s been embraced by many others.


The main focus of this article was on some ways composers of the late Romantic period and the early twentieth century scored for sustained and divided string sections. In Sibelius’s The Swan of Tuonela we heard a novel ascending pyramid. Bax’s The Garden of Fand produced a shimmering, mystical sound enhanced by harps. In two Debussy works for solo woodwind and orchestra, we listened to some uses of strings to provide an impression of motion, but with little harmonic movement. Holst’s Neptune, the Mystic gave us a descending chord pyramid. And finally in An American in Paris for Gershwin the high strings were color to provide background to his nostalgic, peripatetic Parisian.

The next post will focus on another area of string scoring.

I hope you enjoyed this information. Feel free to send me a note (my address is on the About page) or leave a comment.

Matthew Yasner