41. What Would Ravel Do? 12


Examples discussed in this article:

This post is the final one in a series of articles examining Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition‘s most well-known orchestration. It focuses on the tenth and last movement of the suite, The Great Gate of Kiev.

Upon hearing Ravel’s masterful orchestration of this movement, the immediate sound one notices is that of the brass. Listen to the opening of the movement in Example 41.1. It sounds like you are listening to a brass ensemble. Most listeners will have a difficult time hearing the bassoons the orchestrator adds to the rest of the ensemble, which is in fact all brass and includes all of the brass players in the orchestra. You might well ask: Why does he include them? The answer is that the bassoons fill out the middle of the sonic range here. They tend to soften the brass just slightly while also contributing a bit of woodwind sound to the brass harmonies.

In some regards this kind of scoring is not very complicated. Ravel keeps the harmony mostly closed throughout the passage and puts the first trumpet and the first trombone on the melody line. When the line gets a little too high for the trombone to blend evenly he gives it to another trumpet at the octave where the trombone had been previously.

Example 41.1 Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition (Maurice Ravel, orch.) –
10. The Great Gate of Kiev (1 – 15)
Eiji Oue, Minnesota Orchestra, Reference Recordings

If pressed to find something extraordinary in the passage I’d suggest first the lack of percussion. It would be easy to employ the percussion battery at this opening moment, but Monsieur Ravel chooses to have the brass choir sound as purely as possible. Ravel uses just the bass drum on those few occasions when the ensemble plays an accent on the second beat of these 2/2 measures. But note the timpani. Although pitched here in E-flat and B-flat, he mostly uses the B-flats in the passage. If you look at the original piano work, you’ll see that the pianist actually plays such full chords that the bass notes follow the tuba line. The B-flat is barely involved on the bottom line. Ravel does this to keep our ears waiting for the tonal center, where a broad downbeat will center the work in E-flat. It’s sort of opening with a pedal on V.

Even at measure 13 when Ravel brings in the woodwinds, they are more for texture than substance. Yes, we hear them, but the timbre is still a brass one.

When the piece finally arrives at the entrance of the whole ensemble at measure 22, the writing becomes much more orchestral. Listen to Example 41.2. I’ve included the two prior measures with their crescendo to lead into the refrain. Note the scoring in the first whole-orchestra measure. The three flutes are playing the melody up in the three line octave along with half of the first violins. The melody is played an octave lower by an oboe, a trumpet, and the other half of the first violins. And then there are a few additional parts on the melodic line in some of the other sections in the one line octave just above middle C. Given that we’ve heard the melody once or twice, there’s probably no one who’d miss it at this reintroduction.

Ravel does exploit the grace notes that the pianist would have used to set the ground of the chords so his or her hand could move to the remainder of them. Here, Ravel has the top half of the violins, the ones on the melody, play a brief grace note, anticipating the note immediately to come. This anticipation is also played by the timpani and the contrabasses, adding to the freshness of the re-introduction of the theme. Also contributing are the triple and quadruple stopped notes in the remainder of the string sections.

Example 41.2 Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition (Maurice Ravel, orch.) –
10. The Great Gate of Kiev (20 – 34)
Neeme Järvi, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Chandos

Continuing with Example 41.2, Mussorgsky teases us with the final section of the brass melody by interrupting it near the end and introducing a soft chorale. Ravel, as is not atypical throughout the orchestration, puts it in the clarinets and bassoons. Just as the piano work here takes a relatively simple and straightforward approach to four-part writing, Ravel reflects that in his chorale writing. The two bassoons are assigned the left hand and the two clarinets have the right hand. Although this seems so simple as an orchestration technique, the bottom line here is that it works well as a dramatic contrast to the previous large orchestral passage. And sometimes, less really is more: Just because an orchestrator has a wealth of sounds available does not mean they all need to be used!

Scalar Roller Coaster

Example 41.3 is just a few measures later in the work as the chorale comes to an ending on open fifths. Note how Ravel writes for the clarinets to sustain their notes over from measures 96 to the next measure when much of the orchestra enters. (N.B. If you can’t read the score in the video examples, remember to open the scores available at the top of each post in a separate window and enlarge them.) Mussorgsky could not do this if he wanted the heavy chords and the scales in octaves to start on the next down beat. Ravel, though, has the luxury of a host of performers and their instruments, so he lets the quite soft clarinets in their woodiest register sustain into the full orchestra on the next down beat.

Mussorgsky introduces us to a new idea in the work: Long lines of ascending and descending E-flat major scales that run while the brass melody is repeated. This is a great place for an orchestrator to show his or her stuff. It would be relatively easy to take a pedestrian approach to these lines.

Fortunately we’re hearing a master of the craft display some intricate scoring. Ravel starts the lines up in the stratosphere with the piccolo on its high G, doubled for percussive effect by the harp. In the next octave down we’re presented with flutes, harp and violins tremolos. The oboes, harp and second violins have the bottom of the lines. What is educational to see is the way Ravel divides the lines among the various operatives: piccolo to flute, flute to oboe, oboe to English horn, and so on. Throughout it all are the two harps accenting all the other linear parts.

Example 41.3 Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition (Maurice Ravel, orch.) –
10. The Great Gate of Kiev (47 – 59)
Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic Orchestra, CBS

It should be interesting to anyone listening carefully that the trumpets are not playing behind all of these lines for the first part of this portion of the work. Ravel does not introduce them until the end of the section when, upon its repeat, he also has the upper strings and woodwinds join in the majestic melody.

Just when this scalar section gets ready to arrive at a resting place, Mussorgsky returns the audience to a new chorale section that looks very much like the earlier one in similar four-part writing. Listen to Example 41.4.

Example 41.4 Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition (Maurice Ravel, orch.) –
10. The Great Gate of Kiev (67 – 84)
Antal Dorati, Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, Mercury Living Presence

Ravel, though, has a slightly different idea. He knows that what could be called the coda of the work is coming up. Given the resources he has at his disposal, he chooses to amp up the chorale. After the first five measures of the chorale that are scored exactly like the first one, he brings in additional woodwinds. This adds more flesh to the simple bones of the initial chorale.

Note that he has three flutes enter, doubling the two clarinets and the first bassoon while the second bassoon is doubled by the bass clarinet. This writing is tightly integrated, giving a sound even more similar to a church organ than was previously the case. The passage continues in this manner with the oboes and English horn notably absent. Ravel wants to keep the woody sound without adding the more biting timbre of the upper double reeds.

I’ve extended this example into the beginning of the transition to the final ultimoto. The chorale again ends on the open fifths at measure 80. This time both the clarinets and bassoons sustain their last chord into the next measure as the sound changes dramatically. You can hear it at the end of Example 41.4.

Ravel has the violas and cellos enter pizzicato on the down beat, assisting the upper three horns with their accented (somewhat) diminished chord (although it might almost be called a Tristan chord once the bass clarinet and fourth horn enter on the second beat, accented by the pizzicato contrabasses). The more dissonant chord in the second measure (and ensuing) continue to provide the raw materials for this slowly building passage.

The sound here is made more ominous by the entrance of the E-flat in the chimes. In the next measure the tuba, gong and contrabasses add more weight to this transition from church chorale to the foothills of the big finale.

As we move toward said finale, Ravel adds what I’ve referred to previously as orchestral trills in the strings. They start slowly over the previously begun “transition sound,” but the trill gets faster and includes more strings as he moves forward, adding more instruments, notably the upper winds and percussion, including harp in this passage.

Example 41.5 Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition (Maurice Ravel, orch.) –
10. The Great Gate of Kiev (100 – 112)
Eiji Oue, Minnesota Orchestra, Reference Recordings

Listen to Example 41.5 which occurs just before a big one measure crescendo that includes upward runs in the upper winds, both harps have glissandos and the upper strings have tremolo chords on each quarter note. Just as we’d expect, the climax of this one measure leads to more of the same. The orchestra continues to build on most of the old and new elements. Throughout all of this there’s an emphasis on an antiphonal pattern of each measured down beat and then a low response from the bassoons, tuba, low percussion, harps and contrabasses.

At the end of the example Ravel has the upper winds and strings play these repeated descending sixteenth notes with the brass playing a sustained chord.

At the end of these runs we get to a stately passage that has the ensemble playing in both two and three. The orchestra takes advantage of its forces by developing the duple rhythms in some portions of the orchestra and exploiting the triple rhythms as appropriate.

Example 41.6 Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition (Maurice Ravel, orch.) –
10. The Great Gate of Kiev (115 – 128)
Antal Dorati, Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, Mercury Living Presence

Even in this big ensemble that many might ask “How can you go wrong with a big orchestra?” Ravel still has subtleties to share with us. For example, note how in measures 121 and 122, he omits the third trumpet for the first part of the riff, bringing that performer in for an entrance that can be heard even with everything else happening.

The antiphonal accents on the one and then on the two continue for these occasional measures. Also, as noted above, the orchestra has split the melody and it’s played in both duple meter and triple meter through this passage. This is not in the original piano work; it’s all Ravel’s invention and makes this passage build dramatically. This is probably what the composer had in mind, but could quite not make playable with just two hands on the piano. Listen again for this juxtaposition in Example 41.6.

The section continues as the strings divide up the slow tremolos and triplets while the rest of the orchestra sustains the slow melodic line. The very end of the work is brilliant, but I’ve decided to use the passage just before it for the Example 41.7, the final one.

Example 41.7 Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition (Maurice Ravel, orch.) –
10. The Great Gate of Kiev (155 – 170)
Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic Orchestra, CBS

This is at the tail end of the transition passage just mentioned and Ravel stays true to the piano work. Note the three octaves played by groups of instruments in each section of the orchestra, but the lower players of each section have the forceful leaps. The bass clarinet, bassoons, third trombone, tuba and lower strings have this line, somewhat reminiscent of a line that Mahler might write.

When the melody is presented for the last time it’s back in duple meter. The strings have big grace notes that are indicated in a score note to be played on the beat. Again, we see that the antiphonal beats are played by the chimes and harps.


This extraordinary suite by Mussorgsky as orchestrated by Ravel contains a wealth of wonderful examples of scoring. His use of string techniques, his blending of timbres, and his balancing of the delicate and the massive are paradigms of brilliant orchestration. Keep the examples cited in this series of articles in mind as you listen to other works and as you create your own compositions and orchestrations.

Matthew Yasner