16. What would Ravel do? Part 4

Basics, voicing

We took a purposeful detour in the last two posts, but we’re going to return to the main focus of the blog, to the traditional orchestra music repertoire. Before the side trip, we were listening to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, focusing on the Maurice Ravel orchestration, first performed in 1922.

This post will begin where we left off at the end of “What would Ravel do? Part 3” with the second Promenade, the third movement of the piece. It’s a variation on the opening Promenade, but shorter, only 12 measures in alternating 5/4 and 6/4. Then we’ll look at the fourth movement Il vecchio castello (The Old Castle, also called the Troubadour in some editions), one of the rare pieces in the canon that includes a saxophone.

Promenade II

Example 1. Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures an at Exhibition, 3. Promenade (Measures 1-4)
Byron Janis, Mercury Living Presence

In the original piano piece (Example 1) the now familiar solo melody begins on small F (the F below middle C) and has a range of an octave from small E-flat to the 1 line E-flat (an octave higher). Given this range there are a variety of instruments that one could choose to play this solo melody. In the woodwinds, it could be performed in a warm and woody range by the clarinet. A bassoon would also work, sounding both woody and reedy. In the brass it could be played by a horn or a trombone. Any of the strings except for the violin could also perform the melody.

Let’s examine what Ravel chose to do. Revisiting the initial Promenade, we’ll remember that it wrapped up with a brass-only sectional, ending with the full orchestra. After ending the frightening and raucous Gnomus movement Mussorgsky gives us a serene amble to the next painting. Ravel too decides to return to simplicity and serenity with a solo horn. The range around middle C is rich and vibrant for a horn player. It doesn’t have the bite of the higher octave, but it is nevertheless in a beautiful tessitura of the instrument.

The piano melody is repeated in the ensuing two measures, but on the repeat the right hand has three-note block chords. Ravel chooses to move away from the horn, shifting the melody to the bassoon on the repeat. For the block chords, he puts the oboe on top and two clarinets underneath it. The overall effect is that of a typical woodwind ensemble, soft, rich, and especially reedy with the two double reeds on the top and bottom. Listen to Example 2 to hear these four measures.

Example 2. Modest Mussorgsky, Orch. Maurice Ravel: Pictures an at Exhibition, 3. Promenade (Measures 1-4)
Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic, CBS

The two clarinets in close harmony support the sound of the oboe on top, but with the softer sound that clarinets bring. It’s not until the last few notes that the three upper winds move higher in their ranges. As is typical as any instrument rises toward its uppermost notes the overtones lessen and their sounds generally become less unique. Hence, the blending of the three close voices at the end of the phrase almost sounds like one instrument playing all three parts. (Historically, though, clarinets do not use vibrato at all or very little in orchestral performance. The flute, oboe and bassoon do. Hence in many examples the oboe will stand out, not only for its top note, but also for the difference in this performance practice.)

The following four measures are very similar to the initial four. Mussorgsky has the melody, as it were, of the right hand doubled down an octave so that what had been three note chords in the right hand become four note ones. It appears that Ravel, in his desire to maintain the freshness of the sound on what is essentially a repeat, keeps the solo horn on the solo melody, but shifts the woodwinds so that they are played with a trio of flutes and a clarinet doubling the melody at the lower octave (Example 3). In this passage, the sound of the flutes is so “up front” that it’s almost impossible to hear the clarinet on the bottom. Because of the large sonic space between the clarinet and the bassoon on the main Promenade melody there’s no difficulty recognizing the rich sound of the double-reed in the bass.

Example 3. Modest Mussorgsky, Orch. Maurice Ravel: Pictures an at Exhibition, 3. Promenade (Measures 7-8)
Antal Dorati, Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, Mercury Living Presence

For the last four measures Mussorgsky introduces something new: sustained tones, first in the left hand (Measures 9 and 10), then in the right (Measures 11 and 12). He also removes a voice in the harmony so that the melody of the main Promenade theme has just two notes in the hand below it. And, he lowers it to the middle C area from the heights of the flutes in the previous two measures.

Example 4. Modest Mussorgsky, Orch. Maurice Ravel: Pictures an at Exhibition, 3. Promenade  (Measures 9-10)
Eiji Oue, Minnesota Symphony, Reference Recordings

Again, Ravel opts to do something new and change several things in the orchestration (Example 4). For one, he removes the clarinets and gives the duties of the lower harmonies to two bassoons and two flutes; the melody is now carried by one flute and one oboe. The oboe alone would have no trouble being heard, but the rich low tones of the flute add just a bit of a thickness or forcefulness to the melody. Also of note is how Ravel uses the one horn, previously engaged in playing the solo melody, for the sustained bass of the first measure, then handing it off to the contrabassoon in the next.

Example 5. Modest Mussorgsky, Orch. Maurice Ravel: Pictures an at Exhibition, 3. Promenade (Measures 11-12)
Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic, CBS

Finally we arrive at the last two measures (Example 5). It would be difficult to listen the original piano work and not think that Mussorgsky was hearing the right hand played by the violins. Ravel instinctively does just that. The diminishing sound in these celestial strings is perfectly complemented with the melody and close harmonies in the two clarinets and bass clarinet.

Il vecchio castello

One of the first things that is apparent about this hauntingly beautiful movement is the lack of any brass throughout. Of course, when we think about traditional brass sounds, it might be understandable, but look at the soft and lyrical way Ravel employs the horn in the previous Promenade. In fact, I think one of the more interesting features of this movement’s orchestration is the omission of one’s expectation rather than the inclusion.

Example 6. Modest Mussorgsky, Orch. Maurice Ravel: Pictures an at Exhibition, 4. Il vecchio castello (Measures 1-7)
Antal Dorati, Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, Mercury Living Presence

The first few measures show Ravel’s restraint (Example 6). In the first measure he has the muted, divided cellos playing exactly what Mussorgsky wrote for the piano. But immediately we’re surprised by the first bassoon entering on the second beat of that measure, something not in the original. And once we arrive at measure two, as the cellos drop out of the open fifth (G-sharp – D-sharp), the second bassoon enters on the dotted half note G-sharp, and the first bassoon goes on the play that initial melody. In the well known orchestral repertoire, it’s fairly infrequent to have two bassoons playing softly and melodically nearly alone. Of note, too: whereas the Mussorgsky has the bottom of the left hand play the G-sharp on each beat, Ravel leaves out the second beat of the measure in that second measure. Instead there is just the second bassoon sustaining the G-sharp. It’s not until the second beat of the third measure that Ravel has the double basses play the same G-sharp pizzicato, creating a slight accent on the weaker beat.

Think about that double bass part: It’s not doubled. For most historical orchestral music the string basses are doubled up an octave, usually by the cellos, but occasionally by the lower brass and/or lower reeds. Perhaps it’s because of the transparency of just two bassoons, the Ravel adds only the double basses, muted and pizzicato. The effect is that, beginning in measure three, we have what Mussorgsky included in the piano work: G-sharps on each downbeat.

Uncommon Sax Solo

Although the saxophone has never been adopted as a standard instrument in the orchestral repertoire, from its introduction in the middle nineteenth century there was some interest in it as a solo instrument as well as a section in some orchestral pieces. Works by Debussy, d’Indy, Larsson, Ibert, Milhaud, Glazanov, Villa-Lobos, Glass, Adams and Hindemith have been written for it as a solo instrument. It’s also been included in orchestral works by Prokofiev, Ravel, Bizet, Vaughan Williams, Shostakovich, Strauss, Gershwin, Berg, Ives, Bartok and Massenet. While Ravel was working on this orchestration, jazz, ragtime, and blues were popular and the concept of the orchestra and its make-up was in transition. A few years after the introduction of Ravel’s orchestration, Paul Whiteman introduced Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue written for his “jazz orchestra,” which included banjo, accordion, among other less traditional orchestral instruments as well as fewer strings than in the traditional symphony orchestra.

In this light it’s not surprising that the inventive Ravel would use a solo alto saxophone for the main melody in this movement. The saxophone is a reed instrument, but made of brass. As you’d expect its sound is a cross between the two sounds. And, due to its unique sound, it has no problem singing clearly above the other sounds of the orchestra (Example 7).

Example 7. Modest Mussorgsky, Orch. Maurice Ravel: Pictures an at Exhibition, 4. Il vecchio castello (Measures 7-15)
Eiji Oue, Minnesota Symphony, Reference Recordings

Once the left hand melody has ended in the bassoons the job of supporting the saxophone goes to the strings, specifically the cellos and violas playing the left hand piano part, almost verbatim. Ravel introduces the second violins to support the chord and the melody changes when it’s repeated by the saxophone.

And speaking of the repeat of the melody, Ravel does something surprising: He adds a measure (not in the original piano work) just when the bassoons end their repeat of the opening melody and before the saxophone reenters. It’s just a “vamp” measure inserted after measure 18 in the piano version, but clearly Ravel must have felt the saxophone’s melody deserved to have two extra downbeats of the G-sharps before entering.

One other item of interest is that Ravel clearly wants this reedy sound to be in focus. Note that the right hand passage in measures 15 through 18 is played by an English horn, not an oboe. The final note, the E-flat, is quite high for the instrument, but the woody sound is apparent and adds that to the transparency of the mix.

Example 8. Modest Mussorgsky, Orch. Maurice Ravel: Pictures an at Exhibition, 4. Il vecchio castello (Measures 30-35)
Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic, CBS

Much of the next few passages are of interest only because Ravel stays true to traditional orchestral writing. In measure 30 (Example 8), Ravel has the divided first violins in octaves (just as in the piano) with the divided second violins playing the chord notes in the middle and the divided violas playing the left hand chord notes. Having the two violin sections and the violas playing in close and interlaced harmonies provides a close homophonic sonority. The cellos sustain G-sharps while the double basses add some rhythm with a quarter note-eighth note pattern. Note that the basses are still playing pizzicato for the first two measures of this passage and then switch to bows.

When the saxophone enters in measure 36 it is doubled by the oboe with chords sustained by the clarinets and bassoons. Upon the repeat of this interlude melody, Ravel adds most of the rest of the orchestra, doubling the repeated passage just played by the strings alone.

Example 9. Modest Mussorgsky, Orch. Maurice Ravel: Pictures an at Exhibition, 4. Il vecchio castello (Measures 39-45)
Eiji Oue, Minnesota Orchestra, Reference Recordings

After the saxophone again doubles the oboe in the brief passage, the opening bassoon part returns almost as it was at the opening. Most of the remainder of the movement consists of variations of the instrumentation Ravel has selected for it. He chose flutes to double the divided violins on the melody beginning in measure 39 (Example 9), with the clarinets, bassoons and middle strings filling in the harmony with the dotted quarter notes. But see how in measure 42, he adds the clarinets in octaves to the melody and the oboe and English horn to the inner harmonies for those last few bars of the passage.

Beginning in measure 51 Ravel creates an infrequently heard sound: the flute (in its lowest register) and English horn the melody with the low clarinet supporting the sustained harmony (Example 10). After this, the bassoon and oboe have the melody briefly and after some full wind and string harmonies, the melody returns to the flute, but this time doubles with one clarinet.

Example 10. Modest Mussorgsky, Orch. Maurice Ravel: Pictures an at Exhibition, 4. Il vecchio castello (Measures 51-57)
Antal Dorati, Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, Mercury Living Presence

Eventually the saxophone returns with a snippet of its original melody, the strings repeat some of the previous full ensemble part and then the saxophone returns for its finale, first with most of the original melody. The saxophone is embraced one final time by Ravel with the last few notes of the piece. It’s interesting that whereas Mussorgsky has the ending leap from D-sharp to a sustained G-sharp played in octave on the piano, Ravel gives it to the solo saxophone, allowing the performer to fade out as desired (Example 11).

Example 11. Modest Mussorgsky, Orch. Maurice Ravel: Pictures an at Exhibition, 4. Il vecchio castello (Measures 103-108)
Eiji Oue, Minnesota Orchestra, Reference Recordings

There are a few other items in these last few measures that add even more excitement to the score. For one, beginning in measure 97 of the piano work there’s a melody in the top of the left hand. Ravel starts this inner melody with just the violas in that first measure. He adds a clarinet to the second and third measures. Beginning in measure 100 (as you can see in Example 11), because the range goes too low for the soprano clarinet, he hands it off seamlessly to the bass clarinet. As I mentioned earlier, in many instances the bass clarinet can be an extremely homophonic member of the clarinet family. And because the final G-sharp of the line is out of the range of the violas, the bass clarinet rises to the occasion and plays the note solo.

The four chords played by the second violins and the violas in measure 103 through 105 are marked to be upbowed. It’s possible that this small item was put in my some edition’s editor along the way. It was in the score I used to typeset the example and I simply copied it. Nevertheless, having the strings play two notes with silence in between them on one upbow gives a nice, light touch to the very ending of this relatively quiet piece. (Not coincidentally, I think, it also provides more control to the performers.) And lastly, the chord played forte and pizzicato by all the strings on the downbeat of the penultimate measure is just the right touch for the saxophone’s suddenly loud leap up a fourth to the tonic, only to fade out to nothing.

Final thoughts

This original piano work by Mussorgsky is sad and graceful. So much so that Ravel seems to not impose too much on it. Ravel orchestrates it as such: a relatively straightforward work, showing focus and self-restraint. Limiting his palette to woodwinds and strings was the big decision. Adding a saxophone on the melody was another. Once those boundaries were established, Ravel used his innate knowledge of how to repeat something without it sounding the same, but without raising a flag to say “Here, look at how interesting this sound is!”

He opts to shift woodwind doubles, change wind and string harmonies, place string inner parts in slightly altered ways, and include ensemble writing throughout the movement. And he does all of this while we enjoy the beauty and elegance of the melody and the sadness and angst it and the harmonies invoke. It’s a great example of a master embracing his art.

In fact, it’s a useful piece to refer to when considering similar placement of melody, harmony and rhythm by anyone writing for the orchestra.

Next time we’ll begin with an even shorter Promenade movement (eight measures), but one with some new inventiveness from both Mussorgsky and Ravel. Then it’s on to the Tuileries gardens and perhaps some children at play, but having a disagreement. For this movement Ravel again creates some brilliant sounds. I hope you’ll enjoy it. Please let me know if you have questions or suggestions.