The music of war: a listening guide to Prokofiev’s 6th Sonata, 1st movement (part 2 of 2)

Picking right where the first part ended, let’s go on to the development:

03:14 – above the long held chord quiet activity ensues, full of energy which is held in check for the moment. Believe it or not, but these are the first three notes of our dreamy second subject, played sharply and with each note repeated twice. It’s a two voice affair, with a second voice entering at a dissonant interval just as the first voice finishes at 03:15 (such a device is called ‘stretto’, meaning ‘narrow, tight’ in Italian, and, I’m guessing, related to ‘straits’). This second voice scurries up and down from 03:16 on, and the left hand makes its appearance with two quiet but tense chords at 03:19. This is followed by a quick exchange of repeated notes between the two voices at 03:20-03:23 (one could imagine two mechanical constructions communicating with each other).

This exchange leads directly into another stretto entrance at 03:23, this time higher in pitch and a bit louder (the second stage of what is to be a very long buildup). This time the scurrying up-and-down runs (from 03:25 on) are spread over a bigger area of the keyboard, and are accompanied/accentuated by slaps as they reach their highest points (03:26, 03:29, 03:31) and by the same two quiet but tense chords we had at 03:19 at their lowest points (03:28, 03:30, 03:32). Yet another exchanges of repeated notes takes place 03:32, more complicated this time, as at 03:35 it shifts half a tone higher and goes on for a bit longer (a more complex communication, if you wish). This leads into –

03:38 – the third stage of the buildup. The right hand continues with yet another stretto entrance, but this time it’s just the backdrop to a melody in the middle voice (which makes us suddenly realize we had no proper melody in the development prior to this; I really love the way Prokofiev does it – moving aside what previously was more than enough material to occupy center stage and making it but the accompanying layer to a new voice; it’s as if the focus has shifted and we understand the true proportions of things – or so we think). This melody, heard clearly from 03:39, is a fuller version of our second subject melody – the one which the repeating-notes stretti in the right hand are based upon – and it’s constantly accompanied by a motoric right hand, filling the gaps between the notes. After it’s finished, at 03:43, the right hand plays one more stretto entrance, to which an old acquaintance is suddenly and forcibly added at 03:45 – the main motif of the sonata. Just to sum up the levels of complexity at this point: a harmonic chord in the bass, a melody in the lower middle voice, two voices with repeating notes above it, and at the apex the opening motif of the movement (cool, isn’t it?).

03:46-04:00 – this entire section is a chaotic mess mixture of the various motifs: repeated notes in the middle voice, forcible notes in the bass, two appearances of the stretto motif (03:48, 03:52) and numerous appearances of the opening motif, both in the four-note and the shorter three-note version and also in an expanded five-note version, with the first note repeated one extra time (03:49, 03:51, 03:54, 03:59 for a few examples). All of this over a very big crescendo, which finally leads us to –

04:00-04:10 – and we thought our focus had shifted at 03:38 with the introduction of the melody in the middle voice… The second subject now appears in its full horrible splendor in the right hand, high above the rest of the proceedings and twice as slow (a device called ‘augmentation’), while all around it the rest of the motifs battle among themselves – I find the effect terrifying. You’ll recognize the various motifs by now, but note the augmented main motif at 04:00 and 04:04 (left hand) beside the usual shorter versions which abound. At 04:10 there’s a lull at the melody and the lower voices take over, going first up then down, followed by two quick upward arpeggios at 04:12-04:13 (snarls to me) and a final shriek by the main motif high above, at 04:13.

This leads us to 04:14-04:36 – the biggest climax so far. The full second subject (04:00 had just the first part of it) appear in the middle voice (played by the thumbs of the two hands in unison), gaining even more in weight and presence, while all around them chaos reigns. Note the quick upward runs at 04:15-04:16 and 04:20-04:21, each followed by a crashing chord at 04:16 and 04:22. These chords are marked by Prokofiev col pugno, meaning ‘with the fist’ in Italian, and they are literally to be smashed with your right-hand fist on the keyboard as a cluster of notes (and I find that they startlingly resemble the sound of dropping bombs or shells, especially after the whistle of the runs preceding them). Also worth noting is the barrage of repeating octaves in the left hand (04:24-04:26) hammered out for extra aggression, and the keyboard-crossing upward run at 04:31-04:34, capped with yet another shriek of the opening motif – which then closes the section with one last appearance deep below, at 04:35-04:36.

04:36-05:01 – a heavy-plodding section based on two motifs: the second subject melody appears once again, but this time it’s coupled with the bridge section motif – remember that quietly slithering line from 00:49? Well, it’s the same one at 04:38-04:41 and from 04:46 onward, just much louder, heavier and badder. This is all incredibly aggressive (just listen to the angry twirl at 04:45 or to the thuds at 04:54), and while performing it makes me feel like as if I were playing heavy metal – you really vent all your anger in a place such as this (something we rarely get to do as classical musicians; it’s a lot of fun). It gets even louder toward the end of the section, and then we get to –

05:02-05:11 – a shrieking section, based on the four-note descending motif of the closing section of the exposition (02:26), with bits of the second subject woven in (05:05, 05:08, 05:10). As aggressive as the one before (though it’s all sharp and biting here), there are even two glissandi (quick slides over the keys) at 05:06 and 05:09 for extra effect. There’s an obsessive, repeating quality to those shrieks, as if coming from an animal trapped in a cage and unable to break out.

Things start to calm down (though real calmness is still far away) at 05:12, with three repeats of the four-note descending motif embellished with trills (05:12-05:15), which then continue into a descending chromatic line surrounded by several repeats of the opening motif (05:15-05:20). The chromatic line then takes over, becoming calmer yet and getting accompanied by a softer series of chords (05:21-05:25). But then things explode one last time at 05:26. We hear a new motif, which is one very typical to Prokofiev – the ticking clock. Loud at first, it soon subsides and makes place to several melodic appearances of the opening motif (05:28, 05:33, and more slowly and cautiously at 05:41). Note the change of harmony at 05:38: becoming slightly inquisitive, as if questioning that these horrors could really have just happened. From 05:44 things begin to fall apart – the clock motif becoming fragmented and slowing down. And then, at 05:53 appears our old malicious friend, that last motif of the exposition (02:59), framing the development on both ends – whatever meaning we attribute to it, I find this idea wonderful as a storytelling technique. At 06:00 the right hand joins in, doubling the left, and together they slow down completely by 06:03.

And at 06:05, after two seconds of silence, all of the aggression of the opening is once again unleashed onto our ears – we’ve arrived at the recapitulation. 06:05-06:28 is a full repeat of the first 15 seconds of the movement, with two changes: the more obvious one is that the first sentence (06:05-06:13) is played one octave lower than in the opening, a darker, more condensed sound, which makes the return to the normal pitch at 06:20 seem all the more triumphant (even radiant, in an ugly way). The less obvious change is that at 06:05-06:13 Prokofiev swaps the first two beats in the left hand, the downbeat now being a harsh dissonance, and the second beat becoming a pure consonance. This leads to a skewed feel, as if the marching soldiers were now limping along lopsidedly (though things right themselves at 06:20).

06:29-06:54 corresponds to the Mordor horns section of the exposition (00:25-00:41), but with quite a change of mood. The melody is in the upper voice, and the marching feel is gone completely; the melody is accompanied instead by what was a calmly flowing line in the second subject section (02:02). Melodically this section consists once again of two short sentences (06:29-06:37, 06:42-06:49), but the buffer parts between those two become much more interesting – both sentences grow in volume and end up with an explosive chord (06:37, 06:49; relatives of those bomb-like ones from the development, though not played with the fist this time). After these chords there’s a gradual climb up back to the melody, first hardly discernible, then becoming clearer, as if dust were settling down after an explosion.

06:55-07:14 – this section is based at first on the second subject melody (you’re probably recognizing it by now), with the same flowing line for accompaniment we’ve had in the previous section, but already by 06:59 things start to go sour in the middle voices, and starting from 07:02 Prokofiev abandons his melody completely and embarks instead on one last buildup, towards one last climax. The hands grow more and more apart, as the right hand keeps climbing higher and the left hand keeps crawling down chromatically. Tension steadily rises, there is a slight slowing down in tempo as we get to the extremes of the keyboard (07:11-07:14), and then here it is –

07:15 – the final climax of the work. Prokofiev completely breaks away from the sonata from structure by this point and instead of making the recapitulation a simple repeat of the exposition, he lets it bear what is probably the heaviest, most ponderous moment of the entire movement. Those heavy chords are based on the clock motif from the end of the development (05:26), with bits from the second subject melody thrown in (in its loud and high-pitched version from the development). Things seem to quieten down at 07:21, only to return with full vengeance at 07:28. The sequence is repeated then: a semblance of a calming down at 07:31 (with a haunting, pale specter appearing at 07:34: a ghost-like reminiscence of 05:21), but the war is not to be done away with, and it returns yet again in full force at 07:43, followed by what seems once again to be a calming down (07:45-07:51). You’ll probably doubt its truthfulness by now, and you’ll be right: at the very end of the movement the opening motif returns for one last, triumphant appearance (07:52), and this highly dissonant movement ends with on a highly dissonant chord (07:55), which is left to fade away, unresolved.


Well! That’s it :-). I hope you’ve enjoyed, though perhaps this is not the right word here – but I do hope that this guide managed to make this really complex and sometimes opaque music clearer. And if you’re then able to listen to this movement once again and get some enjoyment from it, then I’ve totally done my job.

I’ll end with a plug – should you like to get the CD, it’s on sale on all Amazon websites (both in a physical and a downloadable copy) among others, as well as on iTunes and other music distribution networks. And it’s not all aggression – though harsh sounds do appear throughout the three sonatas, the movement we’ve just discussed is probably the most dissonant of them all. In some of the others, plenty of softer, even lyrical music is to be found. And taken together these three sonatas have likely not been surpassed in Prokofiev’s piano output in terms of depth, colors, imagination and some incredible writing for the piano, all combined for a very strong effect..

See you next time! BG.

The music of war: a listening guide to Prokofiev’s 6th Sonata, 1st movement (part 1 of 2)

Hello everybody!

Today’s post marks a somewhat special occasion, as my new CD has been recently  released worldwide. I recorded the 6th, 7th, and 8th piano sonatas by Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), which are commonly grouped together as ‘the War Sonatas’, having been composed between 1940 and 1944. To tie-in with the release, I decided to publish a listening guide to the opening movement of the CD – the first movement of the 6th sonata. And to really tie-in with the release, the YouTube clip below comes from the newly released CD (thanks to Orchid Classics for arranging this).

Since we’re once again discussing a sonata form movement (and in rather more depth than in the recent guide to Ravel’s Concerto in G), I thought I’ll do a quick recap of what a sonata form is and how it works before we delve into the music (you can also find an in-depth discussion here). The sonata form is a musical mold or a blueprint which could be used to construct a musical movement of almost any length – it’s highly flexible and modular, while at the same time being structured enough to provide the skeleton for even the longest movements. It’s also one of the most popular and longest-enduring musical forms with hundreds of works ranging from the mid-18th century to our days. The basic division of a sonata form movement is into three parts:

  • Exposition
  • Development
  • Recapitulation (often shortened to recap)

In the exposition the main themes/subjects/motifs are presented (more on it in a second), they are then developed, combined and clashed in the development, and reprised in the recapitulation, which is often a complete repeat of the exposition. The exposition itself is normally divided into four sections:

  • The first subject section (subject being just another word for a musical theme)
  • A connection section (a.k.a. a bridge or a transition, which leads into ->)
  • The second subject section
  • A closing section (formally called the ‘codetta’, meaning ‘little coda’ – which is Italian for tail)

The first and second subjects are the defining melodic elements of the movement (those are usually the tunes one could sing – though they’re not always singable, as we’ll see), and since some point in the 19th century, it became common practice to have two contrasting subjects in your movement – so if the first was energetic and quick, the second would be lyrical and slow (e.g.). The other two sections need not present new melodic material (though they may), and their function is more of a structural one – connecting, moving from one key to another, etc. Once again, please refer to the Mozart post linked above if you’d like a more thorough explanation.

The development is a free-form section, without rules – it’s quite often the least stable area of the sonata form movement: the subjects are combined and juxtaposed, buildups are built up, big climaxes are reached – exciting stuff. The recap would normally contain the same sections as the exposition, and would sometimes be followed by a coda – a closing section.

So, as you see, it’s a very organized way of writing music. But there’s also much freedom to be had – sections can be as short or as long as the composer wants them to, they can be expanded to include more material, or even be done away with completely. This is all rather theoretical at the moment, but will hopefully become clearer as we progress with the music. And so, without further ado, here’s the recording:

00:02 – now how’s that for a melody to sing? This is angular, aggressive, angry, persistent – and basically not a melody at all. It’s a sharply defined rhythmic motif – one longer note, followed by three quick descending ones, and immediately repeated, with the first longer note shortened (00:02-00:04); this group of eight notes (they are actually sixteen, as each note is doubled by an interval, like two voices moving in parallel paths) is repeated in full (00:05-00:07), and then repeated once again, shortened even more and with an extra helping of the three descending notes (00:07-00:08); and to end the sentence, we have a new four-note rising motif, with a snappy dotted rhythm (00:08-00:10), like a series of angrily barked words.

I would like to dwell on this short sentence some more, as it’s fascinating to see how much can occur in such a small stretch of time, and on how many different levels. (For me it’s one of the greatest hallmarks of classical music – things are happening all the time, no second is wasted, and the perception of time is often stretched to accommodate the amount of stuff packed into every bar.) We’ve spoken about the melody, but what happens in the left hand?

(note: this paragraph and the next are slightly more complicated and technical, so feel completely free to skip them.) You have probably noticed that the the music resembles a march more than anything else (I imagine endless lines of blank-eyed soldiers, marching past or towards you) – but what a weird march it is! You would normally expect a march to have a very steady, constant beat, to help with the marching. But not here – the third beat out of every four is empty, missing, giving us instead of a regular ‘one-two-three-four’ an oddly syncopated ‘one-two-…..-four. And not just in the left hand, but in the right hand as well, as the third beat falls on the shortened long note of the main motif – which is shortened precisely to leave the third downbeat empty (I mean the very beginning of 00:04 and 00:06 – there’s just an emptiness there, no right hand, no left hand – as if the soldiers all stopped on the Right! and froze on one leg for a beat before continuing to Left! Could be quite scary, if you imagine it). Later, in 00:07-00:08, the left hand finally plays all four beats, but instead of sounding normal as it should, it now sounds shortened, condensed (as the empty beat has been dispensed with) – this to coincide with the shortening of the motif in the right hand. 00:08-00:10 is nothing special, with the left hand steadily accompanying the right. (But do notice the abrupt ending in 00:10 – in the beginning we first had ‘one-two-…..-four’ for two bars, then one bar of ‘one-two-three-four’, and then, at 00:10, it’s suddenly ‘one-two-three!’, like a cut-off, categorical statement – very effective. And it’s quite a variety of rhythmical configurations for such a short sentence.)

Lastly I’d like to talk about the harmony – the very first chord we hear in 00:02 is a pure major triad – a clean, perfectly consonant sound. But immediately thereafter, at 00:03, we get the harshest dissonant one could create from four notes (that’s how many we’ve got there), which is further exacerbated by Prokofiev ‘freezing’ on that harmony (the empty third beat) – this serves as a virtual accent, as there’s nothing after that chord, letting us continue hearing it in our ears. Prokofiev also repeats the same harmony on the fourth beat (00:04), so on balance our first bars are one fourth pure consonance to three fourths harsh dissonance – a sweet mix, isn’t it? The first chord of the closing four-note motif (00:08) is a hard dissonance as well, though the very last chord (00:10) is a clean one – consonances make better ‘full-stop’ chords, or, as in this case, ‘semicolon’ chords – as we’re not nearly done yet.

If you listen to this first sentence again, you can now probably hear and feel how those elements – the melody, the rhythm and the harmony – combine to create the militant, triumphant mood (triumphant in an ugly way). Moreover, the sentence is perfectly balanced – first, two identical full bars, each one with a skipped beat in the left hand and the main motif in the right hand played twice per bar, once in full, once in a rhythmically shortened version. This is followed by a general condensing of the material (no skipped beats in the left hand, only the shortened version of the motif in the right hand), the tension is building up, and finally the snappy four-notes motif finishes things off for the moment – and we’re just 8 seconds in.

And here I’d like to add that for me in no other movement of these three sonatas – ten movements altogether – are the horrors of war as blatantly apparent as here. There’s nothing subtle here, nothing is hinted – you’re staring war in the face, and it’s ugly.

Let’s go on (finally). 00:10-00:17 – We have some new material. This is a kind of an appendix to the first sentence, not a new one. 00:10-00:12 gives us a rowdy motif (possibly with an element of laughter to it – of the mocking, malicious kind) which is answered at 00:12-00:14 by a booming, dissonant fanfare in a lower region of the keyboard (rhythmically, it’s ‘one-two-three!’, like at 00:10 – once again, a semicolon chord). And then, in 00:14-00:17 there is a sweeping upward passage in the right hand, accompanied by dotted rhythms in the left hand (dotted rhythms are – well, it’s easier to show: this is what they are, 05:55-06:03. They are called so because of the way they are notated in a musical score. Here’s an example, the first dot is circled in red):

Dynamically, the run starts out somewhat softer with an immediate crescendo afterwards (crescendo is the musical term for the volume getting louder), there’s another tension buildup, and it gets released into –

00:17-00:25 – a full repeat of the opening phrase (00:02-00:10), sounding even more triumphant then before. The only difference is the ending, at 00:23-00:25 – instead of the snappy four-notes motif from 00:09-00:10, we get the booming fanfare one from 00:12-00:14 (musical interchangeability :-)) – and this time it serves as a full-stop, bringing the entire section to a close. And yet, at the very last moment, the bass line in the left hand slides down – that single note between 00:25 and 00:26 – and brings us to the next section –

00:25-00:41. If you have been keeping the sonata form structure in mind, you might be wondering if this is the bridge – the connecting section between the first and the second subject. The truthful answer is that one cannot know for sure at this point – we’ll have to wait and see what happens afterwards: if this brings us to the second subject, then yes, if it brings us somewhere else, then no. As it is, this section is based on just two motifs – first, the descending three-note motif which we encountered right at the beginning of the movement (without the first long note); but whereas before it has been the melody (sort of), now it has become the accompaniment to the other line – a series of long, loud notes, sustained in the middle of the keyboard, while the three-note motif encompasses them from above and from below like snarls and shrieks. The effect is absolutely barbaric – a terrible force is on the march to the sound of horns (I immediately think about the armies of Mordor from the Lord of the Rings; and realizing that Prokofiev meant no imaginary creatures, but rather some very real human beings, makes it all the more chilling).

Melodically the sentence is divided into two short parts, 00:25-00:30 and 00:32-00:36, with the areas between and after serving as buffer or filler – no melodic notes there, just repetitions of our descending three-note motif. And then, after one last angry snarl in the basses at 00:38, we get the same upward run as at 00:14, complete with the dotted notes in the left hand. And, like at 00:18, it once again brings us to a full repeat of the opening phrase (00:41-00:48), and we can now know for sure that those barbaric horns at 00:25 were not the bridge section, but rather the expansion of the first subject section. This is a prime example of the flexibility of the sonata form – Prokofiev has constructed a complicated, multi-segmented section with quite a bit of different material, and yet, it’s all snugly encapsulated inside a clearly delineated structural block. Nice! But let’s move on.

00:49-01:21 – our bridge section. In the beginning (00:49-00:56) we’ve got a creeping, slithering chromatic line (chromatic means covering all the tones and semi-tones on the piano; basically advancing in the smallest increments possible from point A to point B. Chromatic scales got a distinct sound, and among other things they’re very good for crawling lines such as this). The two hands alternate note by note, and the melody is just in the thumbs of both hands, the other fingers providing dampened harmonic chords. The last four notes of the line get repeated three times (00:53-00:56), each time a bit louder (with a hint of a growing menace), then the phrase is repeated again at a higher pitch (00:56-01:00), this time ending with a bigger crescendo and even a tiny bit of triumph as the hands split and separate from each other (01:00-01:02). Our chromatic line is then repeated one last time, higher and louder still (01:02-01:05) and after a single octave in the bass (01:06), we get to the climax of this section: we’re showered with a cascade of highly dissonant descending chords (01:06-01:12) – like a carillon gone mad. There’s no melody to speak of, just harsh intervals. The line slows and quietens down gradually (01:11 onward), coming to a near-standstill at 01:16-01:20.

And then at 01:22, above the held interval in the bass, the second subject appears – a distant melody, sad and forlorn and beautiful, played by both hands in unison. I cannot but think of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Pity of war’ in this place – for me this is the musical embodiment of that idea. The unison line splits into three voices at 01:30, the middle voice adding a counterpoint to the upper voice melody and the bass line appearing down below, reminding us that all is not well. Then at 01:38, the first half of our melody is repeated with more presence in the middle voice, the upper voice accompanying it with a few separated notes, this half-line ending uncertainly at 01:45-01:47.

At 01:47-02:02 the full line is repeated with several variations, in the same three-voice configuration we had at 01:30. The middle voice is becoming more prominent (note the long up-and-down line at  01:48-01:54) and there’s an unexpected dotted-rhythm interplay between it and the upper voice at 01:56-01:58, bringing a note of urgency and nervousness into the previously calm line. This is joined by the lower voice with a short but noticeable upward arpeggio (broken chord) at 01:59.

At 02:02 a new, calmly flowing line appears, passing into the lower voice at 02:06, as the right hand plays three prominent bell-like notes (02:06, 02:08, 02:10). Immediately after the third note our main melody re-appears above, making the flowing line below its accompaniment. A small additional quirkiness is in the fact that the melody is offset by one note, entering as it were just a bit too late, and making it ever-so-slightly out of sync with the bass, and adding to the flow (the two hands are then re-synced at 02:13).

02:17 – calmness is over. This is the closing section to the exposition; a quick upward line made of sharp notes alternated between the two hands snaps us out of the slightly dreamy mood that preceded it. This is further emphasized by the relative harshness of 02:20-02:24, which contains a preparation of what is to come – in its middle voice we can hear a line of four descending notes which will serve as the backbone of the forthcoming climax. The quick upward line is repeated at 02:26-02:27, followed by a short buildup at 02:27-02:31 which contains the same four-note motif, repeated twice (02:27-02:29, 02:29-02:31). And finally things erupt in an explosive manner at 02:31. Something bad is upon us, and the outer chords sound the alarm, like low and high heavy bells, while the middle voice hammers out incessantly the descending four-note motif. 02:38-02:41 – still more harshness and clamor, the four-note motif especially insisting at 02:42-02:45, where it’s isolated and for all to hear. Things slow down at 02:45, as if the motor propelling the four-note motif had run out of fuel, and the section ends with a few slow notes in the bass at 02:51-02:55.

But then Prokofiev adds one final touch before moving on to the development. Just as things seem to have calmed down, a dark, somewhat scary motif of repeated notes appears in the bass at 02:59 (not to detract from the seriousness of the music, I’m reminded a bit of a Hollywood technique – showing us one last giant ant queen or man-eating locust creeping out of the dark, just as we thought they were all annihilated. Though of course the place we’re at in the sonata form structure – just before the beginning of the development – suggests in itself that the big events are yet to come. And however we look at it, it’s a very effective and highly atmospheric place). At 03:05 the single voice splits into two, with quite a scary effect as the lowest voice enters at a higher volume, before gradually slowing and dying away through several repeats of a three-note ascending chromatic motif. At 03:09 this motif is repeated one last time, slowly, in the middle of the keyboard, and now we’re truly ready for the development.

(I’ve split the post in two due to its length; the second part follows right away.)

A Frenchman in New York: a listening guide to Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G (part 3 of 3)

Hello everybody!

Following upon the previous post here’s the third and final part of this listening guide. We’ve got one short movement left, about 4 minutes of fast, fun music. This is the most straightforward movement of the three in terms of composition, which is counterbalanced by a brilliant and imaginative orchestration and such a dose of energy, virtuosity and overall excitement as to make the most ardent adherent of the ‘classical music is boring’ view to swallow their words.

So, here’s the movement, in Martha Argerich’s interpretation once again (she’s just unbeatable):

44:26 – We start with a series of four loud chords played by the brass (horns, trumpet and trombone) with a bit of help from the bassoons and the lower string, all above a trill on the snare drum – that’s what is responsible for that constant noise. Those chords are a declaration of intent: remember, we’ve just come out of the magical world of the second movement, and Ravel wants us to snap out of it, immediately. So we’re forcible told: no more melancholy, no soft colors, no starry nights, it’s all bright sunlight from now on, so come and join the fun (and as we’ll see, this section will become a recurrent motif throughout the movement). These chords are followed by a thump on the bass drum for good measure (at 44:29), and the piano is ushered in.

44:29-44:38 – well, folks, that’s what we get for a melody! There is a line there, actually, which one could sing (like, four times slower), but it’s so fast as to become just a fantastical swirl of notes which are hardly discernible to the listener. The pianist alternates the hands note after note, so that the line is evenly split between the two hands. More than that, the melody itself is just in the thumbs of each hand, while the outer fingers double it with various intervals. The resulting sound is vaguely oriental (say, at 44:34-44:36), and if you listen to this section a few times you’ll be able to feel the shape of the line – the places where it goes up, or down again, and then leads to the final short buildup and the cadence (44:36-44:38). The orchestra accompanies with pizzicati on the strings (you might remember, that’s the way of playing whereby the players pluck the strings), which add a bit of harmony and a rhythmic frame.

44:39-44:53 – the piano continues with more of the same, but now it’s just a backdrop to the utter funkiness that goes on in the orchestra. First the shrill E-flat clarinet (44:39) and later the piccolo (44:44) play something that sounds completely out of tune with what everybody else is playing – and it is! Even on its own their melody would sound eccentric and/or slightly crazy, but being played, as it is, in a different key, the effect is just doubled. I don’t know how to characterize the stuff they are playing – it’s not really jazzy and not really French, and not quite Klezmer-like – a mixture of everything and a bit more, to give an overall impression that somewhere, someone has gone bananas (in a jolly way).

The trombone gives a connecting pwwwam between the E-flat clarinet and the piccolo (44:42), and the piccolo is followed by a buildup made by the trombone, horn and trumpet (44:44-44:47), who together with the piano bring us to the climax of this section – which is a full repeat of the opening chords: brass, snare drum, bass drum and all (44:49-44:52).

44:54-45:06 – our bridge section melody (if we follow the sonata form structure), played first by the piano (44:54-44:58) and then bravely, but at first not really audibly plucked by the strings, while the piano is hammering away barrages of repeating notes (44:59-45:06). The melody itself is a pseudo-serious one, even with a small pretense to pompousness, which traits are belied by the springing syncopated accents strewn all over the place (but do note the two seconds of a more hesitant mood at 44:56 – probably the only [slight] touch of melancholy in this movement, and an invention of Martha :-), which I personally like quite a lot).

45:06-45:22 – a section based on the main theme of the movement. First, there is a dialogue between the woodwinds and the piano, both aided by plucks – the woodwinds by the harp, the piano by pizzicati in the strings. After two blocks of five bars (45:06-45:10 – piccolo+flute and piano, 45:10-45:14 – two different clarinets and piano), the piano takes over and continues the line on its own, gradually climbing up both in pitch and in volume. The horn adds its sound at 45:17, and jointly they reach yet another block of four chords, similar rhythmically to the opening ones (though offset by one beat triangle, and the thump on the bass drum is replaced by a crack of the whip (45:22).

45:22-45:34  – the orchestra is playing our second subject motif; once again, not a proper melody but rather a collection of military fanfares alternating between the horns and the trumpet, with the rest of the orchestra helping a bit (you’ll notice the snare drum at 45:24-45:25, adding to the military feel; also note how the bit at 45:27-45:30 has more of a French flavor). At 45:30 the horns’ sound gets a bit softer and is followed by a downward slide played by the trombone – a distinctly jazzy sound, which, like a strong spice, is able to change the mood instantly. It is followed by the same slide played twice as slowly (a device known as ‘augmentation’) by the clarinet (45:32-45:33). The piano then enters with upward arpeggios (45:33-45:34), bringing us back to the initial mood of the section.

45:35-45:50 – a repeat of the previous section with slight variations, and with the fanfares played now by the piano, accompanied by the other orchestral instruments in various combinations. The downward slide, once we get to 45:46, is played by repeated notes on the piano (once again with a dose of softer, dreamier harmony in the orchestra), and the section is once again ended by upward arpeggios on the piano (45:49-45:50), they, too, becoming softer this time.

41:50-46:09 – a two-part sequence, each part consisting of three smaller sections:

  • 41:51, 46:00 – quick downward runs in the piano, accompanied by steady, march-like beats in the orchestra. (As for those runs, let me introduce a new term here: they are chromatic. A chromatic scale is one that includes every single note on the piano – all of the whites and all of the blacks. As such it doesn’t have a key – you can start at any place and end at any place, and it will still sound the same [like what you hear at 45:51; for an upward chromatic scale, check out 48:00]. The word is derived from Chroma, meaning ‘color’ in Greek, as the chromatic notes were understood to add color to the normal, blander scale. Of course one could play chromatic scales on any instrument, it’s just easier to explain on the piano, as the twelve semi-tones of the scale correspond exactly to the twelve keys there are within each octave of the piano – here’s a picture of the keyboard for easier visualization, just count every key from any one ‘A’ to the one above it (don’t forget the blacks!):
  • 45:54, 46:03 – upward arpeggios on the piano, accompanied by the same beating pulse in the orchestra;
  • 45:57, 46:06 – an upward scale (not a chromatic one) in the strings, while the piano plays our recurrent motif of four chords + low thump, taken from the opening.

46:06-46:19 – the closing section of the exposition. My teacher once wrote a comment in one my scores: ‘Shostakovich-Mickey Mouse’. Well, if this isn’t ‘Ravel-Mickey Mouse’, I don’t know what is. 🙂 Very quick passage-work in the right hand, accompanied by ‘um-pah, um-pah’ in the left hand – a completely cartoonish place, especially if played at such a breakneck speed as Martha does. Structurally, we’ve got once again a two-part sequence (46:09, 46:12), followed by a chromatic buildup aided by the orchestra (inaudible in this recording, except for the trill on the cymbals at 46:16-46:17). At the end of this buildup there’s a loud and bright chord from the orchestra (46:18), and then everything plummets down, and we’re done with the exposition. (And we’re halfway through!)

46:19-47:05 – the development. Largely divided into two sections, each with a subdivision. The first section is 46:18-46:40. It begins with a low murmur in the celli (46:20-46:22), whereupon the bassoons enter and play the entire main ‘melody’ of the movement. I’m not a bassoon player, but somehow, listening to this passage, I get a feeling this is a hard place 🙂 (and do give a short listen to this – it’s even faster). Since we’re in the development, some combination or clash of various motifs is due, and we get it: at 46:26, the harp enters doubled by the celli, playing the motif from the bridge section; and at 46:30 we hear a quiet fanfare played by the horn – a short reminder of the second subject section.

The piano enters at 46:32, marking the second part of our first section (of the development) – the piano also plays the melody in full, accompanied by runs by the (poor?) bassoonists. The harp and celli once again add their counterpoint (46:35), and the horns with the fanfare (two of them this time) enter around 46:38.

46:41-47:05 – the second large section of the development. The piano will only play simple runs throughout this section, accompanying the orchestra, so we’ll leave it for now – the orchestra is where the interesting stuff happens. Structurally, there are five sections here, each a bit higher in pitch and volume than the one before, like steps one climbs in order to advance. The entry points are 46:41, 46:47, 46:53, 46:59, 47:02, with the last two being twice as short as the first three – as usual, getting impatient towards the end, which helps increase the tension and make the point of arrival (the recapitulation at 47:05) feel more satisfying.

From the motivic point of view, these five short sections bring together almost every bit of melodic material we had in the movement – the bridge section theme, the fanfares (two different motifs taken from there), and of course the main melody, running underneath it all (Mickey Mouse is absent – that one is a pure piano piece). It would be too cumbersome to list every single entry, and part of the fun is in their slightly chaotic juxtaposition, but here are a few to note: 46:43 – clarinet, bridge section, 46:45 – horns, second subject fanfare, 46:47 – trumpet, another bit from the second subject (the French flavor bit), 46:54 – same motif played by the shrill E-flat clarinet, 46:56 – harp and piccolo adding yet another layer of the bridge section motif, and it’s a free-for-all from there.

47:05 – hah, we’ve arrived. It’s the recapitulation, a repeat of almost all the sections we’ve had in the exposition, some of them in full, some in a shortened version, all of them with slight variations. The drive is almost incessant from here, with barely a moment of relief, so in some ways the entire recapitulation is a huge buildup towards the end of the movement (and the entire concerto with it).

47:05-47:17 – the main motif section, taken from the funky part (44:39). The motif itself is played by the strings, while the piano takes over the funkiness, once again in a totally unrelated key (though I feel this place is more effective in the exposition; the E-flat clarinet just seems to be the right instrument for the job). 47:13- – a chromatic climb in the piano (again, totally unrelated to what the orchestra is playing), leading towards

47:17-47:29 – the bridge section motif, played in broken chords by the piano and doubled by the woodwinds; quite a change of mood in comparison to the near-stateliness of 44:54! (I’ve got a sense of a quick clock ticking in the background here). There’s another climb at 47:26 (not a chromatic one), a cadence of three happy chords (47:28) and we get into

47:29-47:46 – the second subject section, played by the piano alternating with the trumpet (the snare drum keeping it company). All of the woodwinds join in at 47:35, and then suddenly there’s a respite from the relentless drive at 47:37 – it’s a variation on the jazzy downward slide bit we had at 45:30. A two-part sequence – a downward run on the piano followed by the chromatic downward slide played by the clarinet + some repeated notes on the piano (47:37-47:41); then once again a downward run on the piano, followed by a more energetic slide played by the trombone + more repeated notes on the piano (47:42-47:46). Then there’s a short upward run in the woodwinds (03:29), and we arrive at

47:47-47:57 – our Ravel-Mickey Mouse section. As quirky and cartoonish as it was in the exposition, and here it even gets an expanded ending, as the chromatic climb is twice as long (47:52-47:54, and then four bars more: 47:55-47:56). A trill on the cymbal once again accompanies the last stages of the climb.

47:57 – the orchestra play the beginning of the bridge section motif one last time, and then there’s a keyboard-spanning chromatic scale on the piano (48:00-48:05), doubled by the woodwinds: first the bassoons, then the clarinets and finally the flute and piccolo – everybody rushing up; a really effective place.

48:05 – a final buildup, starting with the piano on its own, but it’s soon joined by the woodwinds, and then by the rest of the orchestra – there’s a big crescendo (increase of volume), tension is rising, and, finally, at 48:11, the movement ends with one last, rejoicing repeat of the opening chords, the piano adding its lowest notes to the the final thump of the bass drum.


Well, that’s it! We’ve done it, quite a journey! Hope you’ve enjoyed, and I’ll see you at some point next month. Cheers for now. BG

A Frenchman in New York: a listening guide to Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G (part 2 of 3)

Hello! Following upon yesterday’s post, let’s continue with the second movement of Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G.

Remember I said (in secret) that the outer movements were not terribly difficult to play? Well, two things – I evaluated that saying today, and found I was in disagreement with myself, or rather that it was still too early for me to make that statement – one should really perform the piece in a concert at least once to be able to say such a thing truthfully. The second thing is, however we judge the difficulty of the first and third movement, the second movement is a first-rate pianistic and musical challenge. It’s easily the best known movement of the concerto, and possibly one of the best known musical works by Ravel – it’s easy to understand why, as the music is of such beauty, nobility and expressiveness – but it also requires a masterful hand (better two) to unlock its full potential.

The second movement might seem to be out of place in this concerto – there’s no trace of jazz here, no exotic motifs, not a shred of a connection, whether in melody or mood, between it and the outer movements – and yet I feel that the three movements not only complement but enhance each other, together creating a kind of a total, highly satisfying work (a bit like the second concerto by Shostakovich – which I will cover at some point – and there’s more resemblance between the two than we could suppose just by looking at the two names; but I’ll leave it for later).

So, without further ado, here it is (I chose a different version by Martha Argerich, which in my opinion is the best currently on YouTube):

The piano starts at 09:06 with two bars of accompaniment in the left hand, above which the melody appears at 09:11. We don’t suspect it yet but this simple left hand accompaniment – one-two-three, one-two-three, like a slow waltz – will stay with us for the entire movement, never changing its flow once – and that’s for above 9 minutes! I can’t think of any other movement or piece where the accompaniment does that (might be worth checking).

The melody, when it appears, is a single voice, one-note-at-a-time one, but before we discuss it further, you might notice something strange – it sounds as if it were played at a different time signature than the left hand. This requires more explanation – compare, for example with this: the melody is in total agreement with the bass line – every downbeat coincides, which is the way music is normally written. But something is awry with our waltz (hm, I’m not actually sure this is a waltz – far too slow – so please take this word with a grain of salt) – the first note of the right hand coincides with the ‘one’ of the ‘one-two-three’ in the left hand – everything fine till here – but then, the next note comes on the ‘three’, followed by three beats of silence – and then, when the right hand line starts moving again at 09:16, it’s one melody note per two accompaniment notes:

one  ——-   two  ———  three——-
one – two – three – one – two – three

… and the simple explanation for this is that the left hand is not playing ‘one-two-three-one-two-three’ as we were thinking but rather ‘one-two-three-four-five-six’, above which the right hand is playing the ‘one-two-three’ – Ravel plays a trick on us, leading us to believe that the opening is two bars in the left hand, whereas it’s actually just one – just a very slow one. But this lack of agreement between the two hands – the bar of the right hand is divided into three, the bar of the left hand into two (which are further divided into three each – but still, there are two groups per bar) – is one of the basic characteristics of this movement. It is a source of much harmonic tension (the left hand might change the harmony in the middle of the bar, on its second ‘one’, at which point the right hand still hasn’t moved from its ‘two’), but also a generator of flow – just imagine has static it would be in such a slow tempo if everything was just ‘one-two-three’ in both hands.

Hm, this is very technical stuff, so let’s emerge from it and return to the music. The only information you may want to retain from this is that each hand occupies its own world, with its own separate time flow; like two layers which sometimes coincide, sometimes not.

There is not much I can write till 11:57 – it’s all one melody in the right hand, and a single type of accompaniment in the left. And herein the great challenge lies – within this sparsity of material, constant interest must be generated by the pianist by squeezing every ounce of interpretative potential from both hands. And if squeezing sounds bad, well, yes, it should also be done in the most natural and inconspicous way – so that we don’t think ‘oh, man, when is it going to end already, why isn’t the orchestra playing?’ but instead lose ourselves in that slow flow.

This challenge is further compounded by the fact that the piano isn’t naturally suited to very slowly flowing melodies of this kind. There are large gaps in time between many of the notes, and what’s the pianist to do? A singer, a string player, a woodwind player – they would all have the ability to influence the sound after it was produced. You can check that easily – sing a single note; you’ll see right away that you are able make it louder, make it quieter, open you mouth, close your mouth, all without changing the pitch – there’s much you can do, and you could use all these devices if needed, to keep the listeners’ interest in such a melody. But on a piano, once a note is struck there’s absolutely nothing you can do – you can hold it or release it, that’s it. (You could also modify the volume of the left hand during the long notes in the right – if the left hand is quieter, those held notes in the right will be more audible. On the other hand, trying to do a vibrato on the key, like a string player would, is, well, just for show – once the hummer has struck the strings, there’s no physical connection between them till you release the key and strike it once again.) All of which makes the sound production skills of the performer all the more important – they must be able to draw out the colors and nuances of each note right away, not being able to rely on later changes while the note is sounding.

A few small points of interest:

  • generally throughout the section – notice how Martha’s two hands often do not play together; normally it’s a bad habit and to be avoided, but in this case it helps separate the melody from the accompaniment (free melody / constant and steady accompaniment), and also increase the number of audible notes (as two notes struck not-together will sound like two notes rather than one interval), perceptually generating more material.
  • 09:22 – a beautiful change of color and dynamics
  • 10:37 – the change to minor. Up to that point it was basically one very long musical sentence, albeit divided into smaller phrases. Those phrases are all of different and irregular length, the regular being 2+2 = 4 bars, 4+4 = 8, and 8+8 = 16. Here I’d say we had 4+3+3+4+3 = 17 (a prime!). Not something you would notice while listening, but I believe that this too helps deprive the music of a static, symmetrical feel, which would be ruinous in such a slow tempo. As it is, the melody just seems to flow naturally, uninterrupted, seemingly without end and without desiring to reach any specific point. Incredibly beautiful, but as I said, very challenging for the soloist, who needs to hold his or her musical breath for very long stretches, and do so effortlessly.
  • 10:58 – a sudden shift in dynamics, and the melody descends quite a bit – the chest voice of a singer, as it were. This is the beginning of the build-up towards the climax of our melody (a long way to go still, so don’t hold your breath)
  • 11:32 and here it is, the climax. Not much, really (though some pianists make more of a show out of it), but this is the highest note this melody reaches, and the loudest dynamic too. From here on it will subside. (Interestingly, the notion that the highest note should only appear once, at the climax of the melody, is a very old one, and goes back to the vocal writing of the 16th century, where it was very strictly observed – together with hundreds of other rules [studying it is a full academic course – 16th century counterpoint]).
  • 11:54 – it seems, seems as if we finally got to a cadence (the harmony is right, and the trill too) and the line will end. But Ravel has other plans in store – at 11:56 the orchestra comes in most beautifully, with a soft, warm chord in the strings and high above it – the flute. And then – a subtle change of harmony at 11:58, the violins play just a single half a tone lower (but it’s a tangible change – try to catch it, it’s a cool moment), and he has successfully evaded the cadence and continues with the line.

12:00-12:56 – the last section of the melody. The piano now only plays the accompaniment, the strings envelope it softly, and the melody passes to the woodwinds: first the flute, then at 12:09 the oboe, at 12:15 the clarinet, and from 12:31 the flute again (its entrance overlapping with the last notes of the clarinet). It soars up, descends, and then – finally – we get our cadence at 12:47-12:54. And what a beautiful one it is – for three reasons: a) it’s finally arrived, so simply because of a sense of deserved completion. b) the leading note – the penultimate note of the line, at 12:51, is half a tone lower than is should be, giving the ending a very special color and sound (the succinctly correct adjective is ‘modal’, but it’s a dangerous succinctness, as a discussion of modal music would take us into such technical depths as we may not emerge from, so I won’t use it) and c) – when the final chord finally arrives at 12:53 it’s a major key chord, and such a combination (minor key beforehand, lowered leading tone and a major key resolution) is a sure recipe for a sense of wonder, and Ravel uses it here masterly. It’s one of my favorite moments of the movement.

First section is over! Four minutes, one melody.

12:57 – the middle section begins. The melody returns to the piano, and it gains a bit more of a flow, aided by a syncopated left hand (if you think of our usual ‘one-two-three’ being ‘low-high-high’ in terms of pitch, now we have ‘low-high-high-low-low-high’) which is doubled by the bassoon for extra emphasis. It’s a two part sequence (12:57-13:14 and then the same phrase repeated a tone lower at 13:15-13:33 with a small variation towards end, at 13:28-13:32). You might notice that the piano is not alone – beside the bassoon who doubles the lowest line of the left hand, there is a counterpoint to the right hand melody – the cor anglais at 12:57 and another bassoon at 13:15

13:33-13:55 – a closing phrase in the piano, accompanied by the strings. At 13:35-13:40 there is yet another variation of the left hand – “low-high-high-low-high-low”, coinciding with the change of harmony and the shift into major, in which the phrase ends, and the section with it.

13:55:14:35 – a variation on the previous section (two part sequence + closing phrase). The two part sequence undergoes quite a change – we have figurations in the right hand, and creeping ascending chords in the orchestra – first bassoons and horns (13:55) then the rest of the woodwinds (14:00) and repeated (14:05 and 14:10 respectively). At 14:15 the closing phrase is repeated, and it’s more recognizable – the melody is played by the violins and it’s nearly the same, with just a change of rhythm in the first bar (the piano at 13:33 had four and a half bars for the phrase, the violin at 14:15 have just four, so the first bar gets condensed – it’s not terribly important, but you can probably hear it if you compare the two places directly). And once again we end in a major key.

14:36 – the beginning of a build-up towards the climax of the movement. Ravel uses the right hand figurations from 13:55 as well as the ascending chords in the orchestra and builds sequences upon sequences of those, each time a bit higher in pitch and in volume. The length of the figuration groups gradually shortens – first it’s two groups of three beats (14:37 and 14:41), then two groups of two beats (14:46 and 14:49) and then, from 14:53 it’s just one-beat long groups – quite a common device for increasing tension and transmitting a feeling of impatience. This also clashes with the left hand rhythm which steadily continues with its ‘one-two-three’ – but we’re used to those clashes by now 🙂

15:00 – nearly there, the piano plays very quick figurations, with an extra note between each of one the previous six (so 12-note groups; you can see them at 15:01 – well, a blur of fingers, basically; but it’s not a difficult place at all, just effectively written) – and 15:04 is the big chord, with the entire orchestra joining in for a few moments. It all quickly subsides though, and the piano at 15:10-15:15 leads us back to calm waters.

15:15-17:27 – the recapitulation. The full melody is now played by the cor anglais (English horn) – remember it from yesterday? ‘haunting and beautiful’ I said, and I stand by these words. I really love its sound (the next entry of the Youtube Person’s Guide to the Orchestra will cover it and the Oboe d’amore). The right hand of the piano plays a beautiful counterpoint, loosely based upon the figurations from the middle section, but with many variations and scales woven in. The strings add warmth, and the left hand of the piano continues its inexhaustible beat. The right hand at times becomes nearly melodic (15:27, 15:37, 15:50, 16:45, 16:54, 17:05) and at other times is just a shimmering companion to the main melody – it’s all utterly beautiful (I keep repeating that, I know, but I mean, it is, isn’t it?). And then at 17:20 appears the trill which signified that fake cadence at 11:54, but this time it’s not a fake – the piano rises up and up and then, with a big sigh of satisfaction we are there –

17:27 – the most magical moment of all, for me. This resolution into the major key, the right hand playing in the stratosphere together with a quiet chord from muted brass (horns and trumpet) is that sudden shaft of moonlight I spoke about yesterday. The right hand descends slowly, while in the orchestra the flute enters at 17:33 (what a difference in sound in comparison with the cor anglais! It’s all lightness and air) and soars up. It then descends, passing the melody to the oboe at 17:47 and back to the cor anglais at 17:50, which together with the piano slowly brings the phrase to a close.

18:04 – the ending. The trill is now in the right hand (you know what the left hand is playing, I don’t need to tell you), while the strings play slowly moving chords (note the extraneous note at 18:12 – extraneous to the harmony; just an extra bit of color – followed by a tiny bit of counterpoint in the left hand [till 18:20]). In the penultimate bar (18:29) the left hand finally slows its beat and play just one long ‘one  –   two  –  three’, followed by a last ‘one’.

That’s it :-). Hope you enjoyed it (if yes, spread the word!). Third movement to follow later this week – see you soon.

A Frenchman in New York: a brief listening guide to Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G (part 1 of 3)

Hello everybody!

Ravel in 1928

Today’s post, as the titles suggests, will be a brief listening guide to Maurice Ravel’s (1875-1937) Piano Concerto in G. Ravel wrote the concerto in 1929-1931 following an in- and ex-tensive tour of the States in January-April 1928. The tour was a big success, and he felt invigorated rather than exhausted by the experience (saying “it’s incredible how rejuvenated I am”). His fascination with jazz (“Personally I find jazz most interesting: the rhythms, the way the melodies are handled, the melodies themselves”) received a further boost during the tour, as he visited New Orleans with its jazz scene, and while in New York went to hear jazz in Harlem together with George Gershwin. Whether any of this had a direct influence on the concerto is a guess of course, but the concerto is very jazzy at times – rhythm and texture mostly, though there are a few conspicuous melodies too. But as with all great composers, the personal musical stamp is always present – even when it’s jazz, it’s jazz Ravel-style. 

From a performer’s point of view, the concerto is a sheer joy to play – the first and third movements are exuberant, energetic, fun and quirky, light fingered, and at the same time have those moments of melancholy which are Ravel’s trademark (and – it’s a secret, don’t tell – these two movements are not terribly difficult). And then there’s the second movement… but we’ll get there tomorrow.

I didn’t like to listen to the concerto as a child – it seemed a total mess, I could never figure out what was going on there, I didn’t connect with any of the melodies, and the second movement was impossibly long-winded and boring (though even then I felt that magic of that wonderful moment towards the end of the 2nd movement when, like a sudden ray of moonlight, the major key appears), But working on it now I was (and am) enjoying myself so much, that it seemed to me prime material for a listening guide – a work which one could enjoy more if one was acquainted with its structure and inner mechanism. So, here we are. I won’t go into such a level of detail as I did with the Mozart or the Bach – we won’t finish it this year otherwise! – but I will try to outline the structure – melodies, sections, etc – as well as comment on the orchestration and piano technique. (edit: nonsense. See the length of the post below.)

There is a whole lot of good recordings of the concerto on YouTube, but as Martha Argerich’s live recording with Temirkanov from Stockholm in 2009 was taken down (this would have been my first choice), I’ll go with her recording with Claudio Abbado on DG, which is currently online.

Here’s the first movement:

27:14 – to let us know we’re in fun/quirky/unusual territories, the concerto begins with a single whip-crack (nothing like a whip to catch your attention – where’s the mosquito?)

27:15-27:29 – the main theme of the concerto, played on the piccolo and accompanied by the piano and the strings (and a bit of snare drum and triangle). All the adjectives I used to describe the outer movements above – energetic, light fingered, fun, etc – apply to this melody, and in addition, it’s nearly pentatonic (meaning it mostly uses only five out of the seven notes of the scale – like Chinese music; I say ‘nearly’ as the melody does include a few occurrences of the sixth note – but still, Ravel creates a specific, slightly exotic sound-scape right from the beginning). The piano is playing figurations, and a very cool thing is going on there: the two hands are both playing simple arpeggios – but in different keys! This, too, contributes to the quirky sound. The strings help with syncopated pizzicatos (a technique of playing whereby the musicians pluck the strings with their fingers – a bit like playing the guitar – instead of using the bow).

27:29-27:38 – a transition passage. A new, syncopated rhythm is added and repeated several times, each time with more instruments and more volume. The piano is playing glissandos – slides up and down the keyboard. A nice idiosyncratic touch – the transition section is 9 bars long (8 is the most common length of a simple musical phrase), so instead of the predictable 2+2+2+2, we get 2+2+3+2 – and as a consequence the piano player has to drag out one of the glissandi (that’s the correct way of saying glissandos) for an extra bar – nothing important, just a small behind-the-scenes thing. As we progress with the transition, the tension keeps and keeps mounting, by the end of it the whole orchestra is playing and we finally arrive into –

27:38-27:57 – a full repeat of the main theme, played by the trumpet and accompanied by honk-like sounds from the horns and trombones and by pizzicati from the strings (and the harp, but it’s not really audible behind the much harsher sound of the brass; I do wonder though if the sound would be different were the harp not playing – might well be). The whistles at 27:46-27:49 are done by the piccolo together with the triangle. The strings take over at 27:50, adding much body to the sound (the brass was loud, but not earthy – and in this case the strings are, aided by the timpani); there’s a big crescendo (an increase of sound) at 27:53–27:55 – and then, rather suddenly, the sound dies away, and the last two bars of the melody are played by a lone cor anglais – a relative of the oboe, with a unique timbre, haunting and beautiful – accompanied by pizzicati in the strings.

27:58-28:13 – a piano solo. New material, quite Spanish-sounding with its guitar-like strums. I hesitate to call this a melody, as it ain’t quite one; but it’s a new section for sure, with new texture, mood and sound.

28:13-28:17 – aahh, that‘s pure Gershwin. A short 5-note motif is repeated twice, first played by the E-flat clarinet (a relative of the ‘standard’ clarinet, but with a higher pitch and a shriller, more piercing sound – and with a more strongly marked personality too, which I guess is why Ravel chose it for this spot) and then by a muted trumpet – a jazz instrument par excellence. Add to this a few syncopated cymbal notes and a repeated two-note motif played on the wood-block, inject a ‘blue note’ into that 5-note motif, stir a little bit – and you get the most wonderfully exotic jazz sound you could imagine. A total contrast with the Spanish character of the previous section.

28:18-28:32 – piano solo again. This time we do have a melody – a new one, and one which defies easy characterization – only by its end (28:29-28:32) does it acquire a clearer jazz character; we’ll return to it later, when it gets repeated by the orchestra towards the end of the movement. The left hand imitates the wood-block with its repeated two-note motif.

28:32-28:39 – the jazzy motif again – this time repeated three times – first played by the piccolo, and then once again by the E-flat clarinet and the muted trumpet. Wood-block and cymbals are back, but this time we get the addition of a harp playing glissandi – and it is audible this time, certainly adding to the ‘mix’.

28:39-28:55 – the melody from 28:18 once again, repeated a fourth higher, and in dialogue with a muted horn, which fills the empty spaces in the piano’s line quite beautifully (perhaps not the best word; but notice 28:44-28:46 especially, as well as the end of the section). The ending is different now, with repeated notes on the piano dying away, as it leads into a new theme –

28:56-29:14 – a new theme played by the piano, and it’s a new mood once again – that’s a lot of different material for such a short amount of time; its organization is unclear at this point, just one thing seemingly coming after another; let’s see if things get clearer later in the movement. But either way this theme with its singing quality is the first serious candidate for a second subject ( Mozart post). The theme is punctuated twice – at 29:01 and 29:08 – with some of the mood of the previous sections coming back in – the piano’s imitation of the wood-block is almost uncanny, I find; and the strings add a lush background.

29:15-29:29 – a continuation of the theme; and if before we had a moment of pure Gershwin, this whole section is pure Ravel – not a trace of jazz, but instead much melancholy or sadness perhaps, and those gentle pastel colors. Really beautiful.

29:30-29:46 – a repeat of the second subject – the theme is played by the bassoon, and the  punctuation places (29:34 and 29:40) include the wood-block, cymbals, triangle and dry rolling passages on the piano besides the entire woodwind section. At 29:42 the trumpet suddenly takes over, there’s a big crescendo, a sweeping upwards passage on the piano (29:45) and –

29:47-30:01 – some action at last! Very fast passage-work with repeated notes on the piano, with the strings and the woodwinds helping a bit (you can hear the woodwinds doubling the piano each time the melody goes up). You’ll probably have noticed that this section basically consists of a short phrase (4 bars) which is repeated four times at slightly different pitches – at 29:47, 29:51, 29:54 and 29:58 – this is called a sequence, and is a very common device.

30:01-30:19 – more action. Good! Now, this entire section is a three-part sequence with two punctuating places in between:

  1. 30:01-30:04 – repeated notes and syncopated rhythms in the piano; the motif is taken from the main theme (you can hear that bit at 27:23) so we may safely assume we’re in the development section of the movement (again, referring to the Mozart post for explanations on the sonata form). The orchestra provides rhythmic support. A very satisfying place to play – you can really hammer out all those notes.
  2. 30:05-30:08 – first punctuating passage – our beloved 5-note motif repeated three times on the piano, surrounded by a long, held chord in the orchestra. (Something I forgot to mention while discussing the 5-note motif above: this music is in double meter (2 or 4 depending on whether it’s a fast or a slow section) – so by its nature a 5-note motif will skew the perceived meter, adding to the jazzy feeling. The interesting thing is, if you repeat a 5-note motif three times, you get 15 notes – but as we’re in normal 4-note bars, Ravel needs an extra note to balance things – and we get it, at 30:08, just after the end of the third repeat of the motif.)
  3. 30:09-30:12 – as in No. 1, just a bit higher in pitch and louder.
  4. 30:12-30:16 – as in No. 2
  5. 30:16-30:19 – as in No. 3 and louder still, but truncated in the middle, as if impatiently, and taken over by the brass for a second before moving onto the next section.

30:19-30:36 – sounds like a rhythm jam session to me (one of those ‘man, let’s get crazy’ type); not an easy place to play, either technically or rhythmically (the rhythm shifts every 2-3 bars). A short interlude at 30:26-30:28, with the horns quickly running through a part of the motif we had at 29:47.

30:37-30:45 – a descending 3-note motif establishes itself out of the chaos, and is repeated again, and again, and again (working itself into a frenzy) – first in full bar lengths (leaving the 4th note as a rest), and then, condensed, without any breaks – and joined in the end by the trumpets for extra whoomph.

30:46-30:54 – a virtuoso passage in the piano, played unisono (the two hands playing the same line, just an octave apart) – I wonder how difficult or not it is for the conductor to catch the pianist in the end (I wonder indeed, as I have to play it in three weeks; the seemingly shapeless passage is in fact studiously shaped – it’s 12 notes repeated twice, then 8 notes repeated twice, and finally 4 notes repeated twice).

30:54-31:14 – we’re back! It’s the main theme, and this section is a full repeat of 27:38-27:57, played by the orchestra together with the piano (so, the recapitulation, if you’re following the sonata form). The ending is played by the oboe rather than the cor anglais this time.

31:14-31:31 – a repeat of the Spanish theme, with more elaborate strumming in the right hand and the Tam-Tam and cymbals keeping the piano company on the downbeats.

31:32-31:39 – the jazzy 5-note motif, played this time by the piano solo, intrudes very loudly. It’s played once in normal rhythm, and then several times twice as fast (a compositional device called ‘diminution’). It dies away in the lower areas of the keyboard and connects to –

31:39-32:22 – a weird place. Remember that strange melody from 28:18? Well, this is it, just played by the harp. I say weird, because having a 30-seconds long harp solo in the middle of an 8-minutes long movement is, well, weird (but I have a feeling that weirdness is exactly what this place is about; see below at 32:29). It’s punctuated by an angelic chord in the strings at 32:06-32:10 and then continues at 32:12 as if it had all the time in the world.

32:23-32:28 – 5-note motif again, played by most everybody (the motif itself is played by the piccolo, E-flat clarinet and trumpet like before, just with a tremolo added – that’s this fluttering sound you’re hearing – the rest of the orchestra accompanies. The pwwwam in the end is produced by the trombone.)

32:29-32:59 – the horn repeats the strange theme from 31:39 – and it’s outright eerie. The horn part is written in the highest reaches of the instrument, giving it a constricted, slightly strangled sound, and it is accompanied by very fast passages in the woodwinds and lush chords in the strings – an exceptional moment in terms of orchestration, really memorable. (And I could imagine the previous occurrences of this theme being just build-up for this moment.) In the end everything dies away, and the piano starts its cadenza –

33:00-33:49 – a cadenza is a part of a concerto when the solo instrument is left alone (so, technically 27:58 is a mini-cadenza as well), usually after the recapitulation and before the coda. Ravel does something unusual here – a cadenza is usually a free treatment of various themes from the movement, combined and juxtaposed for good effect, but here the piano basically plays the second subject of the concerto in full (compare with 28:56) – just with a different texture: figurations in the left hand and trills in the right. A very beautiful texture it is, and it definitely shows off the piano (which a cadenza should do) – but structurally, we’re still in the recapitulation. Like a double function. (In truth, I find it cool, like every non-standard thing in this concerto). The melody is firstly in the middle voice (played by the left hand thumb) and then passes to the right hand after a beautiful glissando at 33:23 (that’s the pure Ravel section from 29:15).

33:49-34:13 – the orchestra joins in and doubles the piano in a repeat of the second subject – a lush, romantic, very 19th-century moment. Both orchestra and piano gradually pick up pitch, speed and volume, getting to a small climax around 34:06; from there the piano takes over with a quick downwards passage, and the coda begins.

34:13-35:02 – The build-up part of the coda is a repeat of all the material we had in the development, just in truncated form:

  1. 34:13-34:25 – the first part, based on the section from 29:47. There’s much tension – it starts down below, not too loudly, though full of energy which seems to be just waiting to burst. The drive is huge.
  2. 34:25-34:29 – the next part is based on the section at 30:01, just without the punctuating passages (we had enough of those already)
  3. 34:30-34:42 – this is based on 30:19 (the crazy rhythm jam session). The trumpets begin with the interlude from 30:26 (where it was played by the horns), and the piano picks up from there for even more shifting rhythms craziness.
  4. 34:42-34:48 – based on the 3-note descending motif section from 30:37.
  5. 34:48-34:56 – the piano continues with the 3-note descending motif, while the trumpet and the woodwinds alternately play bits and pieces from the main theme of the movement (in condensed rhythms, so it might not sound like it right away).

34:57-35:03 – final build-up – rising arpeggios in the piano while first the horns and then the woodwinds continue to play a short part of the main theme.

35:03-35:10 – sheer madness 🙂 you’ll keep hearing that short part of the main theme above everything, but everyone’s just trying to make as much noise here as possible (a very happy type of noise, but still).

35:10-35:12 – a descending scale to finish things off. Even there, at the very last moment, Ravel finds an opportunity for the idiosyncratic – the first four notes seem to imply a standard major scale – but the last four are from the phrygian mode (can’t explain it quickly – basically, another scale, vastly different from a major one – if anything it’s a variation on the minor one, with the second note of the scale being half-a-tone lower. It’s not important to understand that, but I’m sure you’ll notice the very strange sound of the last four notes – so this is where it comes from.).

And if we go back and look at the structure, we’ll realize there are two ways of looking at it – on the one hand, we had a long exposition, a short but distinct development, a recap with a cadenza and a coda – so, all is fine, But, on the other hand, you could say that from 27:14 to 30:54 we had a bunch of themes, motifs and sections, and then from 30:54 till the last part of the coda all of those get repeated. So, not even a binary form (which is a-b – so two different sections), but rather a-a’ (a’ meaning ‘a with variations’). Now, I’m not saying this is it (I certainly never read anything like that about this movement), but it is kinda there if you care to look at it this way. So, food for thought.


And we’re done! The first movement that is. 2nd and 3rd to follow later this week. And please kindly disregard the word ‘brief’ from this post’s title – we’re at just under 3,000 words, so brief it ain’t.

But isn’t it wonderful music?

A Youtube Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, part 2: Woodwinds / Oboe

Hello! Continuing from the last post, let’s move to the next woodwind instrument, which is the


A photo to start with, as before, to see what it looks like:

I couldn’t find one really satisfactory photo this time, so this and this are two more, to show it from different angles. The length, which is difficult to judge from the photos, is about 62 cms, so slightly shorter than the flute – but it’s really not about the size (and anyway, comparing flutes to oboes is like comparing apples to oranges, and I’d better stop before I get completely buried in bad similes/clichés/metaphors).

Seriously, though, as opposed to the flute, the oboe is a double reed instrument, which means its mouthpiece (the part the player blows into – bottom right in the photo) consists of two pieces of cane vibrating against each other. These pieces of cane, called reeds (doh!), are usually cut by the players themselves, to suit their individual needs, as the reeds affect in a most direct way the tone color and pitch. The oboe is also way more recent that the flute – it appeared in the mid-17th century, with the modern version coming from the 19th century (and with minor improvements continuing through the 20th century).

The oboe is usually the first instrument you would hear at a symphony concert, as this is the instrument all the others normally tune to. While thinking about this post, I realized I didn’t have a clue as to why this was the case – it seemed to be one of those self-evident facts which no one ever cares to explain. Well, Google to the rescue, I thought – but not quite: there are several reasons floating about (‘the most steady pitch’, ‘the most carrying tone’, ‘situated at the very center of the orchestra’), some of them contradicting each other (‘fewest overtones’ vs. ‘easiest to play overtones on’) and there’s even a website to refute them all. Most agree that tradition plays a big part – some of  reasons were correct in the past, and even when things changed (the late-comer clarinet seems to have as steady a pitch at least), oboists were reluctant to relinquish the privilege/duty. The piano, by the way, gets the prerogative, whenever it is on the stage – while one can argue whether or not an oboist can change the pitch of each note, a pianist most definitely cannot, so in this case the oboist tunes to the piano and then everybody tunes to the oboe.


The choice of the first piece to show off the oboe was inspired by Wikipedia (and by the last post as well), namely by their mentioning the description of the oboe’s voice in Angels in America as sounding like that of a duck if the duck were a songbird. Prokofiev would probably have agreed, as the oboe is the instrument he chose to represent the duck:

Notice the slightly nasal and quite straightforward sound, yet full of personality – it’s a trademark of the raw oboe tone. But the oboe is much more versatile than that – consider, for example, the pure and noble sound in this short interlude from the opening of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, 1st movement (if you continue till the entrance of the main theme at 03:50, or jump to it,  you’ll be treated to a delightfully cheery flute solo [doubled at 04:05 by the oboe – doubled meaning that the two play the same melody, or part of it, at the same time]):

Or the lyricism of the main theme of the 1st movement of Schumann’s Piano Concerto:

Or this artless narrative from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, 2nd movement (where it comes straight after a very artful solo of the bassoon, which we’ll cover later):

Or else the plaintive, haunting solo from the 4th movement of Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony:

(there’s a much better version, technically at least, here – and different musically too – but I wanted to show just how shrill and chillingly empty an oboe tone can get.)

I’ll finish with two of the most beautiful oboe solos I know – the first is the opening of the 2nd movement of Brahms’ Violin Concerto (there are at least five versions of this on Youtube, with this probably being the better one overall):

And lastly the 2nd movement of the 4th Symphony by Tchaikovsky:

(if you get to 02:36, there’s a beautiful and intricate counterpoint in the flutes to correspond with the previous post).

Well, that’s a representative survey of the oboe (as an orchestral instrument, there are of course many solo works – you could have a listen to this [solo starts at 00:35], this [solo starts at 01:05], this [very beautiful music], or this, to name just some of the concerti).

Till next time – the Cor Anglais and the Oboe d’amore are next on the list.

A Youtube Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, part 1: Woodwinds / Flute and Piccolo

Oy, this took some time!

I have been neglecting the blog for much too long – though this had more to do with being rather badly busy and not so much with neglect per se – but anyway, I’m glad to be back, and hope to complete the first part of a possibly interesting project before the next trip.

This planned project is an Introduction to the Various Instruments of the Symphonic Orchestra, illustrated by Numerous Photos from the Internet as well as by Musical Examples diligently searched for, and encountered on YouTube by the Author. Or in short – tYPGttO (= the YouTube Person’s Guide to the Orchestra) :-P.

This is hardly a novel idea, and several composers have done exactly that – or rather much better than that, writing whole musical works dedicated to showing the various instruments of the orchestra (three such works come to mind – Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra – from which the title of the present post is shamelessly nicked, Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, and Saint-Sašëns’s Carnival of the Animals – with Bartok’s 2nd movement of the Concerto for Orchestra as a back-up variant) – but none of them had access to Google or YouTube (or a blog), so I thought this void could possibly be filled.

The plan is to have four large sections (Woodwinds, Brass, Strings, and Percussion and Oddities), with each post showcasing 1-3 instruments, depending on the amount of material I have. And now, without further ado, here is the first part:


… are one of two groups of instruments which produce sound when air is being blown into them (the second one being the brass, which we’ll cover in the next part). The air is blown through a mouthpiece at one end of the instrument, which will for the most part contain a reed – a thin strip of cane or plastic – that vibrates, creating the sound. The sound then passes through the body of the instrument and exits through an opening at the other end (usually called a ‘bell’). The pitch is influenced both by the player’s lips and the length of the column of air inside the instrument – the longer it is, the lower the sound. This is partially a pre-determined thing – a bassoon will generally always sound lower than a flute, just by being quite a bit longer – but within each instrument, pitch can be changed by closing or opening some or all of the holes bored into the body – these will be often covered by metal claps, called ‘keys’ (this will all become clearer as soon as we get to the photos and videos).

The majority of the woodwind instruments, as the name suggests, are made of wood, though there are some that are made of metal (mainly the flute and the saxophone, which, strange as it may sound, is a woodwind instrument too), and even the wooden ones will usually have metal parts (like the key-claps I mentioned above). If you’d want to locate the woodwind players in the orchestra, they will usually be seated in two rows, facing the conductor (and the audience), right behind the middle section of the strings. (Er, this probably doesn’t make much sense on paper – here’s a quick photo for clarification, the woodwind group are inside the red oblong: )

Though the woodwind family is a large and varied one, there are four members that form a core group present in every symphony orchestra – the flutes, the oboes, the clarinets and the bassoons – and I’ll start with those, leaving the few more exotic specimens to the end.

(a side note – the photo above shows the typical seating of the woodwind group – flutes and oboes in the first row [bottom row on the photo] – flutes on the left, oboes on the right –  clarinets and bassoons behind them – clarinets on the left, bassoons on the right; there are usually at least two of each, sometimes three, rarely four; very rarely five – like in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. But no matter how many there are, the four principal players – i.e. those performing the main part for each instrument – will always be in the middle of the group – so the rightmost flute and clarinet, the leftmost oboe and bassoon [inside the blue square] – a bit like four chess pieces occupying the center of the board.)


A photo, first of all:

The flute is the only member of the core group that’s made of metal and not of wood (though a black wooden version is occasionally seen), and the only one not to use a reed in its mouthpiece. Instead, the mouthpiece (the large hole, upper left of the photo) is simply a bored opening into which the air is blown by the player. According to Wikipedia (in which I trust, mostly), flutes are the most ancient musical instruments after the human voice, and examples dated to at least 35,000 years ago have been found. Also, a very large number of local variants have developed – search for Chinese / Irish / Russian / Turkish flute on YouTube to hear just a few of them.

The sound of the Western concert flute (which is the one used in classical music – its mechanism was finalized around 1850) is light and sweet and sometimes fluttering, which lends itself perfectly to the musical depiction of birds in animal-themed works; so to begin with, here’s the Aviary from the Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saens (breakneck speed, but brilliantly played – and the first pianist is Murray Perahia, which was unexpected, but way cool, I thought):

Here’s a more modern take on birds – from Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf (up to 04:14; a slightly goofy video – sorry! 🙂 – but it’s a very good performance):

The flute seemed to be quite a favorite with French composers, with numerous examples to be found, especially from the Impressionist period (late 19th to early-mid-20th century). The sensuous and evocative opening of Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is a big flute solo (the instrument prominently shown afterwards is the French horn – we’ll get to it in the next part of the guide):

Next is the Sicilienne from Pelléas et Mélisande by Faure, a beautifully sweet melody that wouldn’t quite work on any other instrument, I feel (despite numerous arrangements made thereof):

And of course it’s the first solo instrument of Ravel’s Bolero:

And, to finish, a short piece by Bach from the 2nd orchestral suite, which you might find familiar 🙂 (this is the baroque version of the modern flute – you can note the lack of key-clasps, and indeed of metal, and the even mellower tone) –

(this is of course just a small selection. If you’d like a few more extensive works for flute, you could try one of Mozart’s flute concertos, or Prokofiev’s flute sonata – a great work, and one not very typical for Prokofiev; the 2nd movement is especially quirky and cool, both to play and to listen to).


A close relative of the flute is the piccolo (meaning ‘small’ in Italian) – it’s exactly twice as short, and accordingly sounds exactly one octave higher. It’s also a very common member of the symphony orchestra, and its very high sound is always clearly audible above, well, above anything basically (adjectives such as brilliant, whistling, piercing and shrill come to mind 🙂 ) Here’s how it looks:

And here’s how it sounds (a solo from the last movement of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, also known as the Ode to Joy):

Another example is the opening of the 3rd movement of Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye (Mother Goose) – it’s a beautiful work, full of orchestral color, and Ravel is using the entire woodwind group extensively – it might be worth a re-visit once we’ve covered them all) – the piccolo comes in a few seconds after the beginning:

So, that’s it for today – I hope this was helpful and/or interesting, and I hope to continue in the very near future. See you next time!


A short aside: when I first had the idea of writing such a guide, the initial, enthusiastic plan was to put it all together in a single post – I mean, the entire orchestra. I envisioned it as an easy, fun entry to write. Then I started collating the pieces and excerpts I wanted to show and things started piling up – suddenly the idea of a single solo representing each instrument seemed to be doing an injustice to the instruments in question, I was now thinking about a small bunch of solos for each one, which brought about a decision to divide the whole thing into four posts, and then there were so many things I didn’t know: are there any bass-clarinet solos out there? (not really.) And what about the contrabassoon? (one.) And when was each instrument invented and first used? – and do I need to go into the history of each one? (No! at least, not too much). And so on, to say nothing about YouTube sometimes refusing to cooperate and produce good versions of the solos I needed 🙂 And then I started actually writing the post, and by the time I got to the end of piccolo, I realized that four posts wouldn’t really do either… so here we are.