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 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.