1.2. The importance of timbral differences.


           In my background research I came across some articles related to instrumental timbres. One of them was called "Effects of a Change in Instrumentation on the Recognition of Musical Materials," by Bénédicte Poulin-Charronnat, Emmanuel Bigand, Philippe Lalitte, François Madurell, Sandrine Vieillard and Stephen McAdams. This article described some experiments where musicians and non-musicians were asked to listen to different excerpts of music played first by orchestra and later by piano. From their findings the investigators concluded that timbre is a crucial element where the recognition and recollection of musical materials is concerned, and that it is fundamentally linked with pitch and rhythm:

This finding indicates that timbre qualities are part of the memory trace associated with musical materials. It also suggests that the processing of timbre, pitch, and rhythm in memory coding are not independent for real musical excerpts.[1]

            After analysing the orchestral version of the first movement of the Symphonic Dances, I experienced similar phenomena as the participants in this experiment. The feeling of space in this version is very noticeable, and conversations between cells and main motives are instantly recognizable, because the musical material of the work is shared between all instrument sections. In the piano duo version however, this sense of space and the perceptibility of these conversations is much less obvious—especially if one cannot follow the score while listening—as material differences are highlighted primarily by changes in dynamic and articulation alone.

              The metamorphosis of the overall character of the work however, from the orchestral original to the piano duo version, is quite interesting. While the orchestra version sounds predictably expansive and symphonic (despite Rachmaninoff's use of atypical instruments such as the piano and saxophone), the percussive nature of the piano comes out in the piano duo version due to the large number of chords played simultaneously in both parts. The resulting sound is very sharp, direct, and even primitive—almost reminiscent of Igor Stravinsky's music. In fact, the eighth-note string accompaniment at the beginning of the piece certainly reminds me of similar material in Stravinsky's Augurs of Spring from The Rite of Spring.

         That being said, in the transcriptions that follow I will attempt to recapture this sense of orchestral space and instrumental conversation in Rachmaninoff's Variations on a Theme of Corelli for piano. In those variations that contain a large number of chords (like the third variation, for example), I expect that as the musical material becomes stretched out over various instruments the overall sound will be more expansive and much less sharp and direct than when playing them on the piano.

[1] Bénédicte Poulin-Charronnat, Emmanuel Bigand, Philippe Lalitte, François Madurell, Sandrine Vieillard and Stephen McAdams, "Effects of a Change in Instrumentation on the Recognition of Musical Materials," Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal 22:2 (Winter 2004): 258, accessed January 6, 2017, DOI: 10.1525/mp.2004.22.2.239.

Excerpt 5: Mm. 99 - 101



*     6: Piano II plays both the main theme and accompaniment.

1.1. Comparison with the piano duo version.


            When comparing the orchestral and piano duo versions of the first movement of the Symphonic Dances, I have focused on how material elements from my analysis of the original (main theme, cell, layer or accompaniment) have been divided across the two pianos. Interestingly, I found that Rachmaninoff replicates the instrumentation changes also highlighted by my orchestral analysis table by alternating the material elements (main theme, cell, layer or accompaniment) between the two pianos.


           After carrying out this comparative analysis, I found seven different ways in which Rachmaninoff distributes materials across the two pianos, depending on the groups of instruments that play those materials in the original version, as well as the function of those instruments and materials within the movement. In order to follow the summary of the findings of this comparative analysis, I would suggest having the scores of both versions at hand:



*     1: Piano I and Piano II play tutti:

Excerpt 1: Mm. 12 - 13



*     2: Piano I plays the main layer of the excerpt (melody + harmony) while Piano II plays the accompaniment. In this case, the accompaniment material provides rhythmic continuity and support. 

Excerpt 2: Mm. 239 - 243 (Coda)



*     3: Piano I plays the accompaniment, while Piano II plays the main theme in both hands.

Excerpt 8: Mm. 229 - 232



Nevertheless, there are some cases in the original where only the main cell of the piece moves from one instrument to another while the accompaniment keeps the same orchestration. In the example below, the harmonic support of this excerpt in the original is provided mainly by the brass section. As this particular blend of timbres doesn't change, Rachmaninoff keeps all of this material in the Piano II part of the duo version. However, we can see main cells in the right hand of the Piano I despite the instrument changes. My theory is that, because these woodwind instruments usually appear within the same material group, Rachmaninoff doesn't distribute these cells throughout both pianos but rather keeps them all in the right hand of the Piano I part. The cells marked in red are played by the piccolo and the oboe in the original, while the cells marked in green are played by the flute and the clarinet.

Excerpt 9: Mm. 217 - 218


Interestingly, there are some motifs in the orchestral score that are missing in the piano duo version. In the following excerpts for example, we can see that the violin and viola parts are missing.

Excerpt 4: Mm. 157 - 159



*     5: Piano I plays both the main theme and accompaniment.

Excerpt 6: Mm. 102 - 104



*     7: Material alternation between the pianos depending on what instruments play that material in the original. These kinds of material distributions usually include the main voice of the excerpt in question and its accompaniment. In the following excerpt you can see how two distinct instrument groupings from the original are divided between the pianos, both of which are alternating the same rhythmic cell: Piano I represents the horn, trombone, bass clarinet and bassoon grouping, while Piano II represents the violin, clarinet, English horn, oboe and flute grouping. In my opinion, this is the most important way in which Rachmaninoff distributes original orchestral materials across the two pianos. He maintains the specific timbres of the original instrumental groupings, and their roles, throughout the whole excerpt. 

Excerpt 7: Mm. 189 - 190



The following excerpt clearly demonstrates yet another instance of material alternation between two different instrumental groupings: Piano I contains the strings' material from the original, while Piano II contains the woodwinds' intervening material. In the orchestral version, these groups of instruments play the same material in determinate excerpts, which is why Rachmaninoff keeps the same distributions across both pianos. 

            This analysis will focus on the first movement of Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances. Because of its Russian dance character, we can expect to find the same theme repeated frequently throughout the movement. I will pay particular attention here to the different ways in which Rachmaninoff uses orchestral instruments in order to create textural or coloristic changes in the piece. My goal is to discover what kinds of instruments or groups of instruments he associates with the accompaniment material and with the main theme. A comparison of the orchestral and piano duo versions of this movement will then examine how the composer distributes orchestral material throughout the two pianos in order to replicate specific sonorities from the original version, after which I will discuss the importance of timbral differences between the two instrumentations.

            So to begin, in the table below you'll find a summary of the findings of my analysis of the original orchestral version of the first movement of the Symphonic Dances, with special attention being paid to how instruments change roles depending on the material they are playing (accompaniment versus main theme). Here are a number of terms that you will find both in the table below as well as in the following section dealing with the comparison between the orchestral and piano duo versions:


  • Cell: the smallest rhythmic or melodic part of a motif.
  • Motif: a combination of several cells.
  • Theme: the main melody of a given excerpt. This analysis does not deal with how melodies are constructed, so each time a new melody begins it will simply be called a 'theme.'
  • Layer: Firstly, there are a number of excerpts where melody and accompaniment/harmonic support can be grouped together as a similar kind of material. Meanwhile there could be another secondly relevant melody and accompaniment grouping whose material differs from the first (as in the Coda, for example). Thirdly, sometimes one finds that accompaniment material has been divided into two or more elements (as in bar 58, for example). For these three reasons, I refer to these groupings simply as 'layers.'
  • S-N refers to the score/rehearsal numbers that you will find in the attached score, and Mm. refers to measure numbers. 


Excerpt 3: Mm. 79 - 80



*     4: Both Piano I and Piano II play the theme and accompaniment. The main motif (Piano II) and its counterpoint (Piano I) are played by the pianists' right hands, while their left hands play its underlying harmonic bass material (Piano I) or its rhythmic accompaniment (Piano II).

Excerpt 10: Piano score, mm. 75 - 76


Table 1. Symphonic Dances Orchestral Timbres Analysis

Excerpt 11: Orchestral score, mm. 75 - 76