It’s French, and it’s pronounced tamˊbər. Back in his salad days, Pierre Boulez told us that all music can be described using just four parameters: pitch, duration, dynamics, and timbre. Pitch delivers melody, harmony, and various musical textures. Duration turns into rhythm, the most fundamental parameter: longer, shorter, faster, slower, syncopated. Dynamics refer to amplitude or volume. And timbre?
Ah, timbre. Audiophiles seem to value timbre a lot. It’s also called tone color, “harmonics,” or overtones, as in this short definition. But there’s more to timbre and how it’s perceived than such definitions would lead you to think.
Although the Western classical tradition emphasizes the first two parameters—pitch and duration—as primary content carriers, we have also developed timbre to a fairly high degree. Think of all the “tone colors” available in the modern orchestra. Strings high to low; woodwinds ditto, but with distinctive timbral signatures as well (piccolo, flute, clarinet, bass clarinets, oboe, English horn, bassoon, contrabassoon, saxophone, et al.). Brass both blatty and mellow, “lean” or “round.” And percussion? Don’t get me started.
Some eras in music history seem relatively unconcerned about timbre. You can re-arrange almost anything by Bach for a different instrument or group of instruments and the basic musical message still comes through. Consider Eric Crees’ masterful arrangement of the great C-Minor Passacaglia and Fugue BWV 582 for brass choir, which appears on the recent Chicago Symphony Orchestra Brass Live album:
Although Crees’ adventurous re-imagining of this work was criticized in some quarters, I think Bach would have understood. After all, he absorbed the style of various composers by copying out their music, often re-arranging it for other instruments, as he did for various Vivaldi concertos (see BWV 592–7 or 972–87). He also recycled his own scores, for example the violin concertos he turned into harpsichord concertos (BWV 1052–8). In the latter, he often took care to adjust textures or figuration for the new instrument. That doesn’t mean he was responding to timbral difference. Rather, such adjustments reflect his sensitivity to idiom, the recognition that different instruments were better or worse at doing certain technical things—playing scales faster, playing more notes at once (or not), and so forth.
As the orchestra developed during the 19th century, composers paid increasing attention to timbre. The Romantic era’s unquenchable addiction to novelty, its pursuit of a broader range of expressions that could be presented in quicksilver succession, made timbral mastery an absolute requirement for Tone Poets everywhere.
Early in the century another Frenchman led the way. Hector Berlioz (1803–69) literally wrote the book on orchestration, and his music made wholesale use of the latest techniques in timbral innovation. Look at almost any page of the Symphonie fantastique, for example, and you’ll see his written instructions to the players, telling them just how to do things they otherwise wouldn’t have done: “2 drummers to use sponge-headed sticks”; “col legno battuto [strike the string with the stick of the bow].” Or listen to this—you’re hearing various combinations of four timpani players, tuned mostly a whole step apart, plus a single English horn:
A shepherd pipes, and in the distance we hear thunder. It’s hard to imagine that passage, or much else of Symphonie fantastique, rescored for a piano trio or a saxophone quartet. Timbre is crucial in establishing the emotional moment that Berlioz wants here.
A number of composers—Germans, by and large—continued to emphasize traditional structures and the primacy of pitch and duration. You know them well: Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms. Often their orchestrations resort to “blended” timbres, e.g., violas and horns together on a line, or cellos and bassoons. But by the same token, composers experimenting with structure often increased their attention to timbre. The most extreme example of this tendency was probably Anton Webern, who together with Arnold Schoenberg came up with the concept of Klangfarbenmelodie, which literally means tone-color melody. Why not use a succession of different timbres, rather than pitches, to create an identifiable “melody”? This was an especially attractive idea to them because they had pretty much trashed traditional melody by then anyway. Here’s a snippet of Klangfarbenmelodie from Webern’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, op. 10:
See what they were getting at? Lovely sounds, but not capable of sustaining an extended discourse. The Impressionists Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel found better ways to enhance timbre in their music without deconstructing either pitch or rhythm. Recently, I’ve gotten enormous pleasure from revisiting Debussy’s orchestral works courtesy of Stéphane Denève and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Their new double-disc set explores this repertoire with relish. Let’s use a couple of tracks to discover the secret—if that is possible—of Debussy’s timbral style. First, that archetypal citation of Impressionism, the first few bars of Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune:
Note that Debussy facilitates emphasis on timbre by isolating individual colors at the outset. First we hear just the solo flute. Then, in response, horns, supported by a delicately voiced woodwind chord (no flutes) and a flourish from the harp. Silence. Then, the horn figure repeats, supported this time by muted strings and a second harp; the first harp again provides a glissando flourish. Now the flute returns, and its solo is supported by a larger body of strings, divisi and tremolando, providing slightly more weight and presence but no competing timbres.
The governing principle is to make a few key colors stand out. Usually those are wind instruments. The string section provides a neutral bed upon which those isolated colors are displayed, like gems on velvet. Even in a much more complicated passage, these two roles remain intact. Listen, for example, to the middle movement of La Mer, which features a succession of timbres so rapid that it calls to mind Webern’s Klangfarbenmelodie. No wonder Boulez speaks of its “bold and radical conception of timbre” in service to an “elegant, condensed, and elliptical syntax.” That pretty much nails it.
This rapid montage of different colors accompanies the simultaneous presentation of two or three or more musical ideas. In fact, Debussy’s use of contrasting timbres is an essential part of the musical ideas themselves; their timbral identity helps us keep them distinct in the mind’s ear as we listen. It’s an astonishing accomplishment.
Debussy also knew how to turn the timbre knob up or down, depending on the music’s function. Take Jeux, a ballet score written well after both the Prélude and La Mer (and which Denève and company offer in a superlative performance). Here the composer was quite conscious of the need to create sounds for a scenario that would be expressed visually by dancers. The music thus becomes not a world unto itself but rather one component of the whole experience. So: motives lengthen somewhat; they are often repeated immediately; and Debussy reins in his tendency toward constant timbral fluctuation. Instead, rhythm and dynamics come to the fore.
Just as Debussy didn’t remain a textbook impressionist in every work he wrote, so were other composers able to borrow a page or two from his playbook without losing their own identities. A few days ago I received a review copy of a new recording of Prague and A Summer’s Tale by Czech composer Josef Suk (1874–1935). The contrast between the two works is instructive. Prague (1904) is a romantic-nationalist portrait of the great city, alternating between evocations of “eternal mystery” and the historic conflicts that shaped its destiny. A Summer’s Tale (1912–13) retains romantic style but makes greater use of impressionism, as in this scherzo-like movement titled “In the Power of Phantoms”:
Listening to A Summer’s Tale helped me realize another important principle about timbre. If you keep varying it, listeners will notice. If you maintain consistent timbre throughout a piece, that timbre—no matter how unusual—will gradually become less remarkable. Its power as an expressive device will be altered if not diminished. Listen to this passage from another movement of A Summer’s Tale, “Intermezzo: Blind Musicians.”
The scoring is unusual: two harps, two English horns. Later—much later—we hear solo violin, solo viola, a small string group. But the unvarying timbral presentation of the first three minutes has its intended effect: we are transported to a dusty road outside the little town of Sedičany, where Suk encountered two blind musicians continuously playing the same dull tune, hoping to collect a coin or two from passersby. The combination of double-reeds in duet, which would have been striking in a shorter passage, here becomes emblematic of pathos and disengagement because of its unrelieved repetition. I suppose that if Suk had scored this for, say, two clarinets or two flutes, he would have lost the bitter undertone that the English horns supply. Thus something remains of the power of timbre, even when someone chooses to run a single timbre into the ground.
When we move beyond the orchestral realm, we still do not lack for a range of colors. Consider the piano! ECM has recently released Russian pianist Alexei Lubimov’s interpretations of the Debussy Préludes for piano, Books I and II. But Lubimov recorded Book I on a 1925 Bechstein and Book II on a 1913 Steinway. As Robert Levine points out in the October Stereophile, you can distinguish the Bechstein’s “clean, sharp tone and very forward hammerstrokes” from the Steinway’s “smoother, matte sound . . . and exquisite pianissimi” if you just alternate tracks from each Book. But who’s going to do that? Really, it’s equally rewarding to immerse yourself in the sound of each piano—and each Book—for a nice long stretch of time. Here’s Lubimov on the Bechstein, giving us the exquisite whole-tone scales of Voiles from Book I:
And here he is at the Steinway for Book II’s La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune:
With his student Alexei Zuev, Lubimov tackles two-piano transcriptions of the orchestral Trois Nocturnes and Prélude à l’aprés-midi d’un faune. Here’s a bit of the latter, with Zuev at the Steinway and Lubimov on the Bechstein. At times you can easily make out which piano is contributing what, and at other times they blend gloriously together:
Want more? Consider the fortepiano, which is what we now commonly call the “early” piano. One of my favorite keyboard artists, Andreas Staier, has long restricted himself to harpsichords and fortepianos. His new recording of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations is one to cherish.
When these 33 variations are played on a historically appropriate instrument by a master like Staier, the effect is transformative. Timbre is generally brighter and more “forward.” The lower half of the instrument’s pitch range emphasizes fundamentals rather than overtones: you don’t get bass octaves smothered in delicious chocolate sauce. But the fuller, more closely voiced left-hand chords in Beethoven don’t get smothered either.
Staier deftly characterizes each variation, creating the true kaleidoscope of expressions that Beethoven intended. He also has fun with the special pedals that came with many fortepianos in the early 19th century. For Variation 20, a restrained change-of-pace turn, we get the “moderator” pedal:
For the explosive Variation 23, Staier calls on the “janissary” pedal, which allows the pianist to simulate the percussive presence of a Turkish band at key moments:
If all that Beethovenian energy drains you, try relaxing for a while with the sounds of Antonio de Cabezón (1510–66). Naxos has just released his Complete Tientos and Variations, played on a harpsichord constructed after early North-European models and tuned to a “modified sixth-comma meantone temperament, a=415 Hz.” What matters is that the timbre fits perfectly with Cabezón’s music, which—as the album title implies—comes in two basic flavors. He was the greatest early exponent of a genre based on the great polyphonic church motets of Josquin des Prez, Johannes Ockeghem, and other Franco-Flemish masters. Elsewhere called ricercari, in Spain they were known as tientos. The term means “to search out”: keyboard players adapted sections of motets or else created similar new instrumental works with plenty of counterpoint and thematic development. Here is a sample:
The second disc in this set focuses on Cabezón’s diferencias or variations, and these are mostly based on Renaissance dance tunes—pavanes, galliards, passamezzi—or else popular secular songs. Not surprisingly, they are more rhythmic and virtuosic:
I didn’t expect to be attracted to this music. But every time I tried to jump from the middle of one track to another, I couldn’t do it. I had to listen to the very end. In 1610 an anonymous Frenchman wrote
Who can say (if he has any sense at all) that he has never felt the force and effects of music, hearing some excellent player sing on his instrument? As for me . . . having sometimes heard . . . the Spaniard Antonio Caveçon playing and singing on the organ . . . I was so ravished and so deeply moved, that I could nevermore doubt the power, efficacy and influence of music.
It’s time to close. But can I draw your attention to one more instrument that can make an unusual and effective contribution to your timbre world? I refer, of course, to the accordion.
This is where the jokes would go, if we had the space. Thankfully we don’t. There’s a groundswell of interest among living composers in the unique properties of this ancient and still very popular instrument. Here is an excerpt from Concerto Piccolo for accordion and strings by Danish composer Anders Koppel (b. 1947), who begins with an accompaniment figure borrowed from Haydn:
It’s included on a terrific new SACD from Da Capo featuring accordion whiz Bjarke Mogensen and the Danish National Chamber Orchestra. “It all began,” the booklet notes tell us, “with Ole Schmidt’s Symphonic Fantasy and Allegro,” also on this disc. Schmidt himself (1928–2010) allowed that
I disliked the accordion immensely, but when I met [accordionist] Mogens Ellegaard, my opinion of the instrument completely changed in less than an hour. . . . Ellegaard said to me: “Feel free to write with as much virtuosity as you like. There’s hardly anything that can’t be done on the accordion.”
He’s right. The album offers an impressive assortment of music, ranging from the tonal neoclassicism of Schmidt to the postmodern wit of Koppel to more avant-garde offerings by Martin Lohse (b. 1971) and Per Nørgård (b. 1932). Try it, you’ll like it.
Or get yourself volume 7 of the Poul Ruders Edition, from Bridge Records. Ruders (b. 1947) is one of the most significant living Danish composers; I first became aware of him through his stunning operatic realization of The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s novel about a misogynist dystopia.
This is what Ruders discovered about the sound of the accordion. As a wind instrument, it lends itself to “quite different opportunities for kinship and timbral blending” with other wind instruments. But—according to Malcolm MacDonald’s excellent booklet notes—if you write a unison with a clarinet or flute, “the difference in their intonation creates a sonic frisson of overtones” or even “makes them very slightly dissonant to one another.” I might add that whereas wind players produce sound by blowing their own warm breath into an instrument, accordionists depress a key that directs air from a bellows toward a reed. Accordions resemble organs in that respect.
Thus in Ruders’ Songs and Rhapsodies for wind quintet and accordion, a dialogue between the mechanical and the human also seems to take place. Listen:
It’s no accident that Songs and Rhapsodies is coupled with a substantial work for organ and orchestra, Ruders’ Symphony No. 4. The timbral contrasts enabled by that combination are equally fascinating. We’ll have to examine several such works—but in a future Classical Corner!
Chicago Symphony Orchestra Brass Live. Works by Gabrieli, Bach, Revueltas, Prokofiev, Grainger and Walton. CSO Resound 901 1103. CD/SACD, 2011.
Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique; Marches. Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Paul Paray cond. Mercury Living Presence 475 6622. CD/SACD, 2005. (Originally recorded 1958/59.)
Webern: Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 10; Schoenberg Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16; Berg Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6; Lulu Suite. London Symphony Orchestra, Antal Dorati cond. Mercury Living Presence 432 006-2. CD, 1990. (Originally recorded 1961/62.)
Debussy: Orchestral Works. Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Stéphane Denève cond. Chandos CHSA 5102(2). CD/SACD, 2012. A remarkable achievement. Not only does Denève bring considerable insight to the scores, but producer Brian Pidgeon and chief engineer Ralph Couzens do their usual expert work of capturing the color and power of these works in a hall acoustic that highlights their best features.
Suk: A Summer’s Tale, Op. 29; Prague, Op. 26. BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jiří Bělohlávek, cond. Chandos CHSA 5109. CD/SACD, 2012. I have other recordings of op. 29, but none that capture the special world of Suk as well as this one. Getting the earlier tone poem on the same disc further sweetens the offering. Highly recommended.
Debussy: Préludes, Books I and II. Alexei Lubimov, piano; with Alexei Zuev on transcriptions of Trois Nocturnes and Prélude à l’après-midi u’un faune. ECM New Series 2241/42. CD, 2012. Even without the special attention to historic piano timbres, these would be exceptional interpretations. The program booklet, with worthwhile notes by Jürg Stenzl, also delivers more than we often get.
Beethoven: Diabelli Variations. Andreas Staier, “fortepiano after Conrad Graf.” Harmonia Mundi HMC 902091. CD, 2012. Besides Beethoven’s 33 variations, Staier includes selections from the 50 Veränderungen über einen Walzer von Anton Diabelli by other composers, including Czerny, Hummel, Kalkbrenner, Liszt, and Moscheles, plus his own improvised “Introduction” to the Beethoven set. Altogether enjoyable, and a must-have for piano aficionados.
Cabezón: Tientos and Variations. Glen Wilson, Harpsichord. Naxos 8.572475/76. CD, 2012. Wilson, who is both a performer and a musicologist, contributed his own notes for this recording. They provide a thorough introduction to Cabezón’s achievement and a most necessary account of the troubled publishing history of his works, beginning with the error-riddled 16th-century editions. Wilson’s reconstructions of the scores have made it possible for us to hear the actual music for the first time in centuries.
Accordion Concertos. Bjarke Mogensen, accordion. Danish National Chamber Orchestra, Rolf Gupta cond. Da Capo 6.220592. CD/SACD, 2012.
Poul Ruders Volume Seven. Symphony No. 4 “An Organ Symphony”; Trio Transcendentale; Songs and Rhapsodies. Flemming Dreisig and Nicholas Wearne, organ. Frode Andersen, accordion. Athelas Sinfonietta Copenhagen. Odense Symphony Orchestra, Roberto Minczuk, cond. Bridge 9375. CD, 2011.