Unraveling Ravel



Marlene Ngalissamy takes a quick promenade and addresses some of the challenges for bassoonists in Ravel’s orchestration of Moussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition

The first interesting thing has to do with language. There are clues to the general mood of the composer and the intention of the piece just in the first word of this piece: “Pictures” – in Russian “Kartini ”. In Mussorgsky’s manuscript of the piano part, the word “ pictures ” takes on a much more endearing meaning. You would notice it written as Kartinki . If you know a little bit about the Russian language, you’ll be familiar with some of these subtle word extensions.  Suffixes like kichka, chki, chik are added as terms of endearment, always making something more sweet and personal. When translated into English or French, the title seems rather serious and heavy. “Les Tableaux” or “Pictures”. Just as if it was written as simply “KARTINI”. The truth is, on the manuscript it is written Kartinki, and it completely transforms the emotional implication of the word. Think of it as something closer to “Les charmants tableaux” or “the delightful art”. Should it be played seriously? Or quite curious and dear?

Trumpets, you tell me!

Let’s get back to the bassoon.


Practice. There’s no other way around this one, especially for the second bassoon! 6 flats!!

One of the coolest moments of this movement is the transfer of trills between the bass clarinet and the bassoon at big number 15. It’s very important that the bassoon takes on the dynamic with which the bass clarinet is ending (mezzoforte in this case). I think that the colours and the effect of this passage are thrilling. Don’t be shy to play with your friend on the bass clarinet!  Don’t forget to try the front Bb for extra velocity!


After we’ve looked at the Gnome we continue our walk with the horn, who starts the solo which is then transferred to the woodwinds. In this passage it is important for me to start the first F clearly (no sneak attacks!). Also, don’t forget that even if the bassoon has the melody, the effect is more beautiful if the crescendo is made by blending with the rest of your colleagues in the woodwind section. My approach is to be sure to blend in but to add a little more colour (this can be done with vibrato or by producing a slightly warmer sound) to make the melody stick out just a little bit over the harmonies. When you’re focusing on balancing the crescendo with the rest of your colleagues, you must feel the sound open by itself and the effect will be more clear and beautiful. Don’t try to force it too much.


I love this solo. Or should we think about it as a soli with the second bassoon? To me, it iseasier to think about it as a SOLI. Obviously, the melody goes to the solo bassoon but thesecond bassoon part is even more important and very helpful to make the first bassoon solo sound “right”. Let me explain.

To my ear, this solo would sound great on a hurdy gurdy/the lira, which is an instrument usedin Slavic folk music. On a hurdy gurdy, you can’t really produce a crescendo without the whole sound of the instrument getting louder. The “gurdy” has a constant pedal note activated when you start playing. If you want to have “articulations” on that pedal note you will need to move your hand faster, which will temporarily produce quite a harsh sound. Just thinking about that with your colleague on the second bassoon will help tremendously. For this reason, the second bassoon should have a clear sostenuto attack (when indicated) to help picture that. They should not be hiding in the background but be a full part of the solo!

We come to the repeated G#s…

I like playing them still and unbothered (I always imagine a thick fog). It’s important to have a sense of a “beating heart”, “groove” or “pace” by not playing the 8th notes louder than the quarters. The right dynamic is also very important. So, how to achieve all of this without compromising comfort and security?

My trick is to add the back F# key to the full fingering of the G# (using the front Ab key for the G# fingering). It’s important to fully open the F# in order to completely close the F key via the push rod! This F# brings the whole thing down tremendously and adds more overtones which makes the G# feel more secure. However, this will make your G# very flat; but you can pinch it up a bit to play in the right dynamic, colour, pitch and intention.  On the other hand if flatness on this G# volume is the primary issue, this fingering chart also suggests a solution – just lightly touch the F# key for a tiny opening of the F# pad.  The key that connects the F# key cup to the front of the bassoon typically has just the right amount of play to guide you. See?  F# can be your best friend!

N.B. The markings of the cello part are different from the markings in the bassoon part on the rhythmic G#. No need for overthinking, make it homogenous.


In this movement, there is only one bassoon part. At the beginning, it is very easy to rush the staccatos, so make sure to stay grounded.

Arriving at 52, with the famous interval passage, don’t freak out. For me, it was very helpful to concentrate only on the bottom notes and learn them by memory. You will not have time to read the part so it’s better to just learn it and trust your fingers.

After this movement is done, you can finally relax and enjoy the piece!

I’m very happy to have used a total of zero emojis to write this article. I hope that these observations will be helpful and inspire you to be curious and think about different ways of practicing and playing these passages.

Cheers, Marlene

Marlene Ngalissamy is the Principal Bassoon for l’Orchestre Symphonique de Quebec and a member of the COCB Board of Directors.  

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