Aspects of Orchestration in Bengt Hambraeus's Transfiguration for Orchestra: Composed Resonance as a Generator of Musical Texture


Margo MacKay-Simmons

Composed resonance and masking techniques are among the most significant structural elements and generators of varied musical texture in Bengt Hambraeus'sTransfiguration for orchestra, written between1962-63. Hambraeus often uses the orchestra as one massive bell or sets of bells through various inter-relations of attack and composed resonance. The composer seems to draw upon his affinity for bells and bell-like sounds1, as well as his experience with rich acoustic spaces, to compose an extremely resonant environment similar to how one might imagine the sound of a bell when struck, or the way one hears a pipe organ in a large resonant church. Hambraeus orchestral sound environment is composed through the use of a core group of highly resonant instruments (primarily the percussion choir, referred to here as the PRI, primary resonant instruments.) These instruments include vibraphone, xylophone, tubular bells, tam-tam, five suspended cymbals and harp. He uses other orchestral choirs to their most resonant potential2 by employing the effects of dynamic fluctuation (pp < FF > pp and vice versa), molto vibrato and tremolo in the strings, vibrato in the woodwinds, instrumental drop-out, which means that he drops certain instruments out of the sound complex leaving others (most often the horns), to ring over, therefore making textural use of the reverberations which is characteristic of decaying sounds. Hambraeus also uses masked attacks to acquire bell-like resonances and to discretely increase resonance potential. The harmonic structure of the sound complex and combinations of "molto vibrato" with dynamic fluctuation, and tremolo with dynamic fluctuation similarly operate as orchestral means of simulating complex resonance. All of these effects will be discussed here in terms of their function in tutti passages, relations between the individual orchestral choirs and in solo instrumental passages.

Before launching into the subject matter, some definition of terms and concepts will be useful in clarifying the issues presented in the discussion. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians defines resonance as " A large amplitude of oscillation built up when a vibrating system is driven. by an outside periodic force of frequency close to the natural frequency of the system. It plays an important part constructively and destructively in all acoustic systems and musical instruments." 3 Accepting this as a general definition, the image of orchestral resonance in Transfiguration can be most vividly heard in the oscillatory nature of its sound structures. Widely spaced sonorities are scored with unison and octave doublings using open strings in order to obtain as much natural resonance as possible, and the use of " tremolo" "molto vibrato" , and others of the effects above, exaggerates the degree to which oscillation would normally occur for these sounds. In this way the composer produces vibrating textures from acoustic instruments which might be considered to be available only in an electronic studio or through amplification of a ringing bell, as will be explored in this study.


An equally important factor in the concern for resonance is the acoustic nature of the performance space. According to the chart in Example 1, which gives optimum reverberation times of rooms according to volume and use, the concert hall places highly for potential resonance but considerably less than the cathedral or the normal setting of organ music. Alexander Wood in The Physics of Music points out: "The fundamental fact to be grasped is that the room in which music is performed is in reality an extension of the musical instrument - voice, piano, violin, or whatever it may be - and that the tone of the instrument is modified by the characteristics of the room." Although there is no specification of a performance space for Transfiguration it becomes clear that in his orchestrational devices, (and very likely through his great background as a composer and performer of organ music) the composer projects a much bigger space in this work than the space that would normally accompany an orchestral ensemble.




Example 1: Chart of optimum reverberation times.

(From Beranek, L. L., Music, Acoustics, and Architecture, John Wiley and Son, New York, 1962. Reproduced with the permission of the author.)


The salient features of "bell-like" resonance which seem to arise in Hambraeus's orchestral texture can be summarized in the following:

The bell-like resonance may be initiated by a sharp metallic attack of intensely fused upper partials, after which a different complex steady state spectrum emerges. The incisiveness of the attack is most apparent in higher bells struck with metal beaters, but different beaters will produce different clarities of attack.

The steady-state spectrum of a bell resonance contains many inharmonic frequencies varying widely in relation to the structure of the bell, but often resulting in softer chromatically saturated bandwidths in the upper register of the spectrum.

The lengthy decay of bell-like resonances are of an oscillatory nature, resulting from the beating interference of the inharmonic partials. With the lengthy decay of bell-like resonances are of an oscillatory nature, resulting from the beating interference of the inharmonic partials. With concentration of spectral energy in the upper register the beats may take on a shimmering quality.

In bell choir effects, an attack cluster quickly fuses into a complex spectrum in which it is impossible to distinguish the constituent resonances.

The general formal organization of Transfiguration is an episodic linking of dramatic events in which foreground ideas are superimposed upon static harmonic complexes. Often the after resonances of the foreground superpositions generate new background resonances or alterations in the background complexes, in a constant dramatic interplay and alternation. The piece focuses separately on the string choir for the first 57 measures, and then with intermittent alternations, separate introductions are made of the wind and percussion choirs (m.57-59, 65-57), the clarinet (m.73-84) and oboe (m.109-125, joined by the clarinets in m.117) and flute and clarinets (m. 147-153). From this point the work consists of a elegantly linked series of dramatic alternations and superpositions involving many remarkable effects of textural accumulation and juxtaposition. What are of particular interest for our purposes here are instances where the complex textural quality of the resonant background becomes a central musical focus.

Example 24, is a good example of Hambraeus'suse of composed resonance, which create a broad array of shimmering musical textures made almost visual through their timbral richness. Here the strings are playing a combination of tremolos " sul ponticello" with dynamic vibrato and covering a range of almost four octaves. The entire string section is written "divisi" with all twelve pitches of the chromatic scale represented in the sonority. The effects of vibrato (dynamic fluctuation) and tremolo help to reinforce the natural resonance created by the octaves present in the broad pitch field of this sonority.


Example 2: Transfiguration mm. 171 - 181

In many instances throughout the work all or part of the strings provide and maintain this shimmering background upon which contrastive timbres are placed as temporary foreground or soloistic elements. Example 3 is an illustration of this. Hambraeus depends greatly upon the rich sustaining power of the string choir to provide much of the delicate and complex shimmering quality that is characteristic of bell-like resonance as can be seen most clearly in the reduction of this passage (Example 3a.) The open spacing of the natural harmonics in the first violins and first and second violas at the beginning of the piece produces a glassy, brilliant background against the col legno battuto passage played in the violas, cellos and contra basses. The development from high string harmonics to the molto vibrato C#, D, and E flat played by the second violins at measure six is particularly effective, since the contrabasses are now sustaining harmonics on the same pitches. This use of "molto vibrato" and dynamic vibrato with sustained harmonics clearly illustrates a concern for resonance and sympathetic vibration The accelerando of dynamic fluctuation sets up an oscillation in the first and second violin parts from measures 8-12, simulating the effect of an accelerating instrumental vibrato. This example illustrates two of the techniques of composed resonance, dynamic fluctuation and "molto vibrato" which is tone vibrato achieved through dynamic means.




                                                Example 3: Transfiguration mm. 1-12 , Molto VIbrato with Dynamic Vibrato


    Example 3a: Reduction of pp. 2-3 of score (Example 3)


            "Molto vibrato" is also called for when the woodwinds and percussion choirs enter for the first time. In Example 4, we can see that the flutes and clarinets are to play the semitone and third G-G#-B using "molto vibrato." This effect seems to continue the vibrating motion set up by the attacks of the vibraphone, xylophone (two members vibraphone and xylophone would seem to mask the stark entrance of the woodwinds in a high register FFFF. The vibraphone and xylophone are struck with hard mallets and instructed to "let ring." The flute and clarinets continue the resonance set in motion by the dramatic entrance of the PRI which at this point have the role of punctuating the tremolando complex in the strings. What we hear is the reverberation in the woodwinds from the striking of the percussion keyboard instruments an effect very similar to the striking of a bell. This is also an example of masked attack and its subsequent composed reverberation which in this case is realized through the molto vibrato of the flutes and clarinets. Masked attacks as a feature of composed resonance will be subsequent composed reverberation which in this case 'is realized through the "molto vibrato" of the flutes and clarinets. Masked attacks as a feature of composed resonance will be discussed later in more detail.




Example 4: Transfiguration mm. 52-57 , "Molto VIbrato" in Woodwinds and Primary Resonance Instruments

The use of string tremolo is widespread throughout the piece. Example 2 provided an illustration of the use of the whole strings section playing tremolo. In addition to the string tremolo, there is tremolo and flutter tongue in the winds which further reflect the bell-like resonance that is so characteristic of the work. In Example 4 we can see the strings, flutes, clarinets and the members of the PRI (vibraphone, harp and tam-tam) involved in a passage that demonstrates how tremolo in the woodwinds, with a cushioning of sustained tones at a slow pace of fluctuating dynamics in the strings, is used to evoke bell resonance after a sharp attack by the PRI group. The vibraphone, harp, flute and clarinet have a rapid grace note figure at a fortissimo dynamic level. The flute and clarinet diminuendo to piano at the end of their ascending flurry while the vibraphone and harp maintain the attack complex marked FF sempre as their last pitches ring over. While the vibraphone and harp are ringing over, clarinets 2 and 3 initiate a tremolo that starts soft (p) and grows to mezzo forte while the strings are holding sustained tones at ppp. In addition to the ringing of the vibraphone and harp, the clarinets' tremolo reinforces this sound by taking on the character of reverberation after the bell-like attack of flute, clarinet, vibraphone, harp and viola.

At measure 207 a larger attack and decay structure follows with subsequent reverberation at the end of measure 208 played by the clarinets, vibraphone and harp. At measure 209, the brass are added as elements of a masked attack in order to produce specific features of a bell-like resonance. For instance, the brass choir along with vibraphone, tubular bells, tam-tam and harp have an accented FFF attack at measure 209. The brass instruments diminuendo to pp in measure 210. The woodwind choir, including piccolos, oboe, bassoons and contra-bassoon at measure 209, have accented attacks of sustained pitches at the dynamic level of "p" and crescendo to FFF in measure 210. The composite effect here may be related to that of a bell being struck and the subsequent emergence of higher partials. By suppressing the brass instruments through the diminuedo to pp and allowing the vibraphone and tubular bells to ring at FFF, the crescendo of the piccolos, flute, oboes and clarinets will emerge as the ringing of the upper partials of the composite attack. Such composite attack are in many ways similar to the immediate complexity of bell-like onsets which disappear so quickly into their after resonances which are controlled by dynamic shaping in Hambraeus'sorchestral treatment. This occurs again at measure 211, although this time the dynamic result is reversed. The brass instruments crescendo to forte and the woodwinds diminuendo to pianissimo in only three beats instead of five and a half as in measures 209-210. At measure 212, this is done again but this time in only one beat and the dynamic levels have a shorter range, pianissimo to mezzo forte. This entire passage, from measure 205 to 212 clearly resembles a series of bell-like gestures whose reverberation time and dynamic span become progressively shorter. This example is also a very good illustration of the function of the PRI. They are used to initiate attacks (ms. 205, 207, 209 and 212) as well as to provide much of the resonance after attacks (ms. 209, 208, 210, 211, 214-215 etc.). They are usually given the instruction of "lascia vibrare" to let ring after an attack. The vibraphone is usually played with the motor on or the pedal on or both. By using two of the largest tam-tams available (the composer indicates "grande" and "molto grande" for the two), Hambraeus maintains the possibility of subtle resonant ambience throughout the work.



                Example 5: Transfiguration mm. 202-216, Woodwind Tremolo, Dynamic Vibrato and Primary Resonance Instruements


Example 5 furnishes another view of the PRI in operation and a highly expressive cymbal solo. In this example, the PRI are playing alone at a dynamic of FF and FFF until the end of measure 162, when they are joined by the contrabasses at a dynamic level of pp. The grace note figure played by the xylophone, tubular bells and cymbals at the dynamic level of FF masks the grace note entrance of the contrabasses at their pianissimo level. In measure 163, the ringing of the xylophone, vibraphone, bells and cymbal combine with the low contrabass crescendo to forte producing another composite timbral character. Again this is an example of masked attack and subsequent reverberation controlled and colored by specific timbral combinations resulting in resonances similar to those discussed above.

        Example 6: Transfiguration mm. 158 - 164, Primary Resonant Instruemtns and Cymbal Solos

The extremely interesting cymbal solo at measures 167-168, is a further illustration of the orchestrational effects discussed to this point. With the entrance of contrabasses in measures 162-163, the string choir gradually joins the percussion and harp. The higher strings enter playing "sul ponticello", a timbral effect which will more closely match that of the cymbal played with wire brushes. There are five suspended cymbals of various sizes notated on the five line staff from high to low. Each attack on the cymbals, marked "mp sempre" , coincides with an entrance of one of the groups of strings (violin I, violin II, violas and 'cellos are all divided into two groups each) which are marked at FF, sfz or forte. These unison attacks act to blur the identity of the instruments playing and it is the ringing of the cymbals which identifies what is being played. The strings also help to melodically shape the cymbal line by giving pitch, or harmonic support on the attacks. The " sul ponticello" background, together with the cymbal resonance, create a remarkable combination of timbral and textural organization.

The organization shown in Example 7, played by the percussion and harp, is reorchestrated and heard first in the woodwinds and brass, and then by the strings. In this way the PRI group becomes more "outspoken" in its timbral and resonant function, originating fundamental sound structures which are transformed in subsequent entrances of the orchestral choirs. Because of this, and the consistent use of "molto vibrato" and tremolo in the strings, there is a progression toward textural vibrance throughout the work. From the beginning the choirs have entered the texture one at a time: strings, brass, percussion and woodwinds, creating a structure which seems to grow in resonant brilliance toward the end of the work.

                                                Example 7: Reduction of page 5, ms. 16-20 of Transfiguration

The way in which Hambraeus drops out certain foreground material, allowing the background elements to be suddenly exposed presents another interesting orchestrational technique and a means of attaining a certain resonance similar to that which results if an organist suddenly releases all but two of the pitches of a fully voiced chord which has been sustained at a high volume. The tones of the decaying sonority would mix with those of the sustaining pitches creating a blurring of timbre for a short span of time.5

Example 8 presents this type of aural condition. It is one of Hambraeus'smost effective instrumental drop-out passages. At measure 130, the horns are left playing pianissimo and beautifully exposed after all other instruments, woodwinds and brass, suddenly crescendo at FFF and drop out as if the organist closed up all except the soft flue pipes leaving the reverberation of the other pipes to ring over. The third of the horn chord are a prominent feature of the organ-like timbral quality of this passage. Because the triple forte chord played by the woodwinds and brasses takes a certain amount of decay time, the resultant reverberation clouds the triple piano horn chord at measure 130, and therefore acts as a masking technique to obscure the horn timbre. The effect of this is a composite timbre lasting a slight interval of time, until the woodwinds and brass instruments reverberation decays sufficiently to allow the identifying characteristics of the horns to emerge. The skillful use of this device is another important masking effect which is used in the work, but one which is also at least partially dependent upon the actual reverberation available in the performance space.

 Example 8: Reduction of page 5, ms. 16-20 of Transfiguration mm. 126-133, Instrumental Dropout


     Example 8a: Reduction of ms. 126-130 of Transfiguration

An example of masked attack to increase bell like resonance. In measure 17, the violas begin a tremolo at sfz which masks the entrance of the horns, who enter pianissimo and crescendo oto forte. The effect of their crescendo in this low pitch range is a thickening of resonance, or bell-like reverberation.


Other examples of instrumental drop-out and masked attacks or general masking effects are common throughout the work. The brass instruments comprise an important element in the "ringing over" effects. In Example 7, three trumpets and strings are left to ring over for three beats in measure 101-102, after the piccolos and flute have played a piercing eight beats that begin pianissimo and crescendo to mezzo forte and diminuendo back to pianissimo again. This contrast with the consonant background cushion of violins playing sixths and the trumpets playing a dissonance involving a tritone and a diminished 4th at mezzo forte dynamic level is stunning. In fact, elements of textural, timbral and harmonic contrast do seem to be an important ingredient in the instrumental drop-out effect. Whereas in the previous Example (8), it is the sudden drop-out and subsequent reverberation of the woodwinds and brass that have crescendoed to FFF which creates confusion in the listener's ears, in this instance, (Example 9) the flute and piccolos diminuendo to a pianissimo but do not suddenly disengage their sound. It is the extreme range at which they are playing and the fact that they are playing pitches which have a faster rate of dynamic change than those of the strings of the strings and trumpets that causes such a sharp contrast. In Example 8, the contrast of extreme dynamics (FFF vs. ppp) and abrupt versus continuous sound. In Example 9, the contrast of extreme pitch and timbral differentiation makes this drop-out function somewhat more like reverberation, ringing over after a hard durable body has been struck.


Example 9: Transfiguration mm. 99 - 108, Instrumental Drop-Out and Masking Techniques

In the performance notes of the score, Hambraeus states that Transfiguration concludes a cycle consisting of Rota and Transit. Rota encompasses two works, Rota I for three orchestras written between 1956-1962, and Rota II for 2-track tape composed in 1963. One of the tracks of Rota II is also used in Transit I (1963 for tape) but with slight alterations, however establishing a link between these works. Transit written also in 1963, for horn, trombone, electric guitar and piano may be performed as an independent concertino" to Transfiguration. When performed in this manner, musicians playing Transit I should be placed behind the audience on a high gallery, starting to play after a sign from the conductor at bar 153 of Transfiguration. They then continue playing independently of Transfiguration. By linking one piece to the following through common musical material, Hambraeus creates a tightly cohesive structure with remarkable textural variety. It is interesting to note that much of Rota II is based on electronically modified bell sounds structured into dense sound masses similar to some of the orchestral tutti passages in Transfiguration and this provides a further insight into Hambraeus'sconcern with bell-like resonance as a timbral and textural metaphor in his music. The placement of the concertino group in Transit II when performed with Transfiguration also emphasizes Hambraeus'sconcern with spatial and visual sound qualities which are present in his textural orchestration of Transfiguration.



Erickson, Robert. Sound Structure in Music. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1978.

Hambraeus, Bengt. Transfiguration, Edition Wilhelm Hansen. Stockholm, 1966.

Truax, Barry. Handbook for Acoustic Ecology, The Music of the Environment Series, #5, A.R.C. Publications, Vancouver, 1978.

Wood, Alexander. The Physics of Music, Seventh edition, Thames and Hudson, London, 1974.

1 One has only to listen to the composer's tape pieces to hear his inclination for bell sounds. His Carillon (1974) for two pianos evokes the character of change ringing and chime-like sound quality. Robert Erickson also informs me that when visiting Hambraeus in Sweden, he was pleased to see bells everywhere in his home.

2 The full orchestral complement of Transfiguration is the following: 3 flutes (first, second, and piccolo), 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 3 trumpets, 4 horns, 3 trombones (2 tenor, 1 bass, straight cup mute), xylophone, vibraphone, tubular bells, five suspended cymbals, 2 tamtams, harp, 12 first violins, 10 second violins, 8 violas, 6 'cellos, 6 (5 string) double basses.

3 Stanley Sadie, ed. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, London: MacMillan Publishers LTD., 1980, v. 15, pg. 757.

4 All examples presented in the score are reproduced here with permission from the composer and Edition Wilhelm Hansen. All score excerpts can be heard on the accompanying example cassette, reproduced from the Swedish Society diskofil recording (SLT 33181), Michael Gielen conducting the Swedish Radio Symphony, with permission from the composer.

5       i

This is designated as "backward masking" by Barry Truax in his Handbook for Acoustic Ecology.