Posted in Project 7: Examples in Different Scales

Example 2: Khthonios

Note: Before taking a look at my example, you can glance at my research about the bassoon and the octatonic scale, which I’m using here.

Continuing on from the previous post, the second elemental being I decided to portray is the being of Earth. Now, Paracelsus, the 16th-century Swiss alchemist, who classified the mythological beings as belonging to one of the four elements, assigns the gnome as the creature of Earth, and in fact, he coined the word. (Editors of the American Heritage Dictionaries, 2006: 95)

These small magic beings though, didn’t really match the way I wanted to portray the Earth, although there are wonderful and great examples in the musical literature, such as the Gnomus in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, where as Nagachevskaya points out, the gnome is painted to be a grotesque character, with a touch of tragedy. (I wrote a blog post earlier about Pictures at an Exhibition here.)

Personally, I was inclined to invent a new name for the creature – Khthonios, a Greek word that means underworld, connected to the Chthonic cults, dedicated to the underworld deities. Thus, I wanted this musical portrait to portray a fierce, grand underground being capable of producing the earthquakes.

Here is the composition notated:

esquisse 2222

Bassoon is often regarded to be a humorous instrument – the clown of the orchestra, but here I wanted to explore its deep, dark sonorities. The scale I used is the octatonic scale. The version is the whole tone/semitone, which is less commonly used of the two, as I wrote in my research. The notation I chose is C D Eb F F# Ab A B C, although I could’ve used Gb instead of F#. I should mention though that I used it rather as a pitch collection, shifting between its pitch and chord centers. There are also smaller pitch collections within the octatonic scale, and I tried to explore some of them.

The form is in my opinion, ABb1A1. Section A (bars 1-5) starts in the lower register, with pp dynamics, giving a sense of dark atmosphere. Harmonically, the center here is based on the lower mediant – the Ab major chord, whose major third, descending in the theme (C – Ab), I believe amplifies the forceful, turbulent nature of the underworld. Descending major third often has this effect, for example, we see this in the distinctive beginning G – Eb motive of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. I think the 7/8 time also gives this part a unique feeling. The structure is irregular 2+3, with the latter 3 bars repeating the first two bars and adding on to it.

The following Section B (6-13) starts in 3/4, and the pitch center is C. This part sounds very much like it is in C minor, because of the leading tone that is present in this version of the octatonic scale, despite the fact that there is no dominant G. The whole section is in 3/4, although there is a bit of feeling of 3/8, as suggested by accents in certain places. This section is still in the lower register, going a bit deeper into F and F#. The structure would be a musical period in 3 – the first sentence (bars 6-9) is 4 bars long, ending on dominant, and the second sentence, (bars 10-13) also 4 bars long, ending on tonic.

Next is Section b1 (bars 14-17), which I designated with a small b1 letter, since it is the development of the syncopated motive found in the dominant ending of the first sentence of B. The register is higher, and although thinner, bassoon still has that intense feeling, which f dynamics magnify. I mixed this with a nice, echo-type effect – where the F – D in bar 15 and B – C in bar 17, are repeated an octave lower in pp, alluding to the beginning a bit.

In the repetition of A, Section A1 (bars 18-27) the initial theme is repeated, but now an octave higher, which gives its own sense of surprise. The theme is extended though, in a kind of sequence. C Ab A B C is shifted first diatonically, major second above with some changes – D B C D D, then below without changes – A F F# Ab A. Finally, the theme it is prolonged with new material in the last 4 bars, where there are repeated pitches – sort of a codetta. I think this gives a nice effect of surprise, almost as if an earthquake is coming. Quite a dramatic ending. I was initially worried if bassoon would be able to play it. I think allegro moderato isn’t too fast, and unlike oboe, despite also using single-tongue articulation, bassoon can easily play fast repeated pitches. (This is possible on the oboe, but with extended, double tongue technique)

I really loved writing this short composition! Perhaps more than any other instrument, I truly was surprised with the capabilities of bassoon. I believe it can be  expressive, intense and dramatic and not only humorous, as many would define it to be. Take a look at my next musical portrait here.


Editors of the American Heritage Dictionaries (2006) The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt


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