Welcome back! Having gotten the technical part out of the way, let’s now explore the different ways in which we can have the woodwind section play our melody.
I. ANATOMY OF THE WOODWIND SECTION
Woodwinds are found in an orchestra in three basic configurations :
- Solo woodwinds : one of each ; 1 Flute – 1 Clarinet – 1 Oboe – 1 Bassoon
- Woodwinds in Pairs : two of each ; 2 Flutes – 2 Clarinets – 2 Oboes – 2 Bassoons
- Woodwinds in Threes : three of each ; 3 Flutes – 3 Clarinets – 3 Oboes – 3 Bassoons
However, many woodwind players are proficient in more than one instrument of the same family (e.g. flutes, clarinets, bassoons etc) and can be asked to double on another instrument if the orchestration calls for it. For example, a flutist can be asked to double on the piccolo at some point during the orchestration (provided that a flute is not required at the same time!). When there are more than one of each instrument available, things are a lot easier of course because we can ask the principal player of each instrument to double on another. Sounds confusing, right? Let’s make it a bit more clear then :
II. MELODY BY SOLO WOODWINDS
When writing solo lines for woodwinds that you want to be clearly heard, there are two basic points to keep in mind :
- Write in the instrument’s best range (see table below)
- Make sure that the accompaniment (orchestral or not) does not fall on the same register and allows the woodwind to come through.
The following table, along with the knowledge of each instrument’s registers and characteristics (presented in my first article about woodwinds), will help you start writing solo woodwind melodies.
We will now look at some characteristic uses of each individual woodwind in carrying the melody. Where possible I have provided a link to a corresponding video in YouTube.
1. Solo Flute
The flute has the ‘lightest’ quality of all woodwinds and is the trickiest when carrying the melody because the accompaniment must be carefully crafted not to overpower it when it is playing at its weakest register (the low one).
A great example of a solo flute melody is Dvorak’s Symphony No9 (“From the New World”), first movement, bars 149-156. You find it here, at 06:50. The flute carries the wonderful theme alone,in its low to middle register, with a minimal accompaniment from strings only so as to be clearly heard.
2. Solo Piccolo Flute
The piccolo is the smallest instrument of the entire orchestra yet, when playing at its stronger (high) register it can be heard above the entire orchestra! While it does not lend itself for solo melodies easily, it is great for doubling the flute octave above or playing fast staccato passages. It is often used for light passages of comedic nature or for doubling brass and strings in marching band music.
A good example of a solo piccolo flute is Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije, first movement, where the piccolo plays solo with a military drum accompaniment. You can find it here, at 0:35.
3. Solo Alto Flute
Similar in construction to the flute, the alto flute has a longer tube which gives it a mellower and darker tone. Its main purpose is to extend the lower range of the flute. If you have a melody that ‘lives’ in the flute’s lower range, it is best to use the alto flute instead. The alto flute is used extensively in Gustav Holst’s Saturn. You can find a live performance here; it starts with the alto flute. A solo alto flute melody is found at bars 53-62.
4. Solo Oboe
The oboe is the soprano of the double-reed instruments. Its tone is nasal as is consistent with double reeds. It has enormous carrying power and can easily be heard over an orchestra when playing at its strong registers (middle and more so, high). A great example of a solo oboe melody is the opening to the 2nd movement of Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cN7oFdFqtB4.
5. Solo English Horn
The role of the English Horn in a double-reed section is similar to that of the viola in a string section. It can be used to play countermelodies very effectively but it is also a wonderful solo instrument capable of great expressive quality. A good example of a solo english horn melody is the Overture from Berlioz’s Roman Carnival. You can find the solo english horn section here, at 0:26. Listen to the mellow and deep sound of the instrument which is clearly darker but equally expressive to the oboe.
6. Solo Clarinet
A greatly agile instrument capable of anything and everything (within limits of course!). As a single-reed, it has a much mellower and rounder tone than any of the double reeds. You can listen to it playing a solo melody at the opening of the 1st movement of Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony.
Aside from classical repertoire, the clarinet is extremely popular in ‘jazz-ier’ settings as well. The most famous example and one of my favourite, is the opening to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, showing the clarinet’s enormous capabilities in performing a glissando.
7. Solo Bass Clarinet
The bass clarinet is an often neglected yet very useful instrument. While it is practically used to extend the lower register of the clarinet, it is one of the most agile bass instruments of the orchestra; it can provide a full and lush bass line in its lower register but can also play a melodic role in its higher register provided that it is not overpowered by other instruments (because it loses its carrying power and tonal color as it moves higher, towards its weakest areas). You can get a pretty good idea of the bass clarinet’s melodic capabilities here.
8. Solo Bassoon
Bassoon is often wrongly associated only with comedic musical passages and cartoon music! However, it is one of the most expressive instruments of the woodwind section and aside from providing a bass line it can also carry the melody perfectly well. Listen to the bassoon opening the 1st movement of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony.
9. Solo Contra Bassoon
The contra bassoon is the deepest and ‘bassiest’ instrument of the woodwind family. Due to its size (and the amount of air needed by the performer), it is also one of the less flexible and agile. While it has been used as a solo instrument by composers such as Beethoven, Brahms and Strauss, it is most often used to strengthen a bass line and provide a solid foundation in a melodic or harmonic role.
10. Horizontal Dovetailing
There is no rule that forces us to use the same instrument to carry the entire melody. We can start by having the melody in flute, then passed to the oboe, then to the clarinet and then back to the oboe.
In the case of a demanding melody that requires a lot of air and contains difficult passages, we can alternate between the principal and second player of each instrument. For example, we can start with flute 1 playing the first 4 bars of the melody and have flute 2 carry on the next 4 bars, thus giving time to the principal flutist to catch his/her breath!
III. MELODY BY WOODWINDS IN UNISON
Very expressive and demanding melodic lines are best entrusted to solo woodwinds. The combination of two or more woodwinds in unison restricts the players’ expressive capabilities and often forces on of the instruments to play at their weak ranges.
1. Combining 2 of the same instrument
Woodwinds are vastly different from strings. Combining 2 violins in unison will strengthen the melodic line. However, combining two flutes or oboes in unison will present a number of problems; it will not necessarily increase the volume (and carrying power) of the melody and it introduces the possibility of intonation problems. As a general rule, it is best to combine 3 of the same instrument rather than 2. Another way to mitigate ‘out-of-tune’ problems is to combine a pair of the same woodwinds with a string section (e.g. 2 flutes with violins).
2. Combining different instruments in unison
As with strings, it is best to first explore combinations of ‘neighbouring’ instruments in terms of range :
- Flute and Oboe : the oboe adds fullness to the tone of the flute and the flute ‘sweetens’ the nasal quality of the oboe. In soft dynamics, the flute will be more prominent at lower registers and the oboe at higher ones.
- Flute and Clarinet : the clarinet adds fullness and volume to the tone of the flute and the flute ‘tames’ some of the brightness of the clarinet. The sound of the flute will be more prominent in the lower registers and the clarinet in the higher one.
- Oboe and Clarinet : the combination of these two instruments results in a fuller tone than that of each individual instrument. The oboe adds carrying power to the clarinet and the clarinet sweetens the nasal quality of the oboe.
- Flute, Oboe and Clarinet : a full-sounding combination; the oboe and clarinet add fullness and volume to the flute while the flute and clarinet sweeten the oboe.
- Bassoon and Clarinet : another powerful and ‘full-sounding’ combination.
- Basson and Oboe, Bassoon and Flute : rarely used combinations due to the differences in range of the combined instruments. A unison by bassoon and oboe or flute means that either of the two instruments has to be at its weak register and will not result in a particularly changed tone colour than if using them separately.
- Bassoon, Clarinet, Oboe and Flute : an equally rare combination due, again, to range differences that produces a peculiar sound where each instrument’s timbre is clearly distinguished. It sounds more like the combination of bassoon, clarinet, oboe and flute rather than an amalgam of the four instruments.
3. Combining woodwinds in octaves
Again, the most natural-sounding combinations are those of adjacent instruments (Flute-Oboe, Oboe-Clarinet etc.). However, if none of those combinations are suitable for the effect you are after, there are other choices you can explore. Here’s a list of the most commonly used combinations :
- Piccolo and Flute
- Flute and Oboe
- Oboe and Clarinet
- Clarinet and Bassoon
- Flute and Clarinet
- Oboe and Bassoon
- Clarinet and Bassoon
- Flute and Bassoon
Due to the changing timbre of each woodwind across the different registers, combining two of the same woodwinds in octaves essentially means combing two completely different instruments. Again, this combination is best doubled in a string section.
Another point to keep in mind is that melodies that lend themselves to octave doubling are those situated in either the extreme high or extreme low register. If a melody situated in the middle of the orchestral register is doubled in octaves it is likely to ‘clash’ with accompaniment lines and harmonies.
4. Combining woodwinds in 2, 3 and 4 octaves
Once again, the safest approach is to combine adjacent instruments first before exploring more extreme possibilities. Common combinations are :
- Flute – Oboe – Clarinet in 2 octaves
- Oboe – Clarinet – Bassoon in 2 octaves
- Flute – Clarinet – Bassoon in 2 octaves
- Flute – Oboe – Bassoon in 2 octaves
- Flute – Oboe – Clarinet – Bassoon in 3 octaves
Combinations of all four instruments in octaves produces a rather stunning and powerful result and should be saved for special effects instead of being used for a long period of time.
5. Combining Woodwinds in 3rds and 6ths
A melody progressing in 3rds or 6ths is a very commonly used technique and it is effective even when combining two of the same instrument. The most common combinations are :
- 2 Flutes
- 2 Oboes
- 2 Clarinets
- 2 Bassoons
- Flute and Oboe
- Oboe and Clarinet
- Clarinet and Bassoon
- Flute and Clarinet
- Oboe and Bassoon
As a general rule, it is best to use two of the same instrument when the melody is progressing in 3rds and two different instruments when it is progressing in 6ths.
6. Combining Woodwinds in 3rds and 6ths, moving in Octaves
When we wish to combine octave-doubled parts in 3rds or 6ths, Mr.Korsakov suggests the following approach :
- 2 Flutes in 3rds/6ths doubled 8vb by 2 Oboes in 3rds/6ths
- 2 Flutes in 3rds/6ths doubled 8vb by Oboe + Clarinet in 3rds/6ths
- 2 Flutes in 3rds/6ths doubled 8vb by 2 Clarinets in 3rds/6ths
- Oboe + Flute in 3rds/6ths doubled 8vb by Flute + Clarinet in 3rds/6ths
If we have 3 players of each instrument available, we can employ the following combinations :
- 2 Flutes in 3rds/6ths doubled 8vb by 2 Oboes in 3rds/6ths doubled 8vb by 2 Clarinets in 3rds/6ths
- 2 Oboes in 3rds/6ths doubled 8vb by 2 Flutes in 3rds/6ths AND 2 Clarinets in 3rds/6ths
7. Combining Woodwinds in stacked 3rds and 6ths
Aside from using either 3rds or 6ths, we can combine those two and have a melody progressing in 3 parts :
- Clarinet + Oboe a 3rd above + Flute a 6th above the clarinet
- Bassoon + Clarinet a 3rd above + Oboe a 6th above the bassoon
If we want to double each part into 2 different instruments then we can use :
[Oboe + Clarinet in unison] + [Flute + Clarinet in unison] a 3rd/6th above + [Oboe + Flute in unison] a further 3rd/6th above
Oh dear that was a LOT of information I threw at you! Go take a break, grab a bite or a cup of coffee…you’ve earned it! Let it all sink in for a few days and then start exploring the different combinations on your own so that you can create a mental catalogue that you can later refer to when looking to create a particular orchestral colour. If you have any questions please feel free to add a comment below!
Until next week then, that we will explore ways to use woodwinds to play the harmony. Have a great week!